Monday, December 9, 2013

Outlining for Dummies. And when I say dummies, I mean me.

Okay, a show of hands of who participated in NaNoWriMo this year.

Good. Now a show of hands of who actually won NaNoWriMo this year?

If you're like so many others and started out with these grandiose plans of knocking out a 50,000 word novel in a month, but fell a little short (or halfway short... or didn't get past the title) don't worry. That's nothing to be ashamed of.

It happens to every writer.

Sometimes getting over a hurdle in your story is as easy as leaving it alone for a few days to play Assassin's Creed 4. Sometimes, though, the problem is that the story hasn't been thought about enough. Now, I'm not a huge outliner. I never have been. I know some writers who don't outline at all. They sit down and churn out a manuscript just off the top of their heads and it's awesome and bright and shiny and they don't have to change a thing because they're actually deities when it comes to writing and I'M SO PROUD OF THEM.

But I'm not one of those writers. So I have to outline a little bit. Which is what my post is about today. It's something I've written about on my own website, but I figured with NaNoWriMo having just ended and writers all over the world getting ready to start revising their manuscripts, this would be the perfect time to throw my version of an outline out into the world.

By the way, that was a long sentence. Thanks for sticking with me through that.

So here's my outlining process. It's a mish-mash of a bunch of other story structure formats that I've used in the past. Over the years, this has ended up as my personal favorite. Today I'll call it...

The Outline for Dummies. 
Mainly Me.

Hook- This isn't part of your story. This is just where you tell yourself the one-sentence plot. You'll understand why in a second.
Life as we know it- Imagine we're watching the movie version of your book. Where's this taking place? Who's the main character and why do we fall in love with him or her right off the bat. What makes the MC relatable? Why do we care about this particular person (or non-person)? During this piece of the story, we need to find out what the MC desperately 1) wants and 2) needs.
The big chance (around 10%)- Something happens to make the MC believe that he or she has found the solution to the problem. This is generally the solution the MC believes will fill the WANT, not the NEED.
Life as it is now- So now the MC's going down this different path. And there are moments where it seems to be working. The distance between the MC and the thing he or she wanted is slowly closing. This time, however, is no stranger to conflict. In fact, the closer the MC gets to that solution, the more problems it creates. So he or she decides:
Let's try this again (around 25%)- He or she decides to go a different route to get to that goal. It may include making new friends, organizing a team, learning from a mentor. Whatever it is, we'll see the MC doing some studying and training here that begins to help him or her realize the NEED. As the MC continues down this path, learning as he or she goes, we see him or her get hit with the second major roadblock where he or she is forced to ask:
Which life do I choose? (around 50%)- The MC is faced with a decision. He or she can turn back and continue on that journey that may or may not lead to getting what he or she WANTS. Or the MC can fully commit and dive into the lion's den and do what NEEDS to be done. Generally, by this point, the MC has begun to realize his or her need trumps the want or that they are actually one in the same. So now the MC lunges forward, using his or her training to continue down the path of awesomeness. This is where we'll see some pretty major conflict (external and internal) that eventually leads to the moment I like to call:
Up the creek (around 75%)- I was going to add without a paddle, but I figured you'd get the idea. This is the big "downer" moment in the story. It's when everything looks like it's all going to crap and there's no way out. A secret may get leaked, a nasty truth may be revealed, a comrade might be mortally wounded. Whatever it is, we need to see the MC down in the dumps here. Because at this point, we're rooting so hard for him or her, it's as if our cheers bring the poor little (or big) thing back up, out of the mud, onto two feet, and ready to continue on. This is the part in the movie where the music swells, weapons are drawn, wounds are patched up, because ladies and gentlemen:
It's on! (around 90%)- Our MC is back and ready to rock. New life's been breathed into his or her lungs, dragons have been slayed, robots dismantled, and the big boss is right there, ready to take the beating the MC's willing to dish out. And boy, does our MC dish like a pro.
Back to normal (ish)- Ahh--the war is over, the competition is finished, the argument has been... argued. Our MC has done the seemingly impossible and become a better person because of it. And you know what? The MC got what he or she needed. Maybe not necessarily what was wanted, but who said life is fair, right? Normal isn't the same for our MC because he or she has changed in some way (hopefully for the better). But lessons have been learned, new friends have been made, and the universe has been saved. Good times... good times.
And that's it! 

Yeah, I know it's not as easy as just sitting down and busting out 50k in an hour like those freaks of writing natures we are jealous of totally admire. But it works for me and it actually serves another purpose. That line you came up for your hook can be used as an attention-grabbing agent magnet in your query. And, even better, when it's time to write the dreaded synopsis, you can simply take the info you wrote for your outline, get rid of the plot point headings, and BAM! Your synopsis is finished. 

Now if you're one of the lucky individuals who finished NaNoWriMo and you're looking at your manuscript, wondering why none of it makes sense, try applying this formula to it (and I hate to say formula, because that implies that there is a formula to good writing) and see if you feel something needs to change. Revisions are a necessity and using your outline can help guide you through that process as well. 

And now that you're armed with an outline and the knowledge on how to use it, you can start preparing for next year's NaNoWriMo!

Or not.

Happy writing!

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