Saturday, July 03, 2010

Technial Topic -- Outlines. I mean, like, why?

In the comment trail, excellent commenter Annie said:

But I can't quite imagine how I'd outline a story, since all I have are scenes. The few I've written down I already know would have to be thrown out--the setting isn't right, the characters are a different age than I thought, etc. And then there's a character off stage who's not even in the story, and I find him really annoying. I'm in awe of you and other writers who can live with the unrulyness.

Scenes come up and clamor for attention and we love them all as a hen loves her chicks.
But we must stop thinking -- Is this scene not wonderful?  Is this scene not cool?  And start thinking -- what does this scene do? 

An Outline is simply a list of scenes that tells the story. 

Lots of stuff goes on in our fictive world . . . . battles and betrayals and getting yer hair cut and eating asparagus.
We have to pick just a few morsels of all this activity for the manuscript.

We fall in love with the scenes that come to us.
It is a traditional weakness that we collect up wonderful scenes that take place before the story actually starts and make them Chapters One-through-Three.  This leads to many a carefully crafted Chapter One-through-Three being torn out by the roots. 

All along, we create scenes that serve no story purpose. 
They become outtakes. 
It's like some cruel sacrifice to the Writing Gods.

In the end, in a mood of cold, dire ruthlessness quite alien to our character, we will gather to our bosoms the few, favored scenes that tell the story and toss the others away onto the scrapheap of our subconscious where they will jitter at us in dreams for the next decade which is why we are like this.

How do we take the inchoate mass of possible scenes -- which are not in any order and some of them don't fit at all and we have no idea how they relate -- and make story?

Well . . . we outline.

Basic process, (and I am talking about my process, since I have no idea what anybody else does,) is we work backwards. 
We go from what we need back to what we have imagined. 

There are several kinds of scenes we need.

I) -- We need scenes that convey plot. 

Plot consists of a series of Necessary Actions.  You know something is a 'Necessary Action' because if you leave it out or you change it, the story doesn't happen.  All else being equal, we try to show these Necessary Action on stage because they tend to be interesting.

II) -- We need scenes that change the protagonist. 

In a coming-of-age story, the change might be his developing maturity.  In a spy thriller, this might be the villain deciding to blow something up, or the hero deciding to leave his comfortable retirement and go hunt villains.

In Romance genre,
(I love Romance genre because it is straightforward,)
this character change is growth of the love relationship.

In a Romance genre story, we show the Character Change as a series of Romance Stages.  There is an analog to the Action Plotting in that there are Necessary Romance Stages.
You know something is a Necessary Romance Stage because if you leave it out, the love relationship doesn't hold together.  It seems unrealistic. 

(Erotica is not Romance genre because there is no development of a love relationship through a series of stages.)  

See how when I talk about the kind of scenes we need I am not saying, scenes that 'explain why,' or scenes that 'set up the story,' or scenes that 'reveal character'? 
We do not write scenes to convey information. 
Really.  We don't.  There are reasons for this.

III) -- And we need scenes that are just so wonderful we can't leave them out.
"No, we don't."
"Yes, we do."
"Oh, go ahead and add them.  I can't stop you.  But the editor is going to jerk them out anyway."

(jo's subconscious pouts.)

Just about every scene in the final manuscript will be built around either Necessary Plot Action or Character Change. That's what we outline.

See how this helps corral the little darlings?
Even before we begin to outline we can shoo away many of those clucking, fluttering, beloved scenes
because they do not contain the protagonists learning and changing,
do not contain action that is essential to the plot,
and a good many of them do not even occur within the brief span of the story here-and-now.

This gets rid of much of the chirping throng.

SPOILERS lie below the cut.
Just don't go there if you haven't read Forbidden Rose.

This is all dull writing craft stuff, anyhow, so it wouldn't be of, like, general interest. 
You can just skip this.

One way to approach a big complicated story is to take it apart and look at it as threads,
each one telling part of the story. 
We might have a dozen threads or more.

Here's one thread of Forbidden Rose.

'Doyle and Some Forged Documents' 

List of Necessary Actions for this Thread: 

1) Adrian comes across some of Robespierre's papers and keeps them on his person.
2) Adrian does NOT give them to Carruthers.
3) Adrian DOES give them to Doyle.
4) Doyle forges the documents. 
5) Adrian distributes them. 
6) The documents do their job, bringing down Robespierre.

-- See how these six actions are indeed actions.
That is, they're concrete.  They're something you can could 'see' take place on stage.  A person does something here and now.   

-- See how these points mostly involve decision on somebody's part.

They're not an earthquake or the attack of polar bears.  Necessary Action is generally where a character chooses and acts, rather than having a lump of blue ice fall out of the sky and brain him.

