Posts Tagged how to structure a story

How to outline a book without killing the fun of writing it

Do you write with an outline? I was asked this by another writer at a book event last weekend. ‘I like outlines,’ she said, ‘and I don’t like them. I want to know where I’m going. But if I make a scene-by-scene breakdown, I find I’m not interested in writing the complete book.’

I thought it was worth a post.

Because I believe outlines don’t have to kill your interest in the book.

The minimalist

You could try the barest possible directions – an opening, a pivotal middle and a surprising but elegant solution at the end. Those three markers might be enough to keep you on piste and still let you explore.

Certainly I’m not a person who can tolerate boredom or predictability. If a writing session hasn’t confounded my expectations in some way, I’m disappointed. Yet I’m a fan of detailed outlines. Indeed, I find they don’t stultify or restrict at all.  Au contraire.

I think it’s because planning is not the same mindset as drafting. Drafting is experiencing the story moment by moment – and that’s when the surprises come. Here are some examples.

The detailist

  • Immerse in a description and you discover certain practicalities that add more life to a scene.
  • As you build a location, you realise it forms a resonance with what’s going on. You might then make your characters use it more frequently.
  • As you flesh out a set-piece of dialogue, you realise it won’t work the way you assumed because there’s an interesting hitch in the characters’ attitudes to each other. Their reluctance to follow your orders – or vice versa – which you have not felt until this moment, opens rich possibilities.
  • You might try to write a piece of action that seemed straightforward. But you realise you need more of a build-up. Or you know the character would do it but they need a stronger reason. Or maybe they won’t do it at all. Or maybe they do it and it’s not interesting enough.

All these moments seemed clear and logical in the outline. But everything might change when you’re with the characters breath by breath.

So I find that outlines are like a question. I think the character might do this? I put it in the plan and find out.

How to write a novel slowly and carefullyWhat vs how

If the outline is most concerned with the ‘what’, the draft is interested in the ‘how’. And ‘why’. And whether the reader will care. If you like that kind of work – and I do – you might find outlines are not a hindrance but a stimulating provocation .

Here’s some provocation in action. Here’s where I wrote about a major twist I fell over in the first draft of Ever Rest. I had not considered it – even remotely – until I wrote something from the outline and decided it wasn’t enough. The characters had a sudden rebellion that kicked everything over. Amazingly, it worked very well with the rest of the book.

But why bother with an outline?

You might ask, why bother with the outline if it’s so likely to change? What’s all that planning for? I’m asking myself that. My gut reaction is that I need an outline or I’ll bolt madly off into my imagination and never finish.

But actually, there’s a good underlying reason. It’s structure.

Stories work by structure. Resonances, crescendos, misdirection, clue-planting. That’s what you’re really building when you work on an outline – a structure that is robust. And when you’ve done that, you understand what you can easily change, what the fallout will be and whether you’ll need other elements.  There’s a lot more about structure in my plot book.

Your outline, your way

We’re all different. So this is the real secret. Write the kind of outline that gives you a star to follow, and makes sure you don’t forget the important steps, but still leaves you plenty to discover and enjoy.

Psst… There’s more about outlining in the original Nail Your Novel.

Psst 2… Outlining is one of the ways to nail Nanowrimo. Here’s my post of resources for that

Psst 3… If you’re curious to know how Ever Rest is doing, this is my latest newsletter.

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A conversation about story structure – and writing rules

Become a native in the world of your storyThis post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?

Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:

‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:

‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’

It happened I knew just the man…

‘Husband @MirabilisDave is a comic writer, however it’s not an ongoing story but a big story split into many episodes.’

mirabdaveThen Dave said:

‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’

Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…

But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’

He said:

In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’

Phew.

3 and 4-act structure

In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.

Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.

mirabBack to rules

… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.

This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.

Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler

Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?

ebookcovernyn3Update December 2014: The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?

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