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How do you outline?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Nimue, Jul 20, 2017.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Good question. :)

    (Edit: "good question" is short for: I'm glad you brought it up, I haven't really thought about it and it's really just what felt right)

    So, the first pass of the outline is very rough, just a few sentences. Once I'd done that for all the stories I went over them and wrote a slightly more detailed version of what each story is about.

    Second phase I got into a bit more detail. I used the original descriptions to do a better pitch sentence. I defined the promise of each story, and I added notes about character wants and needs for the protagonist.
    After that I split each story up into three parts/acts, defining how each story starts and ends and what happens in between. Once done with that I wrote a description of what's happening in each act - kinda like I did for each story in the previous phase.
    This is also where I did a list of tropes included in each story, but I'm not actually done with that yet but have skipped ahead to the next phase.

    I'm now on the third phase. In this, I'm setting up waypoints that the story will have to pass in order to achieve what it needs to tell, and then I'm listing the scenes the story needs for getting through the waypoints. I also add notes about important side characters that haven't already been mentioned.
    The next pass of this phase is to go over the list of scenes for each story to try and define in more detail what I want each scene to achieve (other than progressing the events of the story - stuff like character development etc).

    Once this is done I expect I'll start the actual writing - one scene at a time. Before writing a scene I expect I'll do a brief outline of it so I have an idea of what's happening. If there's any conversation happening in the scene I'll write out the lines the characters say first, and then put the conversation into the scene later.

    My thinking is that in this way I'll get a good idea of what the building blocks of my story are, and I hope to figure out what's important to the story. Consequently I hope to find out what bits are unimportant and that I've just kept in because I'm emotionally attached to them in some way.

    I've used similar methods in the past, but this is the first time I'm focusing this much on identifying the various elements of the story and what purpose they serve to it. Previously I've mostly just gone over the story repeatedly in more and more detail until I've had a good enough outline to start making prose from.

    Does that answer your question? :)
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2017
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  2. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    I can't speak to this particular process, because I don't do quite what you've described. But, the efficiency of a process isn't always the point. Just finding a process that works for the individual writer is sometimes the point. As the writer improves, she can modify her processes. But sometimes the problem is finding something that works now. Because something that works is infinitely more efficient than something that doesn't work. To each her own.
     
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Okay, so maybe this is a bit of a strong statement.

    I did explain my method in my previous post, but I think I'd like to add a little more to it. I think the terminology probably confuses things too.

    One way I think about my outline is like I'm designing the story. I'm plotting it out and I'm tweaking scenes/characters before I actually write them. So far it's worked out pretty well, and I feel like I've improved a bit just from doing this.

    Once the entire story is laid out is when I'll start what I refer to as writing. This is when I begin working on the text that will go in the book. Hopefully at this stage there won't be any more major changes needed to the story. To say I expect there not to be anything may be a bit strong. Sure, there will be tweaks that need doing and stuff that needs adjusting, but the ambition is that these will be minor thing that don't effect how the scene/chapter/story will end in a significant way.

    One impression I get is that I may be using the words/names differently to what others do. When someone's talking about their first or second draft I may still be referring to a phase of my outline.
     
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    For me, the outline is for more than discovering structure. It's also for discovering details.

    Typically, I'm great at picturing the larger, more abstract details, when brainstorming a story. I also usually have a good first feel of the general structure. But darn those smaller details! Outlining each chapter and the scenes forces me to consider details ... in more detail.

    An example from my WIP: I knew my MC has two much older brothers with families of their own, and I knew that the son of one of these brothers (the MC's nephew) was going to play a role, but that's all I had until I started outlining. When I began outlining, I realized I needed to go into more depth and create a family tree, find names for all my MC's siblings (turns out, there's an older sister too), all his siblings' spouses, all his nieces and nephews–and how those marriages connected the MC's own family to other prominent families in the city where the story starts.

