Outlines: Storytelling with Structure
I mentioned in my last post that I would touch upon outlining in a future blog post.
This is it!
The thought of outlining once made me groan. It would instantly remind me of the outlines I created while reading textbook lessons about economics and biology. Outlining was what I did when I trudged through the assigned passages while my pen wrote down vocabulary words and who’s who next to capital and lowercase As and Bs.
I’ve come to love these topics, but not because of outlines.
It didn’t seem like such a boring process would fit with a creative medium like fiction writing. I wasn’t even taught to outline my fiction in most of my undergrad and graduate courses. My professors encouraged me to explore the fiction terrain with my words, to write myself out of sticky situations while wearing a blindfold. Only two graduate courses assigned this task, and I didn’t even know where or how to start.
So why do I outline my fiction now?
Because my novel-in-progress wasn’t working. I realized that I was approaching each draft in the same way, and each time I came out with an unsatisfying composition. I needed a new strategy for draft #9, and I was open to new ideas.
So I read Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, and that’s when the epiphany hit me. She argued that the writer should chart out the story starting with the climax (the epic scene with the most tension) and work backwards to the beginning.
Let me explain through the kid-friendly version of Little Red Riding Hood.
The climax is the moment the wolf exposes himself as a wolf in Grandmother’s clothing and eats Little Red Riding Hood.
What happens before that? Little Red Riding Hood is slowly realizing that her Grandmother’s large ears, eyes, nose, and mouth aren’t hers.
What happens before that? Little Red Riding Hood arrives to Grandmother’s house and the wolf pretends to be the grandmother.
What happens before that? The wolf eats the Grandmother and dresses in her clothes.
What happens before that? The wolf convinces Little Red Riding Hood to take the longer route and pick flowers, then heads to Grandmother’s house.
What happens before that? Little Red Riding Hood starts her journey down the path instructed by her mother with her basket of goodies and she meets the wolf.
What happens before that? The mother gives Little Red Riding Hood a basket of goodies to take to Grandmother who is sick.
By going backwards, you can justify the logical steps in action going forward by asking yourself this: what needs to happen beforehand for X to happen?
Since I’ve started outlining my novel-in-progress, I have found outlining to be the solution to the recurring problems of writings past.
Outlines solidify the story structure to your piece. It’s never fun spending a year on a potential novel only to find out that there’s no story to tell in the first place. Do the dirty work now and determine if this story has substance.
Outlines get the technical crafting out of the way. There needs to be a game plan before the play! Get the hard strategizing out of the way so that the creative process can remain creative, fun, and approachable.
Outlines get you excited about writing the piece. Besides plotting out the plot, more ideas on how to make the piece stronger will surface. You should be able to confidently define all your story elements by the end of the task and always know where you’re going with the piece once you start to write.
Lately my writing has not been writing prose but continuing my outline. After eight failed drafts, I’m making sure that my novel-in-progress is not a wolf between two book covers.
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