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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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Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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