Story Outlines

Ah, the dreaded outline–aka plot synopsis. An invaluable aid in organizing a story before commencing the actual manuscript, and a requirement in marketing any manuscript to potential agents or publishers … yet how many inexperienced writers panic or hit dead ends in creating one?

When appealed to for help, it’s easy for an experienced writer to shrug and say, “Just put it together chronologically from start to finish.”

But there’s a bit more to it than that. Let’s consider a few tips. (Any repetition in the following points is deliberate and for emphasis.)

  1. Understand that a story idea or premise is not the same thing as a plot. You may have thought up a terrific concept. You may have devised a highly imaginative setting. You may be able to envision what your protagonist looks like. All of that is great, but those elements do not add up to a plot. Until you have an actual plot in mind, you cannot write an outline of it.
  2. To create a plot from your idea, you need the following elements:  a protagonist that will serve as the most important character in the story; an objective for your protagonist that is specific and potentially obtainable; a foe for your protagonist to serve as the story’s antagonist or villain; and some idea of how, when, and where the story will end.
  3. It’s important that your protagonist character be an active individual. Your protagonist should not be remote, isolated, held prisoner, or someone to be rescued by other characters. In other words, your protagonist should not be someone living exiled on a distant island with all your other characters trying to  effect a rescue. No, your protagonist should be the bloke hired to guide a group of adventurers deep into uncharted territory in order to save a person in need of rescue. Your protagonist is the character doing the primary work.
  4. You must create a villain. For some reason, bad guys tend to be overlooked by inexperienced writers. I’m not asking you to like them or defend their dastardly actions, but villains serve a vital purpose in making stories work. You need someone that actively tries to oppose the protagonist or stand in his or her way. And the stronger your villain, the better your story will be. Why? Because opposition challenges your protagonist, tests your protagonist, and forces your protagonist to become stronger and more heroic as the story progresses.
  5. Testing your protagonist is the whole point of writing a story. Fiction isn’t about creating a new system of magic, or evoking the desert sands of the Sahara. It’s about changing a protagonist from an ordinary person into a hero. Or in giving a naturally heroic person a place in which to shine.
  6. The end of a story–its climax–should be dramatic and dynamic. It’s the big showdown between hero and villain. It’s where your protagonist will resolve his or her story problem. It’s where your story is headed from page one. It should demonstrate in action (or words) who and what your protagonist really is made of, and your protagonist should defeat the villain.
  7. Take time to think through these elements carefully. Until you have all of them, you aren’t ready to start outlining.
  8. The outline should start at the point where your protagonist becomes actively involved in a problem, challenge, or dilemma. You can call this in medias res (in the middle of things) or you can think of it as the change in circumstances that forces the protagonist to take action. Outlines should not open with heavy descriptions of the setting or long explanations of what’s led up to the problem itself.
  9. From start to finish, you then summarize what will happen as your protagonist takes his or her first action to solve the story problem or reach the story objective–and is directly opposed by the villain. That first encounter is a roadblock. The protagonist will have to figure out a way to move past it and try again. Again, villain will oppose hero, forcing another, more daring, attempt. Step by step, in sequential order, summarize what happens through attempt and block, attempt and block, until the end. Your story involves dramatizing how your protagonist is forced from his or her comfort zone into taking progressively larger risks.
  10. Don’t be coy. You will not entice an editor’s curiosity by leaving out a critical event. An outline is no place for tricks. Include all the major turning points of the story. Will the outline read as dry and flat? Yes. Will it illustrate your talent for lyrical prose? No. (Nor should it.) Should it indicate that you have an active, sympathetic protagonist pursuing a clear, specific goal despite direct opposition from a villain? Yes.

 

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Podcast 6

Things eventually come to an end. I have enjoyed my first foray into this high-tech type of interview, and I hope those of you who have listened have gained some insight into the process of writing. This final podcast about THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA offers a few tips about revision and critical feedback. Enjoy!

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Roving Eyeballs

Today, a friend sent me this piece of doggerel:

“She danced a while and drank some wine before she rolled her eyes at me. I picked them up and rolled them back and then we swam into the sea.” (Source unknown.)

How well it illustrates yet another pitfall the unwary writer can fall into, such as the following:

Bob threw his hands in the air. (Did he catch them?)

Armand’s eyes roved over her body. (Did they tickle, or did she slap them off?)

Jane walked across the campus to the library and sat on the fountain. (Did it shoot her into the air or did she just get wet?)

Tim dropped his head into his hands. (Good catch, dude!)

I’m sure there’s a clever name for these phrases. Anyone out there know what it is? The point is that we need to be aware of the imagery we’re creating when we use such ludicrous phrases. Are we really writing what we mean, or are we reaching for a shortcut? Imagery is a tightrope on which we balance. We need it to bring our sentences to life, and yet it can be overdone, underplayed, skewed, silly, histrionic, absurd, or ineffective.

As a writer with my admittedly nerdy moments, I particularly enjoy the film THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN because of Billy Crystal’s struggle with his book’s opening sentence, “The night was ….”

Such a cliched beginning anyway, and then the adjectives (moist, wet, humid) he comes up with grow increasingly silly. But don’t we all do similar things when trying to be fresh and different?

Jessie’s face was as red as … what? Beet is overdone, dried up, and over. Yet what else works? Tomato? Spanish onion? Must we employ vegetables for this image?

If we leave the veggie patch behind, what should we do instead?

Jessie’s face was as red as the planet Mars.

Ahem … I don’t think so. In reaching for freshness, we’ve overdone it. Such an image is appalling, just plain wrong.

