Writing and Editing

Six Types of Outlines

Do you outline your work before you sit down to write? Many people do. Many very accomplished writers do. In a recent interview, Paula Hawkins, author of Girl on a Train, was asked whether she had the plot completely worked out before she sat down to write the novel. She said she did, because she didn’t have enough confidence in her abilities to plot on the fly. She was afraid she’d “get lost.”

So there is nothing wrong with outlining. For many writers it is a solid tool they can use to keep them focused on the story. Without an outline, it’s too easy to be drawn off into a tangent that has nothing to do with the real story. (Personal note. I don’t usually work with an outline and often find myself stuck in a narrative dead end. It is much less efficient. I end up going back and re-writing more than necessary. But it’s comfortable for me. I feel it fires my creativity more than an outline would.)

Okay, you’ve decided you like the structure of writing with an outline. Good. Now you need to decide what type of outline to use, because there are more than one.

Alphanumeric

Most of us are familiar with the traditional alphanumerical outline, the one we learned in secondary school. One strength of the traditional method is its flexibility. You can divide your work any way you want: chapters, plot points, whatever. You can use a notebook with a page for each section, or use index cards. You can even set up a separate file for each section.

The traditional approach can also be helpful by allowing you to plan the approximate length of each section.

The Synopsis

In a synopsis, you basically write out the plot in summary form. It differs from the traditional outline in that you are not worried so much about sections, such as chapters, as just getting the story right. Writers who struggle with breaking a novel or story down into units, may feel more comfortable with the synopsis because it feels more like just telling a story.

An added advantage is that, if you’re writing a novel and planning to submit it to publishers, you will have to have a synopsis anyway. In that case you’ve already written a prototype.

Writing a synopsis can feel a lot like freewriting and for some writers that can be essential to letting their creativity flow.

The Snowflake Method

The snowflake method, invented by Randy Ingermanson, is basically to begin with a one-sentence summary of your proposed work, followed by a paragraph-long summary. Next, summarize each of the main characters by listing their names, storyline, goal, conflict, and epiphany. Each sentence of the one-paragraph plot summary is then expanded into its own paragraph. Then, each paragraph is expanded into a scene. And so forth.

This method is particularly useful if you prefer to do extensive planning before you begin writing.

The Three-Act Structure

This is one of the best approaches for authors who are as concerned with the structure of their narratives as with their plots. It is based on screenplay structure and can be manipulated to be as detailed—or not—as the writer wishes.

In this structure, the first quarter of the work is the first act, the middle half is act two; and the final quarter is act three.

The first act requires three primary elements:

  1. The opening scene establishes the main character, the setting, and the problem.
  2. The inciting incident happens early and sets the main character on the path to the main conflict.
  3. The main conflict or first turning point is introduced at the end of the first act. Also known as the point of no return.

The second act must have the action rise to a climactic midpoint, also called “the reversal” because it changes everything. The second act ends with the second turning point.

The third act rises to a climax and ends in resolution.

You can plan specific plot points along this structure and use it as an outline.

The Hero’s Journey

This is based on the writings of scholar Joseph Campbell who argued that all human mythology included similar, universal elements. Though there can be as many as seventeen steps, they can be broken up into three sections, much like the three act structure.

In the first section, the protagonist receives a call to action, but refuses it. The character then encounters a mentor and crosses a threshold into a different world.

The second section describes the character as she undergoes a series of trials and temptations. She almost dies, but survives and receives a great reward.

In the final section, the character returns to the ordinary world. They may be pursued there, but triumphs in the end.

One of the great pop culture examples of The Hero’s Journey is George Lucas’ Star Wars. Just as Lucas did, writers can use or ignore the various elements as their story requires.

Draft Zero

Some writers simply do not want to or are uncomfortable working with an outline. (I raise my virtual hand here: “Me! Me!”) However, even writers who prefer to work by the seat of their pants have a kind of plot outline they can find useful.

Some writers find they are able to trick themselves into creating a kind of outline by writing what they call a “zero” or “discovery” draft. This is too rough and unstructured to be even called a “rough” draft, but it is far more detailed and extensive that the other outlines above. But ideally, this draft is written quickly and the author often skips over great swathes of the story with little but a note to indicate “something happens to change her mind.”

The discovery draft can be a boon to writers who have struggled with outlines but lack the confidence—or patience—to work without the outline’s safety net.

From methods based in rigorous structural analysis to approaches that encourage writers to brainstorm as they create, plot outlines can be as versatile and useful as writers want. And can be more useful than many realize.

