Today I bring you the third installment of my Outlining Your Story series.
If you missed the first two:
Part 3 will talk about Plot.
When most people think of outlining a story, they probably jump here first. And why not? It’s the easiest to put into bullet-points. You also probably feel like you can leverage outline formats you learned in school. Start throwing down some beginning, middle, end… Maybe a few subpoints to cover key scenes, and voila! You’ve got an outline.
I – Beginning
A – Introduce characters
B – Character Argument
1 – Hurt feelings
II – Middle
A – More stuff happens
III – End
A – Tie it all off.
B – Profit.
You’ll notice it’s even in a nice 3-act structure. Aristotle would be proud.
That’s fantastic! But let’s take all of it and put it on the shelf. We can look at it later if we want to, but let’s not limit ourselves. I’m not saying “Don’t use grade school outlines or the 3-act structure.” I am saying don’t assume that’s the only way to outline. I like to start with the basic.
What is this story really about?
This is called the premise. The premise is your chance to summarize the story as you would see it in a tagline of the newspaper. Think of it as your north star. Knowing what you want your story to be about is a key component to making sure it actually is about that.
Let’s see if you can guess the story from these premises:
1) A programmer discovers his entire world is an illusion as he joins a group of rebel humans fighting to overthrow the machines that have enslaved humanity.
2) A boat captain engages in a monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale.
3) A farmboy seeking fortune gets abducted and trained by pirates and then must rescue his sweetheart from the clutches of bandits and a prince forcing her to marry him.
Those are all examples of premises. Each tells us what we can expect to find in the story.
After you hammer our your premise, it’s time to dig in. You need a little more detail as far as a plot goes. For that, I like to answer a few questions:
1) What are the big events that sets the hero on the path of no return? In any story, your hero is going to get thrust into “The Big Conflict” whatever that may be. Whether there is a villain (antagonist if you prefer) or not, you are going to have some kind of conflict. What makes sure it’s going to happen?
2) What are the big “I can totally see this scene playing out” out moments? I know when I’m imaging my novel, there are several scenes that jump out that I can’t wait to write. When I envision them, I don’t necessarily think of all the ways it’s going to work mechanically with the book, or how it’s going to build my suspense. I just know I want that scene to happen. I make notes of all of these during the outline stage.
3) Any major plot arcs (or strands) that you want to cover. Maybe they aren’t part of the main plot, and maybe you don’t know exactly what those scenes will look like, but they are still important to the story. Examples might be a falling out with a roommate as the subplot of the story, or a love story that shows us important thoughts from the character, but aren’t ultimately necessary for the story itself.
You can write these out on notebook paper, or put them in Excel, or leverage one of the tools I covered in the first post (like Visio). How you record them isn’t as important as recording them. Once you’ve laid it out and can start seeing it in front you, it’s time to start applying some order to it.
1) Which scenes are important to have early on?
2) Which events or plot threads do you need to create scenes for?
3) What logical order flows out of these scenes?
Once you’ve got those answered, you’ve got all the pieces you need to actually start writing your story. That’s going to lead us to part 4, Pulling it all together. Stay tuned!
How do you plot your novel? Do you use an outline?