Outlining and Other Mysteries – Part 2

Last time I reported on what to put into your outline.  This time I’m going to talk about how to take that outline and start turning it into a story by creating your synopsis.  Once again, I learned this all from a lecture at the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat, given by Mary Robinette Kowal – credit where credit is due.  Credit is further due to Orson Scott Card, who discusses mice and other things in his books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

OK, so now that’s done, I’ll get into the meat of this stuff.  Wait.  Did I say that Scott Card discusses… mice?  Hmm.  Yes, I suppose I did.  That’s obviously a mistake on my part.  Neither he nor Mary ever mention mice.  What they do talk about, however, is the M.I.C.E. quotient.

You might think that sounds like a super-secret spy organization that James Bond might encounter, but the reality is far more interesting to a writer (if not as exciting).  M.I.C.E. stands for Mileau, Idea, Character, and Event.

  • Mileau stories are about a location.  Alice in Wonderland is a good example; the entire plot and story of that book revolves around a strange land and its stranger inhabitants.
  • Idea stories start with a question.  “What would happen if..?”  Aimee Bender’s The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake is an idea story: “What if a little girl could sense people’s emotions by eating the food they make?”
  • Character stories are about a specific person or persons.  These stories are less concerned with where (or when) people are, and more with who they are.  Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, fits into this category.
  • Event stories center on an occurrence, on something specific that has happened.  Off the top of my head, the best examples I can think of for this are disaster stories;The Towering Inferno,The Day After Tomorrow, etc.

The sharp-eyed among you (which I expect is all of you) will note that all my examples are longer stories.  Short stories will generally be nearly all one kind of story or another.  Any longer story, like a novel, will almost certainly contain multiple quotients nested within one another.  This is perfectly fine to do, as long as you keep them nested properly: events happen within the character quotient story, or location quotient stories happen within the larger framework of the idea quotient story.  Be sure to resolve the inner quotient before resolving the containing one.

The M.I.C.E. quotient can tell you what your story is.  Take a look at the outline you created after Part 1, and ask yourself what kind of story you’re writing.  Consider your story from each of the four quotients: which one is the MOST applicable?  Which one does your story fit into the best?  Remember that every story will have elements of each.  You’re looking for the one with the largest scope. My example from last time, Broken, is an event story – it centers around the plane crash.  Everything that happens in the story revolves around that one event.

Now that you know what quotient your story is, you can start asking questions about how the story progresses.  In fact, you can think of your story as a progression of questions.  Who has the most to lose?  (That question can tell you what Point of View to take, too!),  What does your character want or need?, etc.  To be really, really effective, make sure that each question can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, and have each answer lead into the next question.  For example, my string of questions from Broken:

The plane has crashed.  Did anyone survive?  Yes, but… one of them has a broken leg.  Can she get out of the wreckage?  No, and… they’ve crashed in the mountains above the snow line, so it’s very inhospitable outside.  Can they survive inside the plane?  Yes, but… only for a short time.  Are there rescue teams looking for the crash?  Yes, but… the black box is broken.  Can the survivors fix it?  Yes, but… the one who can fix it can’t get to the box.  Can anyone else?  Yes, but… it’s the girl with the broken leg.  Does she succeed?  Yes.

That’s a bit abbreviated, of course, but you get the idea.  You’ll note that every answer except the final one has a condition.  “Yes, but…” or “No, and…” are the answers you want to every question.  Each time it will lead you into the next situation, the next conflict, and make the story progress smoothly until the end.  Now, look at what you’ve just done.  Do you know what that is?  Yes, that’s right – it’s your synopsis.

So now you have both an outline and a synopsis!  And we also have an end to this blog post.  Next time, in the third and final installment of this series, I’ll talk about putting the two together and building the actual story.  In the meantime, use the same stories that you created outlines for last time and make a synopsis for them.  How does it inform the story?  Where do you have disconnects in the progression of questions, and what questions/answers are missing or unnecessary in the existing story?

While you’re at it, make an outline and create a synopsis for a story idea you haven’t yet put down on paper or pixel, so you have something new to look at as you read the third post in “Outlining and Other Mysteries”.



Filed under The Written Word

3 responses to “Outlining and Other Mysteries – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Outlining and Other Mysteries – Part 1 | mugsters

  2. Thanks for sharing the tips, Anthony! I will definitely give them a try. I really like the idea of the open ended questions that then lead on to the next question. It seems like a good way to analyze where the flow breaks down in a current story.

  3. Pingback: Outlining and Other Mysteries – Part 3 | mugsters

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