Find the one that works the best for you or combine several to meet your individual needs and run with it.

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Writing advice

Should Writers Watch Television?

Do you watch television? I’m not talking about news channels, or nature documentaries now; I’m talking scripted dramas and comedies written and produced to entertain us. Do you watch? My literary-type friends are split on the subject. About a third consider anything on television brain-rotting poison and never watch. The rest do admit watching television, but do so guiltily, as though watching television was something dirty, like checking out your host’s medicine cabinet while using their bathroom.

Granted, most television programming is not the most intellectually challenging. It isn’t meant to be. As one author wrote: it’s designed to entertain people who are mentally tired after a long day’s work. It is designed to be easy, familiar, and predictable.

So can we, as authors aspiring to improve our craft, learn anything from watching scripted television? Absolutely.

Here’s a secret. You can learn something from just about anything.

So what can we learn from television?

We can learn plot and structure.

Television programs, not matter how puerile you might think them, are still stories and they follow the same rules of plot and structure every other story has to follow. The nice thing about television programs is they are relatively short and straightforward. It is a nice exercise to sit down with a police drama and identify the key structural points in the narrative.

You will find that most television dramas follow the same structure as your novel. With a little practice, you can see them coming as you’re watching live. It adds a whole new level to the experience.

How to write within the confines of a genre, yet still surprise.

Take any genre of television programming, say the police/crime drama, and you will find they all have several things in common: the officers will always be people (usually men) of good conscience and above average intelligence. The bad guys are always devious, heartless, and genuinely immoral. Despite everything thrown in their way, the police will always catch the criminal. In American television, there will be at least one violent conflict: a foot or car chase, a fist or gun fight, or at least an arrest at gunpoint.

Yet the very best programs manage to stay within these general guidelines and surprise us anyway. They do this through good characterization, unusual locations, and differing plot twists. Anyone wishing to work within an established genre (westerns, romance, mystery, etc.) could learn from these shows. Notice that these are the very best shows, not the ordinary ones.

How to leap right into the action.

On U.S. commercial television, most dramas are one hour long, most comedies thirty minutes. But this is misleading. There are breaks during the program for advertising and the programs are written around these break. In actual time, the drama is only forty minutes. The comedy only twenty minutes of actual action.

The television writer has no time for lengthy character buildup, or multiple subplots. The problem has to be revealed to the viewer within minutes. The program as a whole needs to be lean and efficient, with no wasted words or meaningless scenes. Everything has to be dedicated to advancing the drama.

We all could learn to write succinctly. If for no other reason than that is what the public has grown to expect.

So yes, we can learn ways to improve our writing from watching television. It is, after all, written first as a script before it ever becomes a broadcast program. We can learn by watching consciously and paying attention to how the writers work within the limitations of their medium. It will never replace reading, or offer nearly so much to learn, but it doesn’t have to be a total waste of time either.

Back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post: do you watch television? My answer is yes, I do sometimes. Though, to be honest, I’m usually doing something else while the television is simply on in the background. But yes, I watch television.

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Writing advice

To Outline or Not

Do you outline before you write?

Many people do and even more teachers recommend them. I know the composition teachers I had in high school and college all advocated writing a detailed outline of your work before you ever sat down to create a first draft. For many, it was a required step you had to submit just as, but before, you submitted a first draft and a final draft. It was considered an integral part of the writing process. And there are good reasons for that. Outlines can be extremely useful.

Outlines can keep you organized

With an outline, your work can move efficiently from point a to point b to point c, without useless and time-consuming tangents.

Outlines can help you create and maintain good story structure

In the same way that outlines heighten organization in a nonfiction work, it can keep a fictional piece focused and on track. The outline keeps you from spending too much time in the first half and not enough presenting your climax.

Outlines keep you on course

Working from a good outline removes the awful question “what’s next?” from your writing day. With the outline in place, you already know what’s going to happen next. You may even have a few lines sketched in. All you have to do is write it.

Outlines can increase efficiency

Many problems that arise in the writing process rises from the writer taking a wrong turn plot-wise. This has happened to me fairly often. Usually, I first realize I took a wrong turn when the ideas begin to run dry and the writing grows more difficult, the results more stilted. That usually means I need to backtrack, figure out where the wrong turn lies, and correct the mistake.

A good outline will avoid that problem.

Yet I, personally, do not work from an outline. This despite all the real good reasons I listed above to use one. Why?

Simply put, it doesn’t feel right.

