More on Outlines
So What Do You Know?
Good Gawd, I’m still talking outlines here.
But let me tell you a story. A story of a story, actually. A couple of years ago, when I was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I got an idea for a novel: That a young woman, following a calamitous breakup with her fiancé and the unexpected end of her fast-track job, travels to a small New England town to live with her unmarried relatives, who turn out to be witches. In fact, the whole town is populated by witches, and in time the protagonist discovers that she herself has some latent supernatural powers, which she eventually uses to help bring down a big discount department store that’s planning to build there.
I got the idea when I read that Wal-Mart had instituted a “no witch” policy by refusing to allow its employees to display pentagrams on their person. For some reason, this struck me as hilarious. I mean, is Wal-Mart really worried about being undermined by witchcraft?
Anyway, I began my “pre-outline” (I know, does it get any worse than this?) by jotting down everything I knew about the story on a page titled “WHAT I KNOW”. Well, it wasn’t much. I knew that my protagonist was going to arrive in this town full of witches (the beginning of the story). I knew that a big discount department store was going to move into this environment and cause havoc (the middle). I knew I wanted a love interest somewhere in the story (ongoing subplot). I knew that my character would somehow help the townspeople to keep the department store out (the end). Not much, but enough to start tossing my pebbles. Who is this girl? (I did change her from a twentysomething woman to a 16-year-old.) Where did she come from? Why did she move to Massachusetts? How does she discover that her relatives are witches? What constitutes a witch, anyway? Eventually, there were enough things I knew to make a novel.
So this is what an outline does: It tells you exactly how much you know about your story. You may think you have the whole story, but when you put it in brief narrative form (outline) you’ll see for sure whether you do or not… and if not, you’ll be able to see right away where the holes are. (They’ll be in the middle, but that’s for another essay).
Well, all right. I’ll put in a little something about middles. Middles don’t seem interesting, at least in comparison with fascinating beginnings or spectacular endings. But the middle is the biggest part of any novel, the most technically problematic, and the hardest section in which to keep the reader involved.
I didn’t used to discard books before I’d finished reading them. I’d slog through to the bitter end, no matter how tiresome they were. But as I grow older, I have less time to waste on boring novels, so if they cease to maintain my interest, I toss them out. And when does this tossing begin? IN THE MIDDLE. I – and most other readers who have gone to the bother and expense of buying a book – do so with the expectation of enjoying it, so it is up to the author to see that his/her work holds up.
Again, this isn’t really the place where I want to go into detail about constructing the middle of a novel, but suffice it to say that this is where everything happens. Events take place, causing the characters to change, and their relationships with one another to develop or disintegrate. Events lead to crises, each more urgent and important than the last, and culminate in a climax that both reveals the true nature of your characters and crystallizes the theme of your story. That’s a lot to say in two sentences, but hey, this is very complex. You can’t trust it to intuition, or common sense, or the inspiration of the moment. You need some solid left-brain material. An outline.
By the way, inspiration is very overrated. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like love. When it happens, you’re on top of the world. But it doesn’t happen that often, and relying on it to get you through a monumental project like a novel is like counting on falling in love every day for the next year. It’s just not likely to happen. For those days when it doesn’t, you’re going to need the outline.
Now an outline is a lot less fun than falling in love. It’s less fun than writing with inspiration. But with an outline, you can still enjoy the inspiration when it comes, but you can also put in a good day’s work when it doesn’t.
Remember: “I don’t have time” usually translates to “I don’t know what to write”. In other words, AN OUTLINE IS YOUR SUBSTITUTE FOR TIME.
This is just a suggestion. It’s something I do.
It takes me a couple of weeks, generally, to make an outline. And because plotting isn’t a particularly fun activity for me (interesting, yes; barrel-o-laughs, no), I like to enlist the help of, well, anyone who’s willing, actually. What I’m looking for are more pebbles in my pond, events that will eventually become a novel. So I tell whomever I’ve chosen to be my fellow plotter all the things I know about the story, and then we’ll toss around “what if” ideas.