-- See how, if Adrian or Doyle or the Frenchmen who received the forged documents had acted differently, it would change the story.  The actions are significant.  That's why we can build scenes around them.  That's why they belong in an Outline.

-- See how all this happen inside the here-and-now of the story.
The Outline is built on action that happens in the here-and-now. Not backstory or intruding narrative from elsewhere or letters from home.   

So . . . we pencil our six actions into the outline, fitting each bit of action into a pleasant, useful spot in the chronology.   
Maybe we nudge characters back and forth a bit so it all fits together and we don't have anybody doing two things at once in separate corners of Paris. 

We are going to transform these six actions into scenes.
Or we are going to choose not to,
which is also good.

Let's start with point (4)
Do we have to see Doyle getting his thumbs inky and making forgeries?

Not so much.
This would be, y'know, just mind-numbingly boring.  Skritch, skritch, blow on the ink, hang it out to dry.

Do we have to see, (6) -- Some French politician opening a forged document and turning pale?
Because this would pull us away from our main story and major characters.  We don't really care about Paul Barras.  We don't need to see him in person.

Here's two Necessary Actions that will not occur on stage.  We do not make scenes out of these actions.  We erase them from the outline.  We're going to be told about these in a stirring example of 'Tell Don't Show' which is a rule that does not make it to the List of Writing Rules for some reason.

Leaves us with the other four scenes.

After much shoving and poking of the mind and imagining what the scenes would look like, we decide to make on-stage scenes built around Necessary Actions (1) and (2).
We got interesting stuff going on.  We got beefing up Adrian's role to about the right amount.  We got a sufficiency of complication that it would be kinda lame to describe this.  And both the scenes fit nicely into the pacing of that section of the manuscript.  

This brings us to Necessary Actions (3) and (5).  I like these.  They're also kinda interesting.  I want to see them on stage if I can.  But when I imagine them, these two turn out to be small, limited actions that wouldn't sustain a scene.  They lend themselves to be folded into other scenes.     

Take Necessary Action (3) where Adrian gives Doyle the papers. 

This could easily be written as a separate scene.  Imagine it.  Adrian, angry at Carruthers, stomps into the prison and hands the papers over to Doyle.  Doyle sees them.  Gets a bright idea
and so on. 

But that's all kinda short and meager, isn't it?

Instead, let's do that handover in the middle of the action of another thread.  Let's tuck it into the Doyle and Maggie wedding scene.  We got three or four Necessary Actions going into that same scene.  Nice, says I.  That's thrifty. 

Or lookit Adrian delivering the forgeries at various front doors across Paris.
How to show this in an exciting way?

So we set the action of Adrian delivering his forged papers in a place already described, so we don't waste time on description when we're busy, busy, busy.  We add Maggie, Jean-Paul, Justine and Séverine to this scene.  They are of interest to us when a French politician is not. 

We pick up the separate thread of Carruthers being out to get Adrian and we combine these two threads.  That raises the stakes in both.  Now it's not the otherwise somewhat ho-hum of Adrian playing messenger boy.  It's Adrian doing this when men are after him.  Now we are not merely 'told'  Carruthers is out to get him.  We see the graphic evidence.

The Necessary Actions of two threads work and play well together.

And we end that particular scene with some Necessary Action of  the 'Maggie Rescues Doyle' thread.

The Outline tells us which scenes we need to put on stage.  By listing the Necessary Actions chronologically, we get ideas about how to combine action from different threads into a single scene
which is, as I said, thrifty.

So . . . summing this all up.

We make our outline by

-- writing down the Necessary Actions for a thread in chronological order.

-- moving the minor, less interesting, and less 'visual' actions out of the outline and off stage.
-- forming the most robust and interesting actions into their own scenes.

-- combining simultaneous actions from several threads into one scene.

You do this same process with the Character Changes. So you'd make up a parallel outline showing scenes needed for establishing the Romance Stages.  A good many scenes are going serve both Plot Action and Character Change purposes.  But often, you write to one or the other. 

An example of scenes with just Character Change Action would be where Doyle teaches Maggie to fight or where they first make love. 
Not Plot Action, Character Change.

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  1. Excellent! I hit a wall this week and have been very negative about it all after it was suggested that I could delete all of my Act I. The worst part is that I knew that they were (mostly) right.

  2. Hi Phyllis --

    Early chapters are the hardest to write. Sometimes, knowing when to start the story is about impossible.

    I do not envy you going through this part of the process. It's just miserable. Good luck.

  3. Jo, thank you for this characteristically generous post, which has helped me a lot. One problem is I'm not sure where the story is going, but I love the idea of working backwards. And I do have some ideas!

