Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Simple Outline

by Holly West

If you've been paying attention (and if not, why not?) then you know I recently finished a new manuscript. Said manuscript is now with an editor, so I have a couple of weeks of down time until I have to dig back into it.

<twiddles thumbs>

Me being me, I'm having trouble deciding how to use this down time. And since more than a week has gone by since I turned the book in, there's less and less of it to use. I thought about tackling NaNoWriMo but for various reasons, it's not a good idea for me this year. I'd only be setting myself up to fail, so why bother?

I'm fully aware that this sort of all-or-nothing attitude often gets me in trouble. I'm not the sort of person who does well writing in my spare time--I need oceans of seemingly free time in front of me, endless weeks where I have nothing of substance on my schedule. Vacation coming up? Obviously, I can't start a project two weeks prior. Mother-in-law visiting from England? Might as well call the entire month of November a wash.

This is all very silly, of course, and I'm not giving in to what is essentially large-scale work avoidance. And just to prove it, I'm here to post a simple, starting outline template that I'll be using to plot my next novel as soon as I finish writing this post.

Before I begin, note that this particular outline works well for who-dun-its. Other types of stories will fit, but the labels will differ slightly. Also, if you're writing literary fiction--wait. Why are you writing literary fiction?

My most important sources for plotting my novels are Screenwriting Tips for Writers by Alexandra Sokoloff and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder--I know, me and every other genre writer who uses the screenwriting structure to plot their books. But some of this also comes from my own experience with actually writing my own novels. Still, if you want detailed information about any of my outline points, visit either of these sites and Alex's in particular. Great stuff.

Finally, I know I've talked about this before, as have many other bloggers, including those on Do Some Damage. I find it valuable to occasionally re-visit these topics as I find inspiration and motivation in studying structure.


Here ya go, and don't say I never gave you anything:

Before you begin, think about your theme, central question and premise. The premise, especially, doesn't need to be written in stone at this point, but it'll help you define where you'd like to go with the book and will help you outline Act II.

Need some help formulating your premise? Here are some examples from movies (all of which I got from IMDB):

Saturday Night Fever
A Brooklyn teenager feels his only chance to succeed is as the king of the disco floor.

Henry Hill and his friends work their way up through the mob hierarchy.

Play Misty for Me
A brief fling between a male disc jockey and an obsessed female fan takes a frightening, and perhaps even deadly, turn when another woman enters the picture.

A retired San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend's wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her.

A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity's survival.

Theme/Central Question

Figure out your theme early on because because you'll be "stating" it Act I, near the beginning of your book. My favorite example of stating one's theme in a movie is "Chinatown," when Jake Gittes tells his client, Ida Sessions, to "let sleeping dogs lie." Of course Jake doesn't follow his own advice--if he did, we wouldn't have a movie.

My theme in NOSE DIVE is "fearing change is pointless because it's inevitable." The theme crops up throughout the manuscript in both subtle and overt ways. I didn't plan many of those references in advance, but that's the weird thing about theme--once it's defined, it finds many ways to weave itself into the writing.

Your central question--the one that will hopefully be answered by the end of you book--doesn't have to be overly complicated. My central question in NOSE DIVE is "What do you really want out of life?" It takes a murder and nearly getting killed herself for my heroine to figure it out, but darn it, she gets there.

Inner/Outer Need
One more thing--determining your protagonist's inner and outer needs from the outset and keeping them in mind will help as you plot and write.

Outline Template

ACT I (about 20k words)
Opening image - Sets the mood: voice, location, genre, etc.

Introduction of your "hero(ine)" in their ordinary world

Begin set up - Note: if this is a murder mystery, you need to introduce all of your suspects in Act I.

Central question/Theme stated - This is normally brief, but as I said above, the theme will be woven in throughout the story.

Continue set up

Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure - This isn't as big as the "catalyst," but it gives you a chance to show what your hero is made of.

Continue set up

Catalyst - Stakes are raised and your hero must make a decision to continue on the ordinary path or step into the "new world."

Debate/Gathering of Team/Formulating a Plan - Will she or won't she? Who are her allies? How will she respond to the catalyst? A note about reluctant heroes: While I'm in favor of them in general, it's important that your protagonist moves the plot along rather than the plot moving her. Aside from her initial reluctance to step into the "new world"that might occur in Act I, once she's in, consider her all-in.

Act I Climax - All that debating/team gathering/plan formulating above? Whatever happens at the climax should solidify your hero's decision to act.

ACT II-A (about 20k words)

Break into Act II - Enacting the plan

Fun & Games - Remember that premise we talked about? Act II begins what's called "the promise of the premise." If you get stuck in your plotting, refer back to your premise and think about ways you can fulfill what you've promised.

Introduce B-story

Attack on hero - Stakes are raised - plot reversal

Parade of Suspects - This is where you'll revisit all of your potential suspects while you move the plot forward.

Midpoint - Usually a major plot reversal or development that offers your hero a new direction going into Act II-B.

ACT II-B (about 20k words)

Continue plan/investigation - keep in mind that the steps taken now will likely be more obsessive and maybe even fool hardy. Your antagonist will also be taking bigger steps (whether on or off-screen) to thwart your hero. As these two opposing forces battle, your hero might be compelled to "cross the line" in his/her pursuit of truth. Often, there is a point at which your hero falsely believes they know who the antagonist is, leading to a misstep.

Continue B-story

Bad Guys Close In - This could be a direct attack on your hero or an attack on someone/thing he/she holds dear. Whatever it is raises the stakes to their highest point thus far and gets us wondering whether your hero's goals are achievable.

All is Lost Moment

Dark Night of the Soul - Think of this as your hero's opportunity to lick his or her wounds, both literally and figuratively. It's the soul searching required for your hero to start gathering up the energy needed to fight (and hopefully, win) the final battle. Through everything that's happened up to this point, he/she finally understands what's at stake and what he/she is really up against and yet still moves forward.

Break into Act III - A final revelation before the end of the game, revelation of true opponent that propels the story into the "final battle." May also start a ticking clock. In a way, this is a "new beginning" as it gives your hero a sudden burst of energy to fight the final battle.

ACT III (15k to 20k words)
Break into Act III - Your team is assembled and ready for battle

Final Battle - Make it count. There doesn't need to be explosions or even gunfire, but make sure however you choose to do it sticks in the readers mind with a steady escalation of tension.


Final Image


Wowza. This post ended up way longer  than I expected. And I realize now that I wrote it more for myself than for you. Of course, there are loads of things I missed--plants/payoffs, sequences, set-piece scenes... there are lots of things to keep in mind. But if you just need a little push to get writing, this outline might provide it. I know it works for me.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Holly! This gave me a lot to think about.

Kristi said...

Always good to revisit both of those books!
Also - here's what I try to do between books - read as much as I can and watch movies and try to cram all the creative things and activities into my head that I don't usually have time to do ...