    For me, the problem wasn't knowing the most significant, direct plot-relevant details. It was the fact that, having already considered those details, I'd neglected finding these other details. I'd put that off. But when I go to write, I need those details in advance or I'll end up hitting walls. I spent some hours creating that family tree and finding names for all these other families and family members; better to brainstorm that in advance than have to come up with names and immediate social structure (various families of the city) on the spot. Once I have these details, my writing flows better and I also feel I have a little more flexibility. If I'd started writing first then paused in the midst of it to find these details, I'd be more likely to either stop for long periods (to find the right details) or I'd jump on the first ideas that popped into my head in order to keep writing at a good pace.

    This may not be how it works for others, but for me...yeah. I also have a personal negative reaction to the idea that 80% of the details I use in my prose might need to be completely overhauled later. Why bother writing those sections? This is different than rewriting the prose itself, working with the grammar, syntax, sentence structures and the like, which I'm fine doing.
     
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  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Going off on a tangent here, but I believe this also works with world building. If I'm more familiar with how the world works and how things are connected underneath the surface I'm able to make better use of it in the story. It makes more intuitive sense to me, and I don't have as much of an urge to explain all the little nitty gritty mechanics.
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I've also wondered if using the outlining process to world build helps to prevent world builder's disease. I could find family trees for every character in a story—or only those trees I discover I need to know as I'm outlining! Same with places, cultural markers, and so forth.
     
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  7. Aurora

    Aurora Sage

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    Suppose I just enjoy discovering the details as I go along. It's what makes writing fun for me. I often start with basic ideas: definitely characters, setting, and conflict.

    I usually have impressions of scenes as well. Some stories bake in my head for weeks or months before I write them. If I don't feel enough of a connection with it, then I write something else.

    The majority of my 'outlining' or story development happens off the keyboard. When I get stuck, I take a break and go back when I've thought things through more.
     
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  8. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Now this is even more off on a tangent, but I'm amusing myself by thinking of various metaphors for different kinds of outlining/plotting/pantsing.

    For myself I'm thinking of the story as a big block of stone and I'm chiselling away at it to bring out the story that's hidden inside of it.

    For a more explorational process it might be a bit like climbing a tree. You start on the ground at the bottom and you know you want to get as high as you can. You start climbing and as you get higher, the options for getting even higher become ever fewer, and eventually you reach the top, or a branch from which you can't go any further.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow

    This is true for the actual writing. It's true even when I outline because once I'm at the keyboard, or pen in hand, the outline is not floating before my eyes like a HUD. It's still just me and the Great White Blank.
     
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  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    That's why I write on a black screen with white print, heh heh. It's like the whole book is already done, I just need to uncover the redacted parts.

     
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  11. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    This works really well when writing in dark environments. Less strain on the eyes. :)
     
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  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    For me, starting with a blank page when I begin an outline is like beginning that foggy journey.

    But it's a little more like making the journey on foot through terrain that is always covered in fog, with a flashlight. After I've completed the journey, then my next journey across the same terrain will be easier because I'll already have so many of the landmarks and even smaller elements of the terrain mapped out. The second trip will go more smoothly than the first.
     
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  13. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Oh man Nimue!

    First, I'm so glad to see your name around here again, I missed you :)

    Second, I think it's pretty common to go through this. For me it happened around two or three years ago.

    Third, I'll tell you what helped me, and direct you to some resources, but please understand, like Skip says, it's different for everyone.

    Ok, so this is my method.

    First I start with the snowflake method, outlined here:

    How To Write A Novel Using The Snowflake Method

    This means I start by writing out my basic premise in a single sentence. These past few weeks I've been camping across Canada with my family and had some ideas for a non fantasy, more personal literary drama I want to work on when we get back.

    When using the Snowflake method I like to start with a killer title as well as the premise statement.

    A Silent Echo

    When their canoe capsizes on an unfamiliar river, a detached mother and her autistic daughter struggle through the Canadian wilderness to reconnect with civilization, but end up reconnecting with each other.

    It doesn't have to be fancy. Just concise. Lol. As I believe stories are inherently about emotion and growth, I try to pin point the emotional core of the story early and and illustrate it in the premise statement.

    After that I can start plotting.

