By Dame Devon
Maybe I’m weird, but I never outline the same way twice. For me, the tool that works for one book, almost never works for the next. Outlining is more like ‘organized brainstorming’ in my world, and I envy the people who use one outlining tool over and over again and get consistent, productive results.
Today, I’m going to touch on two methods I’ve used to outline when I find myself with too many ideas, or not enough ideas, or stuck as to how to get all that “stuff” into the basic structure of novel-length fiction.
I think the simplest breakdown of novel structure is the seven point plot from Algis Budry’s WRITING TO THE POINT.
1. A character
2. In a context
3. Has a problem
4. S/he tries to solve the problem
5. And fails — tries and fails with greater stakes, tries and fails with even greater stakes (this is known as the try/fail cycle, and there are usually three major try/fail cycles)
6. Victory or death
7. Validation (denouement)
Say my book has twenty chapters. The first chapter would cover #1 and #2, and at least hint at #3. The rest of the book, maybe up to chapter fifteen handles #4-#5, the try fail cycles, each cycle causing greater risk to (and effort from) the character. Then chapters sixteen-nineteen take care of #6, the final victory or death, and chapter twenty is all about #7, validation/denouement.
Sounds easy? Well, my books don’t always follow that formula, and that’s okay. OUTLINES ARE NOT WRITTEN IN STONE. They are more like street lights you can place ahead at certain intervals to help illuminate a small part of the road your story is traveling. The seven point plot is a great light to hold up to your current or future work in progress, so you can see a few of the hills and curves of the basic road ahead.
Another list I like to reference is Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY:
1. Ordinary world
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the call
4. Meeting with the mentor
5. Crossing the first threshold (from the ordinary world into the adventure)
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. The Ordeal (lowest point, things look most dire for our hero)
10. The road back (to the ordinary world)
11. The Resurrection
12. Return with the elixir
For this post, I’ll point out that #1, #2, and #3 of Vogler’s list could all be written in the first sentence of a book–say with a phone call–or could be stretched out into several chapters. So how do you know when to put these things in the outline? How do you set the pacing/timing of events?
Mr. Vogler’s list can be broken into four sections with each section leading to a new goal. In THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, Mr. Vogler says:
“The hero’s first act goal, for instance, might be to seek treasure, but after meeting a potential lover…the goal might change to pursuing that love. If the ordeal at the midpoint has the villain capturing the hero and lover, the goal …could become trying to escape. And if the villain kills the lover…the new goal of the final movement might be to get revenge.”
Over twenty chapters, the four goals might be placed like this:
1. Starting goal
5. New goal
10. New goal
15. New goal
18.New (final) goal – Climax of book
The last time I outlined, it really helped to place my main character’s changing goals alongside the events I knew would happen in the story. But I needed a little more help to fill out the timing of events in the outline.
So I mixed lists together. With deep apologies and deeper gratitude to Mr. Budrys and Mr. Vogler, I will now attempt to show you one way to combine their lists to create a twenty chapter outline.
1. Character in a context, has a problem in the Ordinary world. (Starting goal might be to ignore/ acknowledge/ address problem)
2. Character is called to Adventure & Refuses the call
3. Character meets Mentor & can no longer refuse call (stakes have advanced so character must make this decision)
4. Character crosses first threshold from the ordinary world into the adventure, which causes…
5. (New Goal) Character goes through Tests, meets Allies…
6. …and Enemies …
7. …and Character must learn/conquer/survive the…
8. …*first try/fail cycle*…Character grows stronger/weaker
9. Character perseveres/fails these tests/allies/enemies and makes (New Goal).
10. Character’s new goal leads to the approach to the Inmost Cave (the next event that must be experienced to reach/fulfill goal)
11. Bigger tests…bigger problems…more or less help from Allies and Enemies and…
12. …even more serious/personal/deadly conflicts Character must face…
13. *Second try/fail cycle* lands Character in…
14….The Ordeal–the big risky showdown for the desired item/outcome/prize/solution to goal. Character falls to lowest point and yet survives to make (New Goal)
15. In pursuit/denial of new goal, Character rallies and seizes/loses the Reward/solution/prize/ability. Character may have finally won/lost.
16. Character celebrates victory/mourns loss with allies/friends/lovers, in preparation for the Road Back, unaware dark forces/antagonist/conflict/allies gather to stop Character.
17. Character begins the Road Back to regular life/ordinary world. A greater conflict rises out of victory/loss and Character must make (Final Goal) to stand/fight/solve problem/surrender against all odds.
18. *Third/last try/fail cycle*- Character must give his/her all for the most difficult struggle/sacrifice/fight. Climax of story. Character is Resurrected via victory/defeat.
19. Character Returns to ordinary world with Elixir/solved problem/defeated evil/ resolution/ultimate sacrifice.
Whew. Okay, it’s not perfect. And I know it looks like it’s only for adventure/quest type stories, but most aspects of this list can be used in any story, from picture books to mainstream literature. The journey a character undertakes is not always of the gun-toting, save-the-day nature. Characters embark on quiet journeys, emotional journeys, intellectual journeys, coming-of-age journeys, comedic journeys, and yes, kick-ass save-the-world journeys. And they all share many of the same elements.
When mapping out the events for your characters, these lists serve as a good place to start.
I believe outlines should have room to flex, change, and morph into the tool that will work best for the writer and the story. You’ll note I repeated the tests, allies, enemy step twice in the combined list. Maybe next time I’ll do it differently. So long as the stakes are rising and everything is leading to that climax and end scene, I’ll use whatever I can get my hands on to get the job done.
Remember, whatever works, works. There are plenty of ways to outline (trust me on this), and plenty of ways to write a book without an outline. The important thing isn’t the tool, or if you’re applying it to draconian perfection. The important thing is to use whatever tool you need to keep WRITING. Even if that means trying a different tool every time, or using no “tool” at all. Whatever gets the words down, and keeps them coming, is the right thing to do.
So how about it? Have you modified/broken/created an outline structure that you’d like to share with us? Do you have a tried-and-true way of mapping story structure? Go ahead and share. ‘Cause I have new book I’m going to need to outline pretty soon…