My Outline Is Out of Line!

During a recent post I discussed what it means to take on projects for other people in order to write professionally. One of my examples of going from a hobby to making money has been writing. Since that article I got another small gig and had the opportunity to again take a look at a really cool project. Fortunately it is something that I’ve had the pleasure of helping with before and it is the kind of story that I want to see succeed and enjoy being involved in. (Despite a lot of reservation I’ve been having about doing just this kind of work.)

This project has a really cool way of outlining and it got me thinking about how to improve on this kind of writing tool. Every chapter sets out the locations that things will take place in, the most significant events, which characters will play a major role, and which characters will have minor parts. Every entry has a bit of detail that helps to paint more of that character or setting.

There’s actually a lot more to this and a clever way to tie it into the story itself, meaning that the full implementation of this particular outlining style will only work for this project. I’m trying to be general as not to give away the details of the methodology, so I’m sticking simply with: “Where?, What?, Who?, and Who else?”.

I can really appreciate this as a tool because I’ve not perfected my own approach when it comes to fiction. I work mostly on game manuals, so my outlines are actually playtest notes. They are generally functional short instructions set up as bullet points. These notes are then expanded into bigger texts after being moved to the right part of the game manual. Since most RPG manuals follow a very similar sectional format, there’s much more involved in outlining for fiction.

When it comes to fiction, I always start with a synopsis. It’s roughly 3 paragraphs; any more and I’d start writing the manuscript from there. The point is that it lets me layout the ending and get a rough idea of the beginning. It also only speaks in plot terms. The main protagonist may be named but everything else is very general. This way the story element is determined and focus can be set on the details.

It’s good to have an ending determined because it shows conviction to the story. I feel like writer’s block can spawn from not knowing where to go. Having an eye on the end goal helps with that. What’s important to me, however, is using that measuring stick to weigh the importance of individual events. Every story has a point in which the comforts of life as the characters know it have been shattered and a new understanding of what normal is enters. Little Susie spent months perfecting her recipe for the pie contest, but now she’s skipping the fair to take her injured dog to the vet.

With the ending settled and some vague part of the story determined, it’s always important to keep the synopsis updated. Sometimes gross details get changed because a series of minutia have to match. Many stories race to reach the MacGuffin before the nondescript rich guy in a nice suit uses it to destroy the world, and the real story is who survives to tell about it. A change in that detail becomes pretty important. So making sure that the story and the synopsis match is an activity that works in tandem with writing.

When I’m ready to put together chapters I always do them in serial. I’ll outline the chapter by making a thesis sentence for every paragraph. Once the chapter is told, I return to expand each statement to a single paragraph. Rarely they’ll become two, but I try to stick with a single paragraph to keep the story on task.

This outlining technique helps, especially with writers block. While writing the one sentence, all combinations of how to combine the important details and where they should lead start rumbling through my head. But those ideas don’t get written down right away, the have a chance to sit in a mental colander in order to drain away the bad ones. When I have a chance to expand on each point, the good ideas come back and better ones emerge. This is especially good if I have to take long pauses between outlining and expanding.

But, to me, outlining only gets so far. My most important tool is a “Character” bible. I put that in quotes because this will contain places and things as well as people. What it has more than anything, though, are connections between other entries. Every character gets a mini bio that gets updated as the story goes on. The details in the bios add depth to the events that the character will participate in. Characters with family that need to be mentioned get details that are pertinent to the story even if that detail never makes it in. It all adds up to imagination fuel!

As a writer, I appreciate outlines and character bibles. There’s information in these building blocks of the actual story that paint pictures of what could be. It’s not necessarily the direction the writer will ever go in, but that inspiration is a great story unto itself. So getting a glimpse of how another mind works and places where another world of people could venture is awesome.

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