Someone once said that there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. The architect, just like her namesake knows where every little electrical wire and pipe is going to go before they begin building. To do otherwise, to their way of thinking, is just inviting disaster. The gardener, on the other hand, plants a seed, waters and fertilizes it, then sees what grows.

I am a gardener.

I begin with a couple of characters and a situation and a general idea of an ending (sometimes so general that it is just that the “good guys” win). Then I begin writing and see where it goes. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, but that usually shows pretty quickly.

I find it makes the writing as interesting for me as I hope it is for the reader, because I usually don’t know where it’s going ahead of time either. I am often as surprised by plot twists as the readers because I hadn’t thought of them until they present themselves.

Granted, writing by the seat of your pants can be much less efficient. I go off on many wrong turns, but I realize it fairly quickly. I also end up overwriting quite a bit, but that is dealt with in re-write.

If anything, I find outlines most valuable in the re-writing and revision phase. I make the outline from the completed first draft and adjust the narrative accordingly.

So should you use an outline in your writing? Absolutely, if you find it helps. But don’t worry that you are doing anything wrong if you don’t. Despite what all your composition instructors seemed to tell you, there is no one correct way to write. Every writer is different. Every person who creates, creates through a different process.

Try everything. Find the method that makes you feel the most comfortable, most creative, and use it. And don’t let anyone ever convince you you’re doing it wrong.

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writing, Writing advice

The First Two Pages

Most editors, publishers, and agents have a dirty little secret every writer should know. (They don’t always read your entire submission.) They do if it’s good, of course. They probably do when it’s borderline good, but that is questionable. I have it on good authority (a highly placed source) that most editors make their preliminary decision on whether to accept a piece or not before they finish the second page.

In other words, if you don’t impress them within the first two pages, you’ve probably missed your chance. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your climax and resolution are if the person reading it doesn’t ever get that far.

Okay. So how do we do that? How do we keep our works from ending up in the reject pile?

By making the first two pages so good they compel the reader to continue.

First, we need to make our opening line exemplary. It has to be better than good. It has to be the bait that draws the reader in and then sets the hook without missing. Ever. It needs to be as close to perfect as possible. It needs to be as perfect as we can make it.

The first line can set the piece’s mood, introduce the main character, the setting, the conflict and the author’s major and minor themes. But it must do all this heavy lifting with the grace and beauty we strive for in our prose. The only way we can accomplish this is through the age-old method of re-writing and revision.

It is said (by Diogenes Laertius, actually) that the Greek philosopher Plato re-wrote the opening sentence of his masterpiece The Republic some twenty times. That was just the opening line. Nobody, from the most amateur among us to the most accomplished professional or lauded author of classical literature, creates art the first time she puts pen on paper. The true mark of the professional is the willingness to do that heartrending work of re-writing and trying to create the perfect first line. Thus Paul Gallico’s famous quotation on writing: “…sit at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.”

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

The second measure we need to take to make our first two pages as good as possible, is to make sure we begin our action in what the literary critics call in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things.”) The days of a gradual build up to the action are long gone (Dickens hasn’t had a new story published in years). These days, readers (and the editors who cater to them) want everything to start NOW. If yours is a murder mystery tale, the murder needs to take place immediately, not fifty pages into the novel.

Now that isn’t saying we now can, or should, ignore the classic pyramid structure of fiction, or discard the idea of a beginning, middle, and end to a story. They are “classic” because the ideas are valid and effective; we can’t afford to ignore them.

What we can do is use the classic ideas more creatively. Perhaps we can use the beginning, middle and end in a different way, such as Edgar Allan Poe did in the beginning of “The Cask of Amontillado.”

“The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

Edgar Allan Poe was a master and what he did in this story was condense the first two parts of the story into the opening. By paragraph four, we are into the climax of the story and the rest is how the climax is achieved. There is nothing in the rule that says we need to have a beginning, middle, and end, that says they all need to be the same size or of any particular size relative to each other. The beginning could be one sentence, or most of the story. The ending could be the majority of the tale as in Poe’s work, or it could be one final word.

There is also nothing to say that the parts need to be in any particular order. The beginning does not have to precede the middle, which does not have to precede the end. We can be creative. We can begin with the middle and fill in the beginning with flashbacks.

Whatever we decide to do, we must remember that the goal is to create a work in which the first two pages are so dramatic, so compelling, the reader has no choice but to continue with the rest of the story. This is important in a general way (we all want our readers to read our work, after all) but it is crucial when presented to an editor or agent.

