Thursday, March 12, 2009

Universal Outline

Last time I showed you a very simple outline for Searching for Mom:

  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

This is a very high level outline, but you may be like many people who say, “I could never use an outline. It is too restrictive.” You’re really going to think that when I show you this next outline, partially based on Blake Snyder’s work:

  1. Act 1: Beginning

    1. Setup (includes an opening image and theme statement)

    2. Inciting Incident

    3. Debate

  2. Act 2A: Middle A

    1. B Story

    2. Fun and Games

  3. Act 2B: Middle B

    1. Bad Guys Close In

    2. All Is Lost Moment

    3. Dark Night of the Soul

  4. Act 3: End

    1. Finale

    2. Final Image

Now I’m sure you’re saying, “You expect me to use that outline? Where’s the creativity in that?” No, I don’t expect you to use it, if you don’t want to, but here’s the thing. All good stories follow this outline, or something pretty close to it. Now you’re probably thinking that I’m telling you that unless you follow this outline your story isn’t very good. Actually, what I am saying is that as we look back over time, the stories of the great storytellers follow this pattern. In most cases, I don’t think they intended it to be that way. Many may have just opened their mouths and began telling a story, but the ones that have stood the test of time fall into this pattern. This pattern is the most natural way to tell a story.

Consider that if you wanted to tell us about an experience you have had, you would begin by telling us about the situation before it happened. (I was driving on the freeway.) Then you would mention what changed the status quo. (The car in front of me came to a stop.) You would mention why this is a problem. (I saw his tail lights approaching.) You would mention what you decided to do. (I slammed on the breaks and came to a stop.) You would mention why this wasn’t enough. (I saw the car behind me rushing up on me.) You would mention the really bad thing. (The car slammed into me.) You would talk about why this is upsetting. (I was sure he must have dented my bumper.) Lastly, you would bring the story to resolution. (The car is totaled. I had to get a rental car. I hope the insurance company will be quick with a settlement.) You wouldn’t develop an outline to tell you how best to tell this story, but it would come out just this way. Sure, you might leave out one or two of these points, but the natural flow would be for you to follow this pattern, a pattern that matches the outline above.

Let’s say you are a seat of the pants author and you have written a story that people seem to like. Go back and see if your story fits in the outline I gave above. It very likely will. If it doesn’t, the most likely problem is that you aren’t finding the correct pieces or your story isn’t as good as you think it is.