Tag Archives: outline

Designing the story #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo month. If you are interested, join Camp NaNoWriMo to take on any writing project, novel or not, and set a word-count goal of your own. Yes, any goal, any project.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemI think of stories as if they were ponds filled with words. A pond has layers, and so do good stories. I see the three layers of a story as:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. We change the look of the surface layer by choosing either realism or surrealism or a blend of the two.

Realism is a common form of storytelling. It is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of story. The setting can be anywhere and told using the tropes of any genre. The reality of that world is solid and never changes.

Surrealism takes the feeling of a real world and gives it a slightly hallucinogenic twist. Everything feels real, but on the surface, it makes no sense. One must find understanding in each small increment rather than the larger chunks we are used to absorbing.

Beneath the story’s surface lies the middle: This is the area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: events and reactions. We see why these characters’ lives are important enough to be portrayed and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters. It is a layer where inference and implication come into play.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Voice/style
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only. The same is true for a novel.

If you want to write anything, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting a novel, but if you don’t get the original ideas and entire story down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

Many people say they intend to write a book. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

I draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points, destinations where each section of the story will end. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts. Acts two and three are really one long extension of each other.

short-story-arcAct 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

Act 4: Resolution: Let’s end this misery in a way that feels good.

Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

PostItNotePadI have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

If it’s an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the important characters by name and list the critical places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

On page two of the workbook, I create a page that outlines the projected story arc chapter by chapter.

Page three of the workbook is most important—it is the list of made-up words, names, and places. The way they appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I plow along, laying down prose.

Update the glossary page anytime a name is added or changed, or new place or made-up word is added.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central piece that keeps the events happening in a logical way.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.

screenshotStyleSheetLIRF06262021We never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters you need to devote to that section.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

Creating a project for Camp NaNoWriMo is a good way to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.

You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.


Credits and Attributions:

DangApricot (Erik Breedon), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, ‘File:PostItNotePad.JPG’, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, 26 August 2020, 17:42 UTC, <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:PostItNotePad.JPG&oldid=443715836> [accessed 26 June 2021]

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