“By the time I sit down to begin outlining a story, it’s usually been chasing around in my head for at least a year or two. I almost always have ideas for several main characters, a handful of scenes, a general conflict, and a broad sense of the ending. My first goal is to hammer all this down into a premise: a single sentence that conveys the plot and the theme.”
Let’s assume that you’ve distilled your story idea into a succinct statement that identifies your character(s), the conflict, and a general sense of the book’s setting or genre (historical, true crime, mystery, romance, etc.). Now what?
As we’ve seen in the previous post, there are methods you can use to milk a one sentence pitch for all it’s worth. In fact, there are several ways, but let’s begin with our previous example. Remember the two brothers fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War?
- What is the age span between the brothers?
- How old are they?
- Are they experienced marksmen?
- Has either killed anyone before?
- Has one of them been injured?
- Does either brother have a limitation that would hinder his ability to defend himself?
- Which brother’s army stands a better chance in the impending battle?
- Are their parents still alive, and if so, do they support both brothers or have they sided with one cause of the war?
- Has their decision to fight on opposing sides split the family?
- Does either man have a wife and children, maybe a baby on the way?
- How do their ties to civilian life affect their readiness for battle?
- What was their pre-war relationship like?
- Have they dealt with the possibility of having to fight against and perhaps kill their sibling?
- Have they made a resolve to pull the trigger?
Put answers under these questions, give them a little indent, and it’s beginning to look like an outline.
Of course, a random list of character traits, backstory, and events do not a plot make. If you recall, though, as we provided answers to our questions a story started to emerge, as well as a possible ordering of events that were likely unique to each us.
Events and any backstory material that makes it into your pages needn’t unravel in chronological fashion. And this brings up a key point.
Drafting an outline is similar to writing your manuscript, in that revisions and subsequent versions are inevitable. You’ll shift scenes, add scenes, cut dialogue, erase a character’s brief life, erase entire chapters, change names, places, and who knows what else. Even with a stellar, well-developed outline completed, the writer hasn’t conceived every encounter and turning point in his mind. With compass in hand, he ventures off the map, as the novel remains terra incognita. Furthermore, your outline doesn’t have to flow chapter by chapter, at least not in its early stages. Let random ideas come. Get them down on paper and leave the art of executing these ideas for later.
Story construction is problem solving, puzzling out one piece at a time as each comes to you. It’s chiseling, line by line, at marble. In the end, with much diligence, a form is born. And unlike the craftsman who has been patient and painstaking but is made of mortal flesh, his art lives forever.
So continue investigating your questions and answers, exploring everything your premise offers. Look for tangents—If this happened, then that could happen. Or that. Or that. And that.
Remember, too, to always be asking yourself: Has this been done before? If it has, how can you make your story unique? Brainstorm until you come up with an original slant. Is the setting ordinary? If so, where else might you set the story? What sort of backdrop would enhance the plot and intrigue your readers?
- What are four or five “take stock events of reckoning” that can occur?
- Can you think of complications for each?
- How will the complications throw your protagonist off balance? What will he do to regain his equilibrium? Will his response be effective or cause further complications? Will the responses of other characters add to his dilemma?
- What additional circumstances will these complications launch or require?
- Which character will be affected most by a given event? How might they be affected and how might this play into the overall scheme?
- Does this character have other issues or anxieties he’s dealing with? Can these burdens be developed for greater conflict and drama?
Continuously evaluate your responses, looking for possibilities with maximum substance. Exhaust every angle before you pick which to weave into your tale.
Outlining, I hope you’re starting to see, isn’t an exercise in drudgery to satisfy a stodgy teacher. It’s creativity in action, brainstorming with a few roman numerals. Outlining—the verb—is plot development. The Outline is the guide.