Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Simple Book Outline

My first attempt at writing a novel didn’t have an outline. I had several scenes in my head that I wrote with the idea that I would fill in the gaps later. The story was a fantasy about two friends, one of which had an innate ability to work magic and decided to put the people to work building a huge tower from which he intended to rule the world, or something like that. I reached 60,000 words before my hard drive crashed. I’m sure I still have bits and pieces of the story somewhere. I could put it back together again, but I think it best if I don’t.

I began Searching for Mom in the same way, but I quickly realized that I was wasting too much time writing stuff that I didn’t need to write. I developed the most basic of outlines. It began like this:

  1. Beginning – Sara Wants a Mother

  2. Middle – Sara Looks for a Mother

  3. End – Sara Brings Mother and Father Together

After looking around, I happened to find someone who made the suggestion, “push to the middle.” I don’t recall where I saw that advice, but the idea was that by pushing to the middle we can avoid the sag that commonly occurs. As you can see in the outline above, in a three act story, the middle appears to be a long section in which little progress is taking place. Sara is just looking and looking and looking, but she doesn’t find a mother until the third act. We solve this by splitting the second act in two. Call it Act 2A and Act 2B or Middle A and Middle B. I will explain later why this is till a three act story instead of a four act story (i.e. Acts 1, 2, 3 & 4).

  1. Act 1: Beginning – Sara Wants a Mother

  2. Act 2A: Middle A – Sara Looks for a Mother and Finds a Suitable Woman

  3. Act 2B: Middle B –Woman Does not Want to Become involved with Sara’s Father.

  4. Act 3: End – Sara Brings Mother and Father Together

Notice that something happens in the middle of the book. Sara succeeds in her quest. At least it seems like she has, but we soon realize that things aren’t quite like she hoped. We’ve pushed hard to get to this point and it hasn’t been a futile effort, but we need Act 2B to be a downer so Sara has a reason to reevaluate her position and to push even harder to reach her goal or fail in trying.

With that settled, let’s look at why this is still a three act story instead of a four act story. We can think of the three acts as three worlds. Act 1 is the world as is. In this case, Sara has a father who loves her, but she longs for a mother. The other kids have mothers and it pains her that she doesn’t. We move into Act 2 and we have a world that is very different from that of Act 1. Sara is no longer the victim of her circumstances. She has a plan that she will follow through and she will find the ideal mother. She remains in this world in both Act 2A and Act 2B. She still has the mother she has found, but the new world becomes inhospitable. There are bad guys in this world who want to separate her from her new mother. That brings us to Act 3. In this act we have yet another world. In this world Sara hopes to merge the first two worlds into something better, but it is at the risk of creating something worse. A simple story in three acts.