The Dreaded Fiction Outline

I have written eight novels. Each novel has been written at least twice, if not three or more times. Why? Because, as I wrote, I realized the story telling needed to change. Again, why? Why did it have to change if I had a plan? Because there is more to creating a fictional outline than coming up with a sequence of events, and at the time, I didn’t know that.

In my opinion, you need four things before you draft an outline (something I prefer to call a flexible plan).

Plot

By definition, plot is “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” If you read John Truby’s book called The Anatomy of a Story, you’ll know it as a premise. Or, if you read Orson Scott Card’s book called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, you would be introduced to the MICE quotient. What ever you call it, it’s what your story is about.

If you know your plot, great. I would still recommend exploring the methods of defining a story that Truby and Scott discuss in their books. If you want to see how I used them in writing The Gifted, visit Luxatra.com to see if these resources might help you ensure you have a story that you can complete.

OR, if you are at a loss for writing ideas, try what I like to call a deck of cards approach. Select a genre you like, for instance, what you like to read. Create a series of index cards for the following categories.

  • Heroes
  • Villains
  • Challenges faced
  • Skills, powers, weaknesses, etc
  • Story endings

Shuffle the stacks and randomly select a hero and villain. Then select a few challenges and skills. Toss in an ending and see the story you just plotted. Of course, it might need some tweaking, however Truby and Scott can help with that.

Whatever approach you use, if you don’t know how your story is going to end, you won’t be able to prepare an plan. Once you have your plot, which includes the ending, you need to know your characters. Who will you put in the plot?

Character Personas

Ask yourself why your favorite book is your favorite book. Hogwarts was a pretty cool place, especially in the movies, but when I recall reading the books, I remember the characters first. I wanted to know what would happen to Harry and his friends in each book – not the really cool school.

Even though I had a rough outline for my stories, I tend to write using a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants (i.e., pantser) approach. However, that’s not what slowed my progress. Over time, I’ve learned that you need more than what characters are saying and doing. You also need more than a description of the location. You need a reason. A reason for why your characters do what they do.

After studying top selling authors, I started seeing a pattern to their writing and story telling. And, it has to do with being able to assemble a series of sentence salads that create a well rounded experience for the reader and the characters.

So, to improve my writing, I created personas. I started with the basics, general rules my characters had to live within as the story progressed. Then I added to the personas as the story introduced scenarios I hadn’t planned, always ensuring that these new elements were consistent with who my characters are supposed be. Remember, readers can see if not feel inconsistency.

For example, I include the following when starting character personas.

  • Demographic examples
    • Name
    • Age
    • Appearance
    • Family
    • Ethnicity
    • Location
  • Personality examples
    • Attitude toward friends, authority, family
    • Generally happy or sad or angry or mad
    • Natural focus bandwidth (mental capacity)
    • Quirks. A gesture. A look. A saying.
    • And why. It’s important to explain why.
  • Abilities examples (can depend on genre)
    • Work skills
    • Knowledge
    • Powers (from innate characteristics to superpowers)
  • Antagonist of protagonist?

Next up, defining the world in which your characters will act out your story.

Define the World

You might be thinking, “I’m not writing a fantasy or Sci-fi story so defining a world doesn’t matter.” If so, you would be wrong. Assume, for a moment, that your story takes place in your hometown, a place you know well. Answer the when, who, what, where, and how of that world, even if it is today.

When

What year is your story taking place? If it’s today, you know a lot about the world. You can put the character in your shoes and know that what they are experiencing is likely believable.

However, if you are putting your characters into the past and it’s this world, you need to know the history of that time. The Outlander series is a perfect example of understanding history in order to create an authentic feeling experience for the characters and audience.

If you are looking to the future, will it borrow against the many futuristic stories already in place? Will it be like Star Trek or The Hunger Games series? Futuristic worlds can be fun to create but in order to add authenticity to the world, you might need to show how somethings are possible, especially if your character is in your hometown.

For instance, why is the government center laying in ruins? Why are the schools closed? Why are the building floating hundreds of feet above the ground when the used to have basements buried in the ground.

Who

The when of the story will influence who’s around. We mentioned past and future above. Let’s consider the present. Are you going to include the people who live now? Or, some facsimile of the those people?

Unless this is memoir, I recommend fictional characters that can’t be mistaken for the cranky neighbor you remember fondly or the unreasonable teacher who gave you a failing grade. I am not a lawyer, but how would you feel if you saw your name and your life in a book? Especially if the light it shines is not favorable.

