Ah, the mysterious outline! What is it for? When is it useful? How can I best employ it to improve my writing, and – let’s be honest – is it really necessary?
All these questions were absolutely not anywhere in my mind when I sat down at the 2012 Rainforest Retreat to hear Mary Robinette Kowal’s lecture on outlining. By the end of it, though, I knew the answers to all those questions. I’ll answer the second and fourth questions now: “Always”, and “Yes”. The first and third questions will hopefully be answered in the rest of this post and its sequel, where I’ll regurgitate what I learned in Mary’s lecture.
Let’s start with a definition, a general idea of what the outline is. Think of it as a road map to decide the overall shape of your story. It’s not the absolute story, though. You’re not going to get everything in there on the first go-round. There are going to be detours on this road map, dead ends, construction, all sorts of things. Here’s another analogy. When an artist sits down to draw a picture, she first draws out a rough sketch – blocking out the position of the major elements. After that the details start to get worked out, finer lines are drawn, and changes made. The final product comes after that. To illustrate, check out this page from George Coghill’s illustration blog, where he goes through the steps he took to create an image of a monk and a beer keg.
Think of the outline as that first rough sketch. The intervening drawings, where the details are coming out, are the equivalent of your synopsis and your first drafts.
Include the following things in your outline.
- The background. This is where you start, of course. This is the gee-whiz idea, the basic concept of the story.
- Your character(s). Who are they?
- What are the implications of the gee-whiz idea? What’s going to happen to make the situation worsen?
- How *else* could it get worse?
- What do the character(s) want?
- Why can’t they have it?
- What other elements are there?
- What is the overall tone of the story?
- How does it end?
I’ll give you an example, culled from the first story I wrote when I started back up again in 2010. The story is called Broken, and I did not do an outline for it when I wrote it. I would have, though, if I’d known any of this at the time – so please bear with me while I travel back in time 18 months or so and do it now. If you’re a MUGster who doesn’t remember Broken (or haven’t read it at all!) and would like to read it to compare with this outline, please let me know.
- Broken is a classically themed ghost story, where the living character(s) don’t realize that there’s a ghost until the very end of the story. It’s set in the wreck of an airplane crash, high in the mountains.
- There are two characters – Simon, a British aerospace engineer who lost his sister in a car crash on his 21st birthday, and Yukio, a Japanese student who is flying to London for a student exchange program.
- Everyone else in the plane is dead, killed in the crash, and they are trapped in the plane by snowdrifts. Worse yet, the ‘black box’ isn’t transmitting a locator beacon, so it is likely that they will not be found.
- Yukio’s leg is broken. It’s very cold, so they could freeze to death. If they’re trapped for too long, they will run out of airplane food and have to resort to cannibalism. Even in the high altitude the bodies could rot, making an already horrific situation even more unbearable.
- Simon wants to take care of and rescue Yukio, as redemption for not being able to save his sister. Yukio simply wants to go home, although in a minor way she also wants to understand why she has survived when so many others died.
- Though he believes he can get the locator beacon started again, Simon cannot get into the undercarriage of the plane where the black box is housed – the only way is far too small for him to fit. Yukio can’t leave the plane as she has a broken leg.
- Flickering emergency lights, gore from the dead passengers, cold temperatures, scattered detritus from food carts and carry-on luggage.
- The overall tone is tense, a little suspenseful, with some sad notes. Could be creepy, even frightening.
- The story ends with the ghostly reveal and the rescue team arriving at the crash site.
So there’s a basic outline of the story. It covers all the parts of the story, including a few that didn’t make it into the final draft. It gives me some great ideas about how I might revise Broken some more, improving bits and pieces here and there.
I think that’s enough for now. In Part 2, I’ll talk about how to take your outline and start turning it into a synopsis, and then into a finished story. In the meantime, try taking a couple of stories that you’ve already written and create outlines for them. While you do that, think about what you were envisioning when you first sat down to write that story, and include all of that in your outline as well. Also add in anything new that you come up with. Does that give you ideas on how you could improve that piece?