The editor is presented with many more works than they have room to publish. We must give them absolutely no reason to set our work aside. That means creating the best first line and most interesting first pages they have ever seen.

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writing, Writing advice

Star Wars and The Hero’s Journey

Through the previous years, I have on occasion run across the idea of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” as a structural blueprint for fiction. I have never been terribly interested. Plotting and structure have never really been among my weakest skill sets. (In my humble opinion.) Though there is always room for improvement in all facets of craft, I try to concentrate my effort on what I consider my weakest areas. I also have thought that this type of literary analysis was more useful to those who interpret existing fiction than those who create it.

Much as it pains me to admit it, I may have been wrong.

During the writers conference I attended earlier this month, I attended a workshop in which the presenters incorporated “The Hero’s Journey” into their larger subject. I found it intriguing. And yes, I could see how it could be useful in plotting out ones work, or even just checking an existing plot to ensure the elements were there.

For those of you are unfamiliar with Joseph Campbell or his “Hero’s Journey,” a primer. Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist who pioneered the field of comparative mythology. One of the discoveries he made during his studies was that most, if not all, human cultures had several universal themes in their mythologies. These themes crossed geographic, language, and cultural differences; they’re genuinely universal themes. A human (writ large) thing. His analysis and that of the disciples who followed was that these themes, collectively described as The Hero’s Journey, fufill a subconscious need common to all human beings.

So I’m thinking, tapping into a universal human archetype could be a good thing, right? Perk my fiction right up. Perk everyone’s fiction right up.

Now there is knowing what the benchmarks of “The Hero’s Journey” are and there is understanding them and what they mean. This is where the instructors of the workshop tweaked the lesson so well. They used an extremely popular work, one that most people are familiar with, to demonstrate what “The Hero’s Journey” means when used in real life.

And here it is:

Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” as manifested in Star Wars VI: A New Beginning.(The one with Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and Princess Leia).

DEPARTURE

Ordinary World—Provides a snapshot of the character’s world as is.

Luke on the moisture farm with his Aunt and Uncle.

The Call to Adventure—The protagonist is summoned to attempt a dangerous quest.

Luke meets Obi-Wan. “Come to Alberon.” (Must have the opportunity to say “no.”)

Refusal of the Call—The protagonist doesn’t want to take the risk.

Luke refuses until Storm Troopers kill his Aunt and Uncle.

Supernatural Aid—The hero receives help or guidance from a supernatural source.

Training with Obi-Wan. Use of the light sabre.

The Crossing of the First Threshold—The hero officially leaves his usual world.

The scene at Mos Eisley Space Port. Meeting the trickster: Hans Solo. (Everything must change.)

The Belly of the Whale—The hero is on the brink of losing her quest, maybe her life.

Stuck in the trash compactor with Hans and Leia.

INITIATION

The Road of Trials—A series of tests the hero must complete to be transformed.

The Meeting with the Goddess—The hero experiences a transcendental love.

Rescue Princess Leia.

Woman as the Temptress—The hero faces a temptation that threatens their quest.

Atonement with the Father—Hero must confront whatever holds the ultimate power.

See Darth Vader.

Apotheosis—A physical death but spiritual awakening.

The Ultimate Boon—Hero achieves the goal of the quest.

The Empire is hampered. Luke has knew knowledge. Rebels attack the Death Star.

RETURN

Refusal of the Return—The hero may not want to return to the ordinary world.

The Magic Flight—Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon.

“Use the force, Luke.” He uses The Force to destroy the Death Star.

Rescue from Without—Hero needs help to return to the ordinary world.

Hans Solo rescues Luke.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold—The trick of retaining the knowledge gained.

Luke at the rebel medal ceremony.

Master of Two Worlds—Hero has become competent in both inner and outer worlds.

Luke decides to remain with the rebels, but is now both a pilot and a Jedi knight.

Freedom to Live—The hero is now free of the fear of death, thus can live.

As you can see from the example above, not every benchmark is used in every tale, but most usually are. Personally, I think that, as a writing tool, The Hero’s Journey will be most useful in either the initial effort to sketch out a plot, or later, as a tool in the revision process. (As in, “Do I have a point in the story that coincides with The Call to Adventure and is it near the beginning?”).

One more thought before parting. As I was listening to the presentation I found that my own work often paralleled Campbell’s outline. I think most writers and most people who read enough to be familiar with the form follow The Hero’s Journey instinctively. Because, after all, it is a universal facet of storytelling.

Right?

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