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Story Structure: Outline Assist

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by FifthView, Jul 25, 2019.

  1. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    The topic arose in a recent thread:

    Within the discussion, the issue of story structure reminded me of my own frustration with trying to conceive the flow of the story across scenes/sequels, chapters and acts. That would be the challenge for me; I have often had trouble with meandering as I tried to build my scenes, chapters and acts.

    My wish?

    My fantasy wish would be to have the structure of a story, at all those levels, simply pop into my head as soon as I understood the premise, the characters, and the world, so all I had to do was write to it.

    But a more practical wish was to have some sort of interactive software solution for conceiving the structure of the story at those levels. An artificial intelligence guide would be more wish that pragmatic solution; but pragmatically, we could have simple interactive software solutions for helping us brainstorm and settle upon the story structures that would be best for our stories.

    I'm not much of an outliner, but I'm constantly frustrated by my own meander, even to the point of being stopped in my tracks. Even if I have a general idea of what I need to do for various scenes, chapters and acts, I don't have a good intuitive feel for how long each of these should be. Even if I have an abstract understanding of the three-act structure and the general beats I need within the story, my mind becomes cluttered when I try to pair that understanding with the specific elements of my story.

    Even if. But sometimes, I know only some of these things when I begin writing, not others. So I end up groping my way forward and ultimately, more often than not, becoming frustrated.

    I may know what I need to do at each stage of the story, in general; but when it comes time to writing the actual prose, the specific events and interactions, I get lost in the thickets.

    I need guideposts for getting myself out of the thickets. I need some limitation on my meander.

    I've been doing research into how to use the various beat sheet spreadsheets available on the Web. For anyone not familiar with these, they are tools for understanding and applying basic story structures to whatever story you are writing. You can even input approximate novel word count to get a general idea for how long each beat in a story should be. How much time to spend on the intro? How much before the inciting incident? Etc. A variety of beat sheets exists, and as Captain Barbossa might say, "The code is more what you’d call 'guidelines' than actual rules.".

    I've used beat sheets before, but they, too, seem abstract. Sure, I can have general ideas about story structure, but what about a specific story, its specific elements? This requires an interface between the abstract beat sheet and your own story, which in turn requires investing some time into mashing the two together, giving thought to your story, trying to put it into a shape that will benefit from the structure a beat sheet can provide.

    This often involves going back and forth between a spreadsheet and your word processor to create the outline (if you outline) or as you write. I've thought of adding columns/sheets to an existing beat sheet spreadsheet and forcing myself to create an outline in this way, then importing the outline into Scrivener so I have it handy as I write. (Or simply copy-pasting the info.)

    But outlines for me are dangerous when I invest all my thought and energy into detailing them before I begin to write. I can end up with a skeletal structure of a story that really ought to work, but when I begin to write the story, all the lifeblood is gone. Not that I'm no longer interested in the story, but that I have before me an abstract of the story without its most important parts. What seemed important for Chapter 7 when I wrote the outline now seems less important when I'm finally writing Chapter 7; something else needs to happen there. Even if the general "beat" stays the same, the details have changed.

    In my recent research, I found a couple Scrivener templates created by Jami Gold for using beat sheet organization within Scrivener, and I think going this route might help me:
    Jami Gold is a pantser, and the templates provide beat summaries and word count tracking and goals for each beat. As you create chapters or scenes for each beat, word counts for each of those combine to form the total word count for that beat. This might help my meander—while also giving me a guide for what I need to accomplish for that beat. Having the beat summaries handy (general things the beat needs to accomplish) will help me to think about the specifics of my story as I write. Having word count limits will force me to limit what I'm writing to accomplishing those goals.

    At each link, a free downloadable scrivener template is made available, with instructions for importing the template into Scrivener. It's a simple process. Once the template is imported into Scrivener, it'll appear under the Fiction category every time you start a new project.

    Each link also describes the method she used for creating the templates. Essentially, this involves using a beat sheet spreadsheet to calculate approximate word counts for each beat, then inputting those along with summary descriptions of each beat into Scrivener. It's not an incredibly complicated process, and any author could easily modify the templates she provided or else create their own templates using whatever beat sheet, of various versions across the Web, best fits the author's writing process. You could alter the total word count for the novel, then revise the word count goals for each beat in Scrivener.

    Playing around with it, I realized you can copy the provided folders under the Binder in Scrivener, moving them from the Manuscript top-level folder to a new top-level folder called Outline, and still use the word count tracking within that section. If you are an outliner, this means you can create an outline using these features and still have that outline integrated into your Scrivener project for that story. [Edit: Occurred to me after-the-fact that you wouldn't need the word count tracking for the outline you are writing, heh; but the summary guide for each beat would be helpful as you write your outline in Scrivener. Plus, you can set word count goals for each scene or chapter within your outline as you move through the outline process, then input those goals for each scene and chapter in the Manuscript section.]

    I'm sure lots of authors, past and present, have found other ways to give their stories the structure those stories needed, but I'm at the stage where I need this sort of assist.
     
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2019
    Black Dragon and skip.knox like this.
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