    I like using the three act structure, outlined here:

    Fiction University: How to Plot With the Three-Act Structure

    And I do it using notecards, as illustrated in Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" book.

    Once I have the basic plot points figured out I start drafting. Drafting is like filling in the outlines, bit by bit. Layer by layer. Adding in more and more details with each subsequent draft.
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2017
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  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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  15. Helen

    Helen Inkling

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    Hero's Journey.
     
  16. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Something happened yesterday that made me want to come back to this thread. It relates to how many writers who don't outline (or don't do it in detail) talk about the excitement of exploring the story to see where it leads to.

    The same kind of thing doesn't happen when outlining. I already know how my story is going to end and as far as the plot goes there are no surprises waiting for me. No big ones. The story still has a lot of secrets left to reveal though. There are plenty of issues that I don't yet have a detailed solution for and that I only know need to be addressed, but not how.

    Yesterday I began analysing the list of scenes for the first part of my story. I moved a few of them around and I wrote little descriptions of things that I wanted each scene to achieve. So far so good. I'd done some thinking about it already and most of the stuff I did I'd already planned for in my head.

    Then a scene I'd added in as a filler where I could drop a bit of background information shows up. I'd summed it up like this:
    Nothing remarkable. Kind of dull even, and at first I couldn't remember why I'd put it in and I thought maybe I'd just cut it out completely. I'd had enough background information already, hadn't I?

    That's when the magic happened. What if, in his apartment, Roy has his one and only photo of Toini (that's the Woman of the story (capital W)). It's on his bedside table, and it shows him, Toini, and Toini's sister Paivi. All three of them are sitting on the bench outside Paivi's pub and it's on the very same day that Paivi took over the pub and became it's new owner. Toini's just back in town on military leave and she's still wearing his uniform.

    This is how Roy remembers Toini - happy and smiling in her uniform. He didn't bring any photos with him when he left, and this one was sent to him in the mail after Toini died.

    See?

    This showed up in a minor filler scene that I first considered cutting out. It wasn't planned, but it's a major discovery and it's going to be useful throughout the rest of the story. In the next part of the series I'd planned for Roy to go back to his apartment but I wasn't entirely clear on his reason for going back - getting a change of spare clothes or some cash was my initial idea, but it felt a bit weak. Picking up his last photo of the love of his life seems like a much better reason. Great sentimental value.

    I'll also be able to use the photo in more situations in later stories. It'll be a reason to remind readers about what's going on, and it'll be a reason for Alene (Roy's traveling companion) to ask about Toini.

    In this way, there's still a lot of discoveries about the story to be made even when outlining. It's not necessarily discovery through exploration, but it's still a kind of discovery.

    Perhaps it's a bit like engineering? You know what you have and where you need to be, and you know how to get there, but the way is a bit clunky and cumbersome, and then all of a sudden you have a stroke of genius and come up with a beautiful solution and you write it in the margin of the book for generations of mathematicians to try and figure out... no, wait, that was something else. :p
     
  17. Addison

    Addison Auror

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    I outline in stages. Usually three but, if it's really being a jerk, four. First I blurb the #%@ out of the story. From beginning to end I blurb the story, what happens to who, why etc.

    Then I take that blurb, highlight part that I like, things that are integral (foreshadowing, character revelation/growth etc) then I use those parts and start at the beginning to make a Story Tree. I start with the opening scene, that first paragraph or such and I extend at least three branches. Each branch is a different outcome. I write the most likely- the one a reader can see coming- the others are plausible (maybe) yet less likely. I continue the process for a few pages, working off the pieces I took from the blurbs and I highlight the parts I like. The I take those parts and rewrite my story's blurbs with those pieces.

