Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Outlining In Practice

Yesterday, I showed you an “outline” that I did in FreeMind. It showed beginning, middle and end, each dividing into chapters which were in turn divided into beginning, middle and end. Let me be clear, that isn’t they way I outline. Yes, every book should have a beginning, middle and end and an episodic chapter should too, but I find those terms don’t help much when outlining. Usually, when I outline in FreeMind, I use a variation on the late Blake Snyder’s outline, which is influenced by the work of Syd Field. Yeah, I know they are both screenwriting gurus, but a story is a story. My take on this outline is shown below:

Being a screenwriter, Blake Snyder was big on the storyboard. I don’t work with a storyboard the way he suggested. I tried, but over time, my practice had gotten to the point that I use FreeMind for that purpose, making it “the board.” When I sit down to outline a story, I open up FreeMind and I begin plugging stuff in. I don’t work in a sequential fashion. I may not know the opening image at first. I may not know the Catalyst (inciting incident). But I might know what goes in the fun and games section. I may not know the theme yet or it may be what I started with. But whatever I know, I plug it in.

So, lets step through this. We’ve talked about my sci-fi story. It involves a transport ship loaded with stasis pods. Originally, I thought it should begin with an explosion on the ship, but after consideration, I not so sure of that. So, I’ll mull over the Opening Image a while longer. But we know there’s an explosion on the ship and it goes in the Setup. We know that because the explosion occurs before the inciting incident. We put our mouse over the Setup line and press Insert. We then type a Dickens-like statement, “In which, an explosion brings a halt to The Traveler’s journey across the galaxy.” That also gives me a name for the ship. I think I will call it The Traveler. We hit enter a couple of times and type, “In which, five passengers and crew are forced to abandon The Traveler.” This is also in our Setup because the inciting incident is going to cause the shipmates to consider violating the non-interference rule. At the Break into Two, that’s exactly what they decide to do, so that tells us something about our Fun and Games section. The chapters there will be instances where they use their technology to help the people in the area. The first being, “In which, the shipmates help to find a missing child.” Our B Story is also known, in that it involves the princess and the traitor. They will, of course, fall in love and live happily ever after by the end of the story, but that isn’t the main theme of our story. We don’t know our Midpoint yet, but we do know the Bad Guys have to Close In. That requires a villain. The government usually makes a convenient villain in these types of stories (think E.T.). But it might make it interesting if one of the five is the villain. Or maybe someone left on the ship in orbit. We need a chapter like, “In which, a child finds a piece of alien technology.”

I won’t belabor this farther. We could develop the whole outline that way and in the space of a few hours we could have a high level view of our story. If we want to take the time, we could also develop similar outlines for each chapter, but they shouldn’t take us as long. The point of outlining isn’t to do it so well that someone else could write the story for you, but to give you a method that allows you to see problems with the story before you waste too much time typing. Thus far, our outline looks something like the following:

You may have noticed that on the left side I have categories for characters and locations. I use these to keep up with names, hair color, age, and town of birth or whatever. If I write more than one story with the same character, I just copy these attributes to the new story and keep on adding. As before, I add that information as I know it. I have ideas concerning the characters now, so I might add some information, but other information I won’t ad until I realize I need it. I tend to pick characters who go well with the plot rather than try to develop a plot that matches the characters.