Jessie’s face was as red as the petunias in Mrs. Streck’s flowerbed. Ah … much better.

Albert’s eyes were as round as …  Saucers–alas–are off the table. (Pun intended.) So here we go again. Round as … Coke bottle bottoms? Baseballs? Salad plates?

Of course the problem with dodging cliches is that the darned things convey the image so well. And a job well done leads to overuse, which is how cliches are created.

So maybe we should look at a character and find different ways to describe him or her besides a simile. Maybe we should be more precise in our narrative, so that when Jane walks to the library, she sits down on the fountain’s edge. Or there should be different reactions from our characters than head dropping, eye rolling, smirking, and hand throwing.

Maybe we should reach deeper into a character’s emotional state and pay more attention to what we might find there. Make your characters as complex as people, then consider their emotions. Why are they taking action?  What are their reasons? Convey that information and don’t just reach for the first hackneyed phrase or reaction that comes to mind.

 

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Podcast 5

Podcast 5 is now live (dealing with a book’s dismal middle) and can be listened to here:

 

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Dialogue Discussed

Podcast #4–dealing with dialogue–is now live on the Manchester University Press Web site. Pitfalls and tips are discussed.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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Slump Stumped

When you write long fiction, does it sag in the middle? Does it slow down, drag, stall, or hit a dead end? Do you feel lost, unable to figure out what to do next? Are you doubting your story idea, hating your characters, feeling tired, or are you simply bored and frustrated with a story that begin with such promise but has now become as heavy as cement boots pulling you to the bottom of the lake?

Been there, folks. And without trying to sound like a TV commercial for indigestion, there is a solution to the bleak, daunting, soggy, sagging middle. Give your story oomph!

Generally story oomph comes from a strong, focused plot, characters in direct opposition, high stakes, and fast pacing.

But specifically, you can add oomph by utilizing hooks, tossing in unpredictability, and boosting motivations.

Let’s examine these three methods separately:

  1. Hooks:  When scenes are written effectively, each scene conclusion should end with some kind of setback or additional trouble for the protagonist. That means an automatic hook is created to draw readers forward. However, hooks can be set anywhere in your story. In chapter openings, in character introductions, in narrative, in scenes, in viewpoint changes … all sorts of places. If the zombies hadn’t been trying to kill me, I would have enjoyed seeing the Grand Canyon. Or, “Lucy Cuthbert, if you don’t find someone to marry by the end of this afternoon, I will cut you out of my will.” Or, When Bob opened the desk drawer in search of a paperclip, he didn’t expect to find a clear acrylic box filled with writhing, agitated scorpions. Or, Jane had expected her new stepmother to be small, fragile, blonde, and vicious. Instead, she walked outside to see a statuesque, bikini-clad Amazon poised on the pool’s diving board, holding a martini glass aloft and singing an aria from Carmen at the top of her lungs.
  2. Unpredictability: Plot twists and turns add zest to stories. If your protagonist carefully plans what he intends to do next and then executes that intention, your story is focused and easy to follow but predictable. Without the element of the unexpected, stories become dull, and dull stories bore their creator while guaranteeing a rapid loss of reader interest. So if you’re bored by a passage, scene, or chapter, imagine what your readers will feel! Shake your copy out of the doldrums. Add some zing. Set up a scene to go in a certain direction and then knock it sideways by a wily, ruthless villain. Think about a scene you’re about to write. Within the context of the story and the parameters of your protagonist’s objectives, what can you toss in that will be completely unexpected–yet not wholly illogical? When I was writing the manuscript that would become my first published book, I hit a dull spot in the story where my heroine was going on a picnic with the hero. Romantic? Yes. Lively? No. So I thought about it and let the imp of unpredictability loose. As a result, when my heroine opened the wicker food hamper, she discovered a dead rat inside. Needless to say, that livened up the scene considerably as she screamed and tossed the basket away. (The villain had bribed his lordship’s kitchen servants to put the nasty rodent in the basket.) It wasn’t great plotting, but it served its purpose. Of course, you don’t want to throw a carcass (or its equivalent) into every scene. That, in turn, would become predictable. But eschew timidity when you write. Be daring with characters and their actions. And don’t always follow the expected path.
  3. Boosting motivation:  Often books lose steam because the characters involved don’t care enough about what they’re doing. Maybe the characters did care in the book’s opening chapters, but Amy Author has forgotten that she must strongly motivate her protagonist from start to finish. I’m not saying a protagonist who’s battered by a string of setbacks should never feel doubt, but the character must keep finding new, tougher determination to continue forward despite everything. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, Rose is motivated to destroy a German warship patrolling an African lake because of the brutal destruction of her brother and his life’s work by the German army. Her brother is an insignificant missionary, trying to bring Christianity to the native population. He is a harmless civilian, but he is so shocked and broken by the soldiers’ cruelty that he dies, and Rose wants revenge. To get it, she is willing to attempt the impossible. Vast distance, dangerous jungle, impassable rivers, rapids, clouds of vicious insects, and grueling physical hardship do not matter to her. She never gives up because her motivation is like a spear in her back, driving her forward. But not only the protagonist should have powerful motivations. Remember to give your villain motivations as well. Consider the complex villain Imhotep in the 1999 film The Mummy. Imhotep is a ruthless killer, but he is also sympathetic. He is driven by his desire to be reunited with the woman he loves. We can understand him, perhaps even feel sorry for him, while we disapprove of his extreme actions. Still, it is clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and that powerful drive to succeed forces the good guys to become tougher and more determined to thwart him.

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Viewpoint podcast

This week’s podcast from Manchester University Press is the third of a six-part series of interviews and centers on viewpoint.

Enjoy!

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