HAVE A PLAN: THE OUTLINE

 

NOTE:  IF YOU’RE NEW TO THIS BLOG, GO TO THE “PLOT” SECTION AND BEGIN READING.  THAT WAY EVERYTHING WILL BE IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER.  THANKS.  ENJOY!

Now that I have my fantasy story in mind, have a character that’s reasonably well thought out, and have a crackerjack ending in mind that Hollywood might not die for but would at least respect, I have to put the story all together before I start writing.  This is the most creative aspect of the story in giving the tale form, and the part that I love the most.

Assembling a story, which is what you’re doing — although the art crowd will probably protest that this is too pedestrian, is deceptive.  It takes a certain amount of imagination as well as recognition of rules and acknowledgement of reader expectations.

Let me address the art crowd first, the “pantsers” as they like to call themselves.  They believe in throwing characters into a conflict and sorting them out as they go.  They feel that they’re more organic this way, that their characters (all made up and put on the same two-dimensional paper) are somehow more “real” than someone that assembles the story arcs and action before sitting down to work.  (Personally, I think they’re afraid of the boring aspects of the writing, which is sitting down and finishing.)

I’ll illustrate the process in a way that may make sense for you.  Let’s say we want to make a pair of shoes.  We know we want to make shoes.  As a professional cobbler (I’m not, that’s why there are elves), I know the tools I’m going to need to make these shoes:  something to cut them out, something to sew the pieces together, something to punch the eyelets, something to use for strings, thread to sew, possibly color, etc.

Since I’m a professional, I’ll go to my toolshed and bring out all the tools I know I’ll need.  So (sew?) they’ll be close to hand.  Once I get started working, I don’t want to be interrupted going back and forth for things that I knew I needed before I sat down.  Once I’m sitting, I can work, I can give myself over entirely to the process, and I don’t have to figure out where anything is or what I’m going to need next because I already know from past experience.

Occasionally, there may be some surprises.  I may have to go back to the toolshed for some problem that crops up, some extra tool to polish up a piece of the work, a different kind of thread to hold things together.  That sort of thing.  But the point is, I’m limiting my trips back and forth to the toolshed and allowing myself to get fully immersed in the creative of the product (yeah, PRODUCT, not ART).

Pantsers I have known have started to work, then had to go back to the toolshed constantly.  They didn’t know the characters was going to need this bit of knowledge — have to figure out how the character knew that.  They didn’t know they were going to end up in Baton Rouge during the course of the story — have to go research Baton Rouge.  They didn’t know the character was going to need to repair an elevator — hmm, there are four different kinds of ways to move elevators (see TYPES OF HOIST MECHANISMS).

The point is, they have to get to the same place I am when I start.  Except that they take longer to finish out the piece they’re working on because they’re so busy running back and forth to figure things out.  (There are exceptions to this rule, but I’m speaking generally.)

I still have to figure all those things out, but I invest all that time up front.  I figure out what I need to know and I learn it before I need to know it.  That way all the research is quick to hand (internet links, printed pages, books I’ve read and marked for reference).

Let me bring this point home.  Let’s say you’re out on a date (doesn’t matter what sex because you’re the one trying to deliver on this fantastic date — which is what you’re doing as an author, by the way).  You want to impress this person, win this person over, show this person how good you can be at dating.  More than anything, YOU WANT TO ENJOY THE DATE YOURSELF.  Dating isn’t just for the other person.  It’s supposed to be good for you too.  If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.

So during the date, you keep discovering the things you forgot.  Dinner’s on the table, where’s the silverware?  Glasses are on the table, where’s the beverage of your choice?  You’re ready to eat, where are the candles?  It’s a special moment, where are the flowers or the card?

See?  The date still gets accomplished and the other person probably has a wonderful time, but YOU’RE NOT RELAXED AND ENJOYING IT.

When I date/write, I want to be able to concentrate fully on the experience.  Not the things I forgot or left out or could have done differently.  I figure that out before I sit down to write or put my wife in the car.  (I also work to keep things fairly simple in writing and in dating because making things complicated when there’s no reason to can lead to a whole new pack of woes.)

Either I’ve made my case or I haven’t.  Some people just love misery.

Since this fantasy story with the zombie ship is a short piece, I figure I’m going to need from one (no way to do less) to five scenes.  I’m either writing a straight 5000 word shot, or I’m going to break it down potentially into five 1000 word segments — generally for pacing and effect, but we’ll get to that.

So I take my seat (not writing the story yet, see?) and put on my director’s hat.  If I was going to film this story, what would I SHOW?  Not TELL, SHOW.  Very important to today’s readers.

Scene 1:  I’ve got to intro the hero and the setting.  Because I want to seize the reader’s interest immediately (to pay off on that snazzy title I’ve yet to come up with), I’ll intro the character with problems.  Here this guy is, down in the hold of the ship to count cargo because THINGS HAVE BEEN DISAPPEARING.  While he’s there’s, WATER SLOSHES OVER HIS BOOTS (this was kind of normal because boats weren’t exactly water-tight back in the day) and we’re aware that THE SHIP COULD SINK because there’s a STORM BREWING OUTSIDE.  While that’s going on, he has to WONDER IF HE’S GONNA GET STABBED by the crew.  Then he discovers THE SHIP HAS A STOWAWAY.

See?  That’s attention getting.  And it’ll make the readers wonder what’s going to happen next.  I hope.

Scene 2:  (I’m going to break when he has the stowaway at swordpoint, then bring the lantern in closer to discover that it’s a girl), our hero gets the girl’s story.  Her father had arranged a marriage for her and she had to escape.  The PROBLEM?  The father is one of our hero’s biggest clients on this voyage.  Do you see how his life is screwed?  Plus, he has to keep the crew from putting their hands on her and protect his reputation later because the girl could say he did THINGS to her so she’s not as valuable as a bride to her father’s business associate (pervert).  While he’s trying to figure out what to do about that, the MYSTERIOUS SHIP arrives in the SUDDEN FOG.  (cue spooky music.)

Scene 3:  Our hero (still nameless, notice) spots the ship, sees the ZOMBIES, and knows they have big trouble.  Intro the local legend of the zombies.  Haunted/cursed waters since the recent war.

Scene 4:  The battle begins.  The zombie ship pulls ALONGSIDE and the two crews FIGHT.  LOSSES happen.  They discover they can’t outrun the ship.  Our hero figures out his last desperate gamble.

Scene 5:  To underscore how screwed they are and explore the possibilities.  Throwing cargo overboard?  Not enough time.  Outrunning them?  Never gonna happen.  Hero comes up with his plan and reveals it.  Crew thinks he’s crazy, braver than they thought, but crazy.

Scene 6:  Hero swings over to zombie ship, has problems falling through yardarms and fights zombies, and DEPOSITS BOMB.  Swings back to his ship just as zombie ship BLOWS UP.   Hero survives and wins support of crew.

Notice that the first two scene descriptions are longer.  Had to have those to list all the background info I wanted to put in and how I wanted to add it.  Also missing:  the crew spokesperson.  I figure a harder, older man who believes he should have been captain of the ship.  As it turns out, he’s not as clever as our hero and learns that.  He’s a good follower, but he’s not good at figuring things out.

Try to keep your scene list short and choppy.  If you can get it all on one page, even a novel, you’re doing great.  You just want a laundry list.  You’ll have other documents to help pull all the pre-planning together.

So I’ll write this and send it in.  The beautiful thing is that it can also be the first two chapters of a novel if I decide I like the character enough and want to see what he’s going to do about delivering the cargo and dealing with the beautiful stowaway.  I’m already noodling that idea around.  🙂

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