Outlining Methods and Reflections, with Guest Opinions

I love writing. I write every day, pumping out a new story (in 1st draft) every couple of days. Sometimes I write SFF. Sometimes it’s crime fiction. Every once in a while I step back into literary fiction (my original genre of choice). And once a month, I’ll tap out a poem. Writing every day gives me the chance to experiment. Since I’m writing so much volume, it doesn’t hurt my production to take a chance on something new and see what comes of it.

Thus, in the spirit of experimentation, I’ve coming back to outlining. I have always abhorred outlining, preferring to write by the seat of my pants, but there are a lot of people who find a lot of success by outlining at least some part of their stories ahead of time, so I figured it didn’t hurt to try.

I ‘phase outlined’ a bit during my previous stint at writing every day (Dec ’11-March 2012), and those sessions led to some of my most recent publications. The novel I’m writing, as well, uses the ‘phase outline’ technique. Phase outlining I picked up from Lazzette Gifford. Here’s what she says about it:

Phases are written out as key phrases that will bring the next set of lines — the next action — into focus. This is not a scene-by-scene outline, but something worked out in much shorter sections. A phase can be clues to dialogue, if that’s what the section’s focus is centered around, or it might be a little bit of description, or a set of actions… anything that will make the story move another few hundred words. Usually a ‘phase’ will only run from twenty to fifty words in the outline. (Read entire article.)

Basically, it’s a way to outline that involves the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants gardening approach I’ve taken to my writing for so long. Write the ideas as they come into my head through a series of short images. Then, once the outlines done, go back and prune into shape. Then, take those images and turn them into longer pieces which become scenes in the novel. Here’s an example from my WIP, untitled novel:

  1. Woman shows up at her house to find that her clothesline has been burned, her house vandalized. We find out that she’s orchestrated the attack herself. It’s been two years since her wife has been killed. No one has found the murderer, and she’s decided to take matters into her own hands.
  2. Woman deals with the local constable, who informs her that there aren’t enough clues for them to figure out who did it before she leaves on her trip. Says she’ll find them, but if she’s not back in two weeks time, the constable needs to open the envelope she’s given him. Inside the envelope: the names of the two people she suspects of committing the crime. (They are indeed the names of the people she contracted to burn her house.)
  3. Woman leaves town. Enters the forest that is a thousand miles wide. Inside, no light reaches. Under a tree about two day’s journey in, she stops, camps, and unearths a chest she left for herself. Inside, there is a disguise, and the woman becomes a man.

The advantage of this type of outline, both for the novel and for short stories, is I get to discover the story as I move forward and then, when done, build the initial scenes with the ending in mind, plugging in the tiny bits of foreshadowing, symbolism, repetition, etc. that explores the themes and ideas circulating in the piece. The phase outline bridges the gardener and architect approaches to writing.

The phase outline is one type of outline that works for me. Another is the ‘five act play’ model, one I’ve been using recently with stories I write for the weekly Liberty Hall flash challenge. I developed this outline based off of the class ‘five act play’ sequence from Shakespeare’s (and others’) plays. Basically, this is what we’re looking at:

Act 1 — Exposition. We meet the dramatis personae, and time and place are established. We learn about the antecedents of the story. Attention is directed toward the germ of conflict and dramatic tensions.

Act 2 — Complications. The course of action becomes more complicated, the “tying of knots” takes place. Interests clash, intrigues are spawned, events accelerate in a definite direction. Tension mounts, and momentum builds up.

Act 3 — The Climax of Action. The development of conflict reaches its high point, the Hero stands at the crossroads, leading to victory or defeat, crashing or soaring.

Act 4 — Falling Action. Reversals. The consequences of Act 3 play out, momentum slows, and tension is heightened by false hopes/fears. If it’s a tragedy, it looks like the Hero can be saved. If not, then it looks like all may be lost.

Act 5 — Catastrophe. The conflict is resolved, whether through a catastrophe, the downfall of the hero, or through his victory and transfiguration.

Here’s an example from a recent story I wrote:

Open on a locked briefcase. Dream inside. Carrier of case dodges attacks to get case to the hospital. Case makes it to surgery, but is stolen by someone who takes it to illicit doctor. Doctor opens briefcase and implants the dream in the brain of a patient. Patient, a government soldier, wakes the next morning and begins sewing the flag of the resistance.

My final story deviated a bit from this sequence (hopefully it’ll get pub bed one day so that you can see it), but this framework gave motion to my keystrokes. This short outlining methods helps me track a brief course from beginning to ending, allowing me to create endings that are more germane to the story. (My weak point as a writer, one of many I suppose, is my endings.)

Another outlining method I like is from Dan Harmon, the writer of the hit show Community (which, full disclosure, I’ve never watched).

1. A character is in a zone of comfort

2. But they want something

3. They enter an unfamiliar situation

4. Adapt to it

5. Get what they wanted

6. Pay a heavy price for it

7. Then return to their familiar situation

8. Having changed [Wired.com for full article--well worth a full read, especially if you like Community.]

I love this eight-step sequence and have used it successfully in two short stories, which I hope will see the light of day in the next few months. Step #6 is of particular interest to me. It’s taught me a lot about consequences, about making characters bleed. Sure, we want our protagonists to get what they want, but we don’t want it to be easy. It’s not a story worth reading if it’s too easy, and this sequence helps me remember that.

So, these are a few ways I’m experimenting with outlining. I enjoy trying new things, and the composite of experiences is helping me improve my craft, albeit slowly. Perseverance is key in any writer’s journey, and that, at least, I have in spades.

Speaking of writers: I took to Twitter last week and asked some writers i follow about their outlining processes. Their answers help me think about my own process, and I present their responses here for your reading pleasure and writing reflection. [Thanks for reading today's blog post!]

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