What

Given the when and the who, what will your characters have? Will they have technology, money, transportation, food? What will that look like and what will that say about your characters. Remember, you created personas. Will those personas fit in the when, who, and what that you are defining?

Where

If this is the real world, will your location be real? Will specific locations be real? Again, it’s one thing to say the story takes place in Paris but will you use a specific restaurant? If you create a negative experience while using real people or locations, you could run into issues with those real people or locations.

In my draft Ancient Souls: Resurrection book, which takes place today, I include states and major cities. I take into consider the terrain and roadways. After that, it’s all made up. Anyone living in those locations will feel some authenticity to the scene, but they won’t be shocked and distracted by something extremely fictional.

How

“How” is a big question. The how will be influenced by the plot, personas, and the world defined so far. In addition to the basics such as how characters communicate, get food, and move about, the culture of the place and time will help you add depth to your characters. It will define rules that influence behavior and their reality.

For instance, my characters in Ancient Souls: Resurrection come from the following types of cultures: a guy that grew up without a father, a girl who grew up in narrow-minded cult focused on saving the world from things that don’t exist, and the military. Each cultural environment influences the character’s ability to respond to the situations they find themselves in.

Understanding culture and character background help you create the sentence salads you need to create a depth to your characters.

Audience

Who are you writing this for? So far, we’ve focused on the storytelling. However, we haven’t looked at the language used when telling the story. I’m not talking about English or Spanish or some other language. This is about the age of the audience who will read your story.

Will your story be read by children, middle aged kids, young adults, or adults. You can imagine that there are ways of speaking to different audiences: choice of wording, sentence structure, vocabulary. Each will be influenced by the age of your readers.

In addition to language, the type of events your characters will face and the complexity of delivering the events to your readers will be play a role in the next step, the plan.

Flexible Plan

I say plan versus outline, because a plan, “an intention or decision about what one is going to do,” suggests flexibility. An outline suggests a set of orderly, sequential scenes.

However, life is crooked. Of course, your outline can build in crooked experiences for your characters. But, what if your characters show you opportunities for chaos that you didn’t anticipate?

If you are just starting out in writing fiction, you might roll your eyes at the idea of a character doing something that you didn’t anticipate. You’re the one who wrote what the character was doing, saying, believing. Maybe you’ll have more control than I have, but if you find yourself in a situation where the planned next step in your outline doesn’t work with a scene you just created, don’t toss out the scene or the story. Change your outline.

Or, create a plan that can flex and shift, but still include the most critical events that make the story what it needs to be. In order to do this, I looked to my more technical self and grabbed onto two concepts: milestones and agile thinking.

Milestones are key or pivotal events in the story. Between milestones, your characters will have various experiences such as

  • Meeting new characters
  • Finding new clues
  • Taking a wrong turn that requires some thinking or back tracking
  • Running into a barrier, creating a conflict that needs to be overcome to move forward

You might have a list of experiences your characters need to have in order to move between milestones. And, that’s good, up to a point.

Imagine you write a scene or dialogue, keeping mind the personas, audience, and world that you have defined. If you let it happen, true to these rules, the outcome might not lend itself to the next experience you have planned. In fact, a new experience might reveal itself, one that is more true to the nature of the story and it’s players.

Flexibility is the name of the game, as long you reach the milestones that are pivotal to the story. The simplistic chart below illustrates how a story might build over time.

An illustration of the process described in the blog.

The chart above shows the following flexible plan.

  • Introduce two protagonists in separate scenes or chapters.
  • Write one or more character defining moments, but more will come.
  • Bring the protagonists together.
  • The next step is to envision a series of paths your characters can take in order to reach the next pivotal and required event. Then, put them on one of the paths where you might
    • Reveal more character defining moments, whether they are pre-existing or new.
    • Run them into barriers to success (i.e., conflicts) that can create minor or major tension.
    • Add resources needed to move forward.
  • If the path you chose didn’t work as expected, there are other paths they can be placed on.
    • Back up and chose a different path
    • Tweak a scene and merge their current path with another you thought was possible
  • Repeat path brainstorming for the next milestone journey.
  • The last milestone is the story climax but not the end of the story.
  • At this point, you might know how to wrap things, up but if you had to be flexible along the way, make sure the path to the end reflects the possible impacts of the change.

There are different paths a storyteller can take to reach the story climax. Each path requires different skills, offers different barriers and challenges, and introduces different people along the way. It’s not just about an outline of events.

Published by Cindy McCourt

I wear many hats: author, website planner, Drupal consultant, instructional designer, trainer.

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