Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Easy Way to Outline a Novel

No author truly sits down to write without having some idea of where the story is going. A romance author doesn’t come up with a crime novel once in a while just because that’s where the characters took her. A mystery author doesn’t end up with a story with no mystery simply because the characters didn’t take him in that direction. Every author has some idea of how the story will turn out. Despite what some authors will tell you, every author begins with an outline. We know that all romance novels are basically the same animal. They begin with a woman who is in need of love. This woman finds a man. They don’t a seem to the be perfect match. Then change happens and they discover that they need each other. There are many variations on that, but that’s the story every romance author sits down to write. That is her outline.

And yet, I’ve been told by many authors that they don’t outline. What they actually mean by that is that they don’t document their outline before they begin writing the detailed text of the story. Instead of putting their outline on paper, they are carrying it around in their heads. We all do that to some extent too. Even if we create a very detailed outline, there are parts of the story that never make it to the outline. I believe the reason pantsers don’t outline is because they see outlining as troublesome rather than as a memory aid. In some cases, I think they look at outlining as a meticulous task that yields few benefits. So I would like to discuss a minimalist approach to outlining. There are plenty of outlining approaches out there. I personally like to use FreeMind to store my work, but the framework I use is largely based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. It’s a great method, but I think even that may be cumbersome to someone who is afraid of outlining. So, we’ll be looking at a very simple method that I use when I’m just playing around with a story idea. It is similar to the Snowflake method, but it’s even easier to use. You don’t even need any special tools. You can do it on paper if you like. You probably at least want to use a word processor. It’s even easier with FreeMind, but Microsoft Word with work just fine.

We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get into the details, but today I’d like to introduce the concept. It is based on the three act play, which is broken into four equal sections. We may have to reserve explaining why a three act play has four equal sections for another day, but that is certainly the case. For this method, you only need to understand for terms—Problem, Solution, Challenge and Victory. Each word refers to a different section of a story. If you go back and look at the basic outline of a romance novel you’ll see that the problem is that the woman doesn’t have a man. That’s easy enough to understand. As someone once said, everyone needs a hand to hold. If someone doesn’t have one, that is a problem. The solution seems simple enough, if she doesn’t have a man, give her one. But it isn’t much of a story if we just solve the woman’s problem for her. So we need something that challenges the solution. There has to be some reason why the solution won’t work. Our challenge is that they aren’t a perfect match. Maybe he’s a Republican and she’s a Democrat. Maybe he’s trying to evict her grandmother. Maybe she think’s he’s serial killer. Whatever the case, his hand doesn’t look like the hand she should be holding, no matter how much she might want to. But if we can overcome a challenge, we have a victory. The victory is that by changing the two people are able to put aside their differences. So she becomes a Republican or she figures out that grandma ought to be in a nursing home anyway. When that happens, they can come together and live happily ever after.

Every story follows that pattern and tomorrow we’ll look at how to expand this very basic high level outline into something that is more useful.