Now, not everyone can fulfill the role of fellow plotter (perhaps “story amanuensis” would be more appropriate, but I’m going to refer to these rare and saintly individuals as FPs). It takes a certain kind of personality. Someone creative, first and foremost. Smart. Focused. And – very important -- mentally flexible. Control freaks do NOT make good FPs. You don’t want someone who’ll get angry if you don’t like their idea. Nor do you want someone who just agrees with everything you say. Nor someone who watches so much TV that all their ideas are second-hand. Nor, egad, someone who doesn’t read, because they don’t know plot from Shinola.
But once in a while you’ll come across someone who can immediately grasp the essence of your story – who can, in effect, jump into it at nearly the same depth you can. That’s who you want.
Over the years, I’ve developed friendships with more than one person who fits these stringent characteristics, which is a good thing because I don’t want to wear out my welcome with any of them. And I try not to press too hard, or bore them with plot-itis. But I probably couldn’t write a whole book without them. They turn what is otherwise an utterly solitary occupation into a social vortex. Or at least something that’s a little more fun than sweating over a keyboard by myself, which constitutes the major part of a writer’s life.
But with or without these human blessings, get your outline written before you begin the text of your novel. Because if you know what to say, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to say it. And with an outline, you’ll be able to write anywhere, anytime… Because you’ll know what to say.
So here’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for lo, these many pages: There’s ALWAYS time to write, as long as you HAVE something (immediate) to write, if you WANT to write it, and if you’re WILLING to write. Most of the time, the missing part of that formula is the “HAVING SOMETHING TO WRITE” part.
An outline takes care of that.
A Wee Taste of Outline
Okay, I’ve said that nobody’s going to see your outline except you, but I’ve made an exception here by printing my own outline. It’s to a book I haven’t finished writing yet, the second sequel to my latest, LEGACY. I’m going to call it SEDUCTION, I think.
Anyway, this is what the first few paragraphs of my working outline look like. You may notice that it makes no sense to you. But it does to me, and I’m who I wrote it for.
Peter’s graduation party. Mention Fabby and the four other French bombshells. Fabby is only 15. Also Jeremiah’s second in command, Robert Orville.
KT goes to cooking school in Paris
Peter shows up and invites her to live in the mansion. He has learned that Robert Orville knows nothing about the inner life of the family business. He operates out of New York. Peter, as heir, will have special tasks. He expresses great admiration for Henry Shaw, while disparaging Katy’s barren little room. This is when Katy slips, unwittingly and innocently, into the snare of seduction.
The other witches are not friendly to KT, but love Peter. Intro Sophie, among others, incl. Joelle and Marie-Therese, an older woman. They seem to be overly concerned about safety and beauty. They rarely leave the house. Peter is becoming seduced by the opulent lifestyle. Katy cooks for them all, but no one eats.
Intro Fabby, whom KT meets in the kitchen after KT’s ruined feast. Her mother Sophie doesn’t allow her to cook. Knives! Fire! It’s dangerous. Fabby has potential in astral projection. Her mother and the other witches discourage it, but KT thinks that’s because they don’t believe in witchcraft. Funny scene: While Fabby is practicing, she vanishes, scaring the pants off KT.
By way of contrast, the following is the beginning of the SYNOPSIS of the same work. Remember, the synopsis, unlike the outline, is a selling tool.
The third novel in Molly Cochran’s LEGACY series begins at a lavish high school graduation party for Peter Shaw, courtesy of his rich great-uncle, Jeremiah. Katy Ainsworth, Peter’s girlfriend and the book’s narrator, feels pangs of envy and resentment as Peter is introduced to “important” people and treated royally, while Katy is left to fend for herself. She ends up playing pool with a French girl named Fabienne, one of several Continental beauties whom Jeremiah has invited, who reveals that Jeremiah has taken Peter under his wing because Peter possesses a most desirable talent: He can create gold.
Katy is stunned. Not because Peter has exhibited a magical ability – nearly everyone in the small New England town where they live is a witch – but because Peter had kept this information from her. The upshot of their argument is that Katy decides to move to Paris, to study cooking at the renowned Cordon Bleu while Peter becomes fully involved in his role as Jeremiah’s heir.
As it turns out, though, Peter also ends up living in Paris, in a mansion owned by Jeremiah and filled with “beautiful people” whose main concerns seem to be how they look and what they’ll do for fun.
Guess you’ve noticed that the synopsis is more interesting and better written, huh? That’s because it’s for show. The outline is just to keep me sane.