    I wrote what I thought was the opening scene, part of which I really liked. When I read it over, I realized it was 80% backstory. Oh well, backstory is good for the story, even if it's not in the story, as it were.

  4. Hi Annie --

    I have a writing acquaintance who used to say she NEEDED to write out the backstory before she could begin with the story.

    She didn't let this bother her. She'd just lay the backstory down as if it were the first couple chapters of the manuscript. Write it and write onward. It got her started.

    She wrote deep, layered books. This may be why she had to feed backstory to her fingertips and set it in a fixed form . . . because her work was so complex.

    Anyway, I wouldn't worry about backstory-heavy early chapters in a first draft. This is so easy to fix in the second draft.

    *jo gets out a pair of scissors*

  5. Martha said:

    This is so helpful. I was floundering around trying to think of a way to make an outline, so that things happened in the right order, but was stuck mixing up what you call Character Change with Necessary Actions, knowing something was wrong, but not being able to figure out what it was. Whew, that's a long sentence!
    Now I have a straightforward way to sort stuff out. Thank you!

    So thank you and happy 4th of July.


  6. Hi Martha --

    Character Change is put in a different outline partly because the way we judge it is totally different.

    If Doyle stands on a hill and teaches Maggie to fight, no real Story Action has occurred. You could take that learning-to-fight scene out or change it fundamentally and the 'plot' would not change.

    But we need that scene.
    So we don't assess that scene in terms of Plot Action. We see it as one vital point in a sequence of building intimacy, establishing relationship, and initiating physical contact.
    Just looking at Plot Action, we might miss what has to be done to build intimacy. We might not plan scenes for that express purpose.

    When we outline the progress of Character Change we can see a logical order.

    We get a handle on what has to be put on stage and what can be off stage.

    (In Character Change, btw, it just about ALL has to be on stage. That's a big difference between Action and Character Change. There's no Tell. It's all Show.)

    After we've separated the many threads of story and looked at them in isolation, we do fold it everything together again. By that time we'll have ourselves a good notion of how much emphasis we've given each of the Plot Action threads and each of the Character Change threads.

    We kinda jiggle the outlines together with an eye to the pace and shape of the story.

  7. "combining simultaneous actions from several threads into one scene".....

    that's incredibly helpful....I'm just getting into trying to re-structure the final third of my WIP, so this couldn't be more timely.

    Great teaching, thank you as always!!!!

  8. Hi Elisa --

    I am flabberghasted that anybody actually reads this stuff. Really.

    But that 'combine simultaneous actions from several threads' is useful. It's useful to just list out eveything that's going on.

  9. Jo this is great! I've got an entire folder (well, label) of posts and messages - mostly yours and Diana's - with tips and info and suggestions and I must say they're very useful in the later stages of editing. Thank you!

  10. Hi Deniz --

    I am so proud and pleased to share a folder with Diana.

    The whole outlining and planning thingum is something I'm coming to late, after years of not doing it. I'm still 'working on it'.
    However, with the fanaticism of the convert, I'm going around recommending it to everyone.

    The bottom line is that everyone has to find their own process. If somebody says, 'outlining doesn't work for me', it probably really doesn't.

  11. Anonymous11:53 PM

    wow, this is so helpful. thank you very much!

  12. I am so glad this was useful.

    I don't pretend to know the answers. But sometimes just hearing how somebody else does things strikes a chord.

  13. Just as I was beginning to think I'd never find my way out of the tangled threads of my story, I read this and wow - it helps so much to look at each action for every thread of the plot, and then do the same thing for the romance. It makes the process of doing an outline seem 'doable'. Possible. Thank you so much for sharing! Carolyn

  14. Hi Carolyn,

    It's not entirely intuitive to think of a story consisting of many story threads lying next to each other. Maybe we see it best when we're doing a subplot.

    I'm not so good at folding together the romance thread with the suspense threads of the story. I keep 'em kinda separate. I'll have to work on that.

  15. Jo,

    Can I put in a request for a post about the growth of the relationship, and expansion on... "a sequence of building intimacy, establishing relationship, and initiating physical contact" this. What are the steps that make that whole love thing happen? Thankies, thankies, thankies in advance.

  16. Hi Jass --

    Y'know . . . that is an interesting topic. I don't now whether one could come up with one set of steps. But it'd be useful to look at the process in an analytical fashion.

    I'm not going to do anything challenging till December because of the manuscript being due.

    After that though . . .

  17. I look forward to it!

  18. I don't KNOW whether one could come up with one set of steps.

    Jeesh. Will I ever learn to proofread?

  19. So it's past December now, right? *poke* :D

  20. Soon. Soon. I turned in the manuscript but I'm still working on the durned thing because it isn't anywhere near good enough.


    I want to make Adrian's story really good and I don't think I'm doing it yet. (if ever.)