    Finally I, having the Blurb neatly typed and double spaced with margins of AT LEAST one inch, go back and outline by act. I take a red pen and find where ACt 1 ends, Act 2, ACt 3 And Act 4 (I use the 4 Act system) Then I outline bychapter. In my book Chapters can be any length. Five pages, fifteen, the length is irrelevant. What is relevant is if the chapter can answer a core question. I look at my tree and find the questions and, if none exist, I write between the lines to refine for definition. The questions could be "Will Hero dodge punishment?" "Will Hero pass polygraph?" "Where will Hero wake up?" etc. If I have an answer of a flat "Yes" or "No" at the beginning of the story, or too many in a row in the middle, then they need work. Each question is titled "Chapter 1" and so forth.

    The part that I only do if I can't get it going past a certain point is I fast forward and start the outline from the ending. Sounds weird but it's effective. I go to the resolution and I look at where my characters are, what they've learned, what they've resolved, what they've survived and so forth. I work backwards to find how they got there. First in the blurb sense, "clear their names, vanquish evil person, find lair etc". Then I work backwards, looking at the end and what little I have of the beginning and find the best path for the story to get Z and A to connect.

    Hope this helped. Happy Writing. :-D
     
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  18. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Time for another update here.

    The plan for the current stage of my outlining process was to analyse each scene to determine how it fits into the story and what purpose it has. It started out nicely and I did pretty well in that regard. However, over time this all changed and instead of what I'd planned on doing I just wrote a basic outline of what happened in the scene.

    This isn't necessarily bad, but it's not what I'd planned on and it skips over a step I'd considered to be important. To get around this I went back a bit until I'm at the stage where the analysis comments began to change into outlines (roughly). Here, I added the keywords Establish and Reiterate to the end of each descriptions. I used these to list the new things that are established in the scene, and the things that I've already mentioned that is repeated.

    It's not much, but it helps me keep organised.
     
  19. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Sage

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    Well I'm not really an outliner. I tried to be for years, but it ended up doing more harm to my story than good. However I do put a bit of work into planning before I start writing.

    These are the important questions I should know the answer to if I don't want my story to fail. They are:
    Who is my protagonist?
    What is their goal?
    What specifically is their plan to achieve said goal?
    What specifically is the antagonist doing to prevent protagonist from achieving said goal?

    The third question is the hardest for me because it has to be very specific. I might have a story idea like 'the hero has to defeat the Evil Overlord by finding a special magic sword that's been lost for a thousand years'. That states his goal pretty clearly but it doesn't tell me how he's going to achieve it. The most obvious answer is he's going to search for the sword, but then I have to decide how he's going to decide where to start searching. Maybe he goes to its last known whereabouts and finds a clue (ideally one that could somehow have been overlooked by other people looking for said sword during the last thousand years). Maybe he finds out that the sword was buried with a great king in ancient magic ruins. So what's he do now? Maybe he assembles a team of archaeologists equipped to excavate magic ruins and a guide and heads into the desert.

    I think you get the point, but basically its a step by step plan of how your protagonist's plan for dealing with the conflict. It has to account for all the things your protagonist thinks might happen. So if my hero's worried that the Evil Overlord is aware/will become aware of his plans, I would have to come up with a plan that accounts for that. This is a way to both make sure your character has some idea of what they're doing and develops character. The plan doesn't have to be a good plan (your character might be arrogant enough to think he can take on the evil overlord and all his minions single-highhandedly). This isn't a plot (unless you want to write a very boring book with no suspense) The plot comes from throwing a wrench in said plans. I usually just start writing and see what I come up with, but you could plot this.

    There are also a few other things I have to know. For example I need some basic rules for the world. I never make complete magic systems, that's not my style, but if my plot hinges on a particular person staying alive for example only one person can wield the magic sword I need to know if magic can bring people back from the dead and if it can whether or not my characters know that it can. Likewise if my plot hinges on the use of an important object like the sword I need to know what exactly the sword can do. I need to know up front whether or not the magic sword is the only way to destroy the big bad or if another way does exist albeit one much less desirable and once again if an alternative way does exist do my characters know about it at the story's start?

    Then I go and do all that for the antagonist, although I can usually get away with a little less depth on their side since for dramatic purposes the antagonist is probably going to have a lot less setbacks than the protagonist which means less contingency plans.

    Sorry this got a bit longer than I intended, but I hope it helps.
     
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