Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The "O" Word: Outline

Sally John
Sally John writes contemporary women's fiction and the author of "Herospeak" in the MWC Creative Writing Primer (MWC Press, 2012)Her eighteen novels, all duly outlined, include the popular series Safe Harbors and The Beach House. Her latest release, Heart Echoes, is a finalist for the 2012 San Diego Book Award.  

Writing an outline is a don’t-even-think-about-skipping step in the creation of a novel.

            Ew. Seriously?

            The first time I heard this appalling concept, I flinched. Nah. Let’s just trip the light fantastic with a gaggle of intriguing characters and see what happens.

            But the woman who spoke this thing about outlines was a successful, published author. I wasn’t. She said she could write scenes until the cows came home, or something to that effect. I could too! And yet, she added, she could not string them together to create a readable story. Me too! Ouch.

I sat up and paid attention. Many books later, I am grateful for her teaching.

            Bestselling author Lisa Scottoline said in a recent interview that she does not engage in the practice. She can’t be the only one. I get the point: an outline can kill any organic dance you’ve got going with your characters.

But, on the other hand, an outline gives me something to aim for. It develops purpose and characters. It reboots my imagination on those days when I forget why I ever thought this idea would make for a good story.

The funny thing is, by the time the novel is completed, the original outline is ancient history. It got shouted out of existence by that gaggle of characters who showed up in full armor, knocking down any preconceived notions I had about their story.

Still, The Outline works. Two or three work even better.

Outline One ~
I always begin with Davis Bunn’s broad outline, which he snagged from someone else whose name did not make it into my notes. It consists of four fill-in-the-blanks:

            I intend to write a novel about ____

            My strong belief toward that is ____

            I want to prove ____ (This is the theme, such as “love wins,” “don’t judge a book by its cover”)

            The MDQ is ____ (Aristotle’s Major Dramatic Question with which the story opens and will be answered in the climax with a simple yes or no.)

Outline Two ~
I plug stuff into my version of Christopher Vogler’s version of Joseph Campbell’s take on the hero Odysseus’ journey:

The Hero is called from his Ordinary World to an Adventure that takes him into a Special World in which he enters the Dark Cave (confronts his deepest fear) and emerges with a healing Elixir that he takes with him back to his ordinary world and shares with those who did not get to go on the adventure. 

Outline Three ~
I recently added my own outline, created from a desperate need to keep track of story details. Life had interrupted my project because somebody forgot to schedule my grandson’s birth for after the book was completed. All the pre- and post-hoopla surrounded that most wondrous event annihilated my plot threads.

            Skimming for those threads made my head spin. Does that character know this yet? What shade of green does she call his eyes? What exactly was the inciting incident? Post-It notes were not going to get it. And so, my Emergency Chapter-by-Chapter Outline was born along with the little guy.

            The concept is similar to what an editor uses for my books. In my version, each chapter gets its own page and four fill-in the blanks:

            1. Chapter number. Timing (day/date/time passage since previous scene). POV of ____.

            2. What happens? Where does it happen?

            This is straightforward information only. Examples: So-and-so breaks a leg tripping over a duck while jogging Ben Butterworth Parkway. So-and-so and so-and-so plot a murder while eating tacos at Rudy's. So-and-so breaks up with so-and-so while feeding the elephant at Niabi.

            3. What's revealed?

            This is a list of details pertinent to story or to character development. For example, the revelation of a backstory or someone's quirks. Also, "smoking gun" incidents, those threads that will need to be addressed.

            4. What moves the story forward? This may be a step backwards.

            What conflict does the hero encounter? How did he step toward or away from his Dark Cave? Does he find a clue about the Elixir? Is he on his way home?

            I used this outline after a memory-obliterating interruption. Once the project was underway again, I added to it only now and then, mainly in the fourth category.

            Outlines are tools to be treasured, tweaked, and trashed. I like them.


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