How to Outline a Story

MCMWednesday, July 28, 2010

I get asked how I prepare for livewriting, and whether or not I outline (and how much), so I thought I'd give you an idea of what's going on at this very moment with Arkady and Kain. And by "at this very moment" I mean "sometime today", because I'm obviously distracted right now.

Outlining is key to livewriting, because (as I discovered during Fission Chips, which wasn't even proper livewriting) creating a story with a mystery component completely on the fly is akin to building a house while blindfolded, drunk, and strapped to a wheelchair with one stuck wheel. You can make a structure, sure, but it will scare most people away. And/or kill you.

Outlining is important, and what's even more important is making sure you give yourself enough time to revise the outline until it's bulletproof. So what I do is dream up my story (usually just two or three scenes) and procrastinate for the better part of two months, until the launch of the livewriting is only days away, and then panic that I haven't done anything yet. Then I sit down at my computer, open a fresh document, and format it until I like the chapter header font. This usually takes two days.

Now, with only five days until launch, it's time to do some serious writing. In the case of Arkady and Kain, there are 31 days to cover, so I make an auto-numbered list and put in 31 spaces. Then I write in the things I know: the first 3 chapters, the last 2, one or two in the middle. At the start, I write the briefest of notes, for instance: "Arrive. Intro. Hijacking. Tomorrow will be a better day." (actual first chapter notes!) Good. Phew. Time for a break!

The next thing I need to do is figure out the character arcs, because without them, there's no point in reading. I look at each major character and determine what they want and how much hell they need to go through to get it. Usually, I know this well in advance, but in most cases, what I THINK I know ends up getting tossed in favour of something I make up along the way. I dream up obstacles, and write a series of chapter notes across the 31 days so that Arkady and Kain both have a miserable time for as long as possible. I try to put these chapters in places that I imagine will create good pacing (have a reversal every few chapters, keep major revelations until the last few chapters for a quick finish), but in the end, I know they're just sketches. They'll change.

Next up, I always consider POV. I know not everyone does this, but to me, sticking with one character's POV for the entire book is a bit boring. I like to "cut away" to defer gratification or build tension. The thing is, some chapters NEED to be from certain characters' POVs, and the back-and-forthing only works when you do it consistently. In other words, if chapter 7 is Kain, chapter 8 needs to be Arkady. And if I really wanted chapter 9 to be Arkady, I need to do some shifting of content. So let's move the front end of chapter 8 into 7, and then the back end of 8 into 9. We've nixed a chapter, but kept the flow!

It's at this point that I realize the story has shrunk to 25 chapters and I'm getting restless, so I start colour-coding chapters in an attempt to make them easier to follow. At at least that's what I tell myself. But in the process of colour-coding, I notice a mention of an otherwise-useless note that gives me a great idea, and I rush back to the start of the story to make reference to it, so the useless note is suddenly a major revelation with hints sprinkled throughout the story. In this way, I justify my colour-coding, and when people ask me "why did you waste time on that?" I can say "o ye of little faith," and smile knowingly.

This is where things start to get hairy. I've got maybe 25 chapters with detail of varying degrees (chapter 1 is now 9 words, chapter 29 is 270). But there are six chapters without anything at all, just colour and the character's name written to help me think of what to do. These are the tricky chapters, because there's a serious danger of them becoming filler. Here's the thing: "make every chapter count" is an important concept, but it's misleading. There's a value in pushing the story or characters forward, but there's also value in taking a break to do something a bit less serious.

But having six chapters as pause chapters will not work, so it's time to think of the subplots again. Have they been under-developed? Why yes they have! Not only that, but there are some subplots that have been started and lost in the shuffle! Time to pull them out of obscurity, put them on a pedestal, and give them their own chapter. Now we're talking!

But wait! There's a problem that I like to call Ken Follett disease: I have too many passionate moments where tiny details are elevated to issues of major importance. It's not that I want to go through the story being bored and half-involved, but I also don't want to lean on the "dramatic music cue" button all the time, or risk tiring out the audience. How many times can characters have serious conversations about similar topics? Time to cut those out, and see what's left...

Ah, right. Six missing chapters again. Different chapters, but six all the time. There are no subplots to investigate anymore, and if anything is added now, it'll show. So instead, look for moments where the protagonists get what they want too easily. In the case of Arkady and Kain, there's a sequence where a key bit of information is revealed through a very reasonable mechanism, but it's also very quick. Change it around so that information needs to be uncovered. And then take the uncovering, and add an obstacle there, too. And then complicate matters by creating resistance to the idea of uncovering anything at all. Spread all this across multiple chapters, and bury some hints about it much earlier in the book. And now there are only two chapters left!

Now remember at the start where I said I needed to have the character arcs figured out? Well, by this point, the character arcs are dead. They're still there, but you can barely see them. Some of the distractions also suggest character arcs beyond what I intended, and it'll just look like a mess to the reader. So now I go back and trim back the extraneous bits until the story seems tight, and the arcs are strong. And then I allow myself two chapters to reinforce the character arcs I've been working on, but mostly to be silly and have fun. (Incidentally, those two chapters are the ones I will have the most trouble writing when the time comes, because they'll never make as much sense to me as the rest. Also, those chapters tend to be the most popular with readers. Go figure.)

Now there's a 3,000-word outline ready to go. I read it over five or six times to make sure the flow is good and the characters come across clearly and the plot... isn't... confusing. Damn. The plot is confusing. Worse than confusing, it's just really damn obscure. Fine. Fine! This will take some serious work to fix, and so there's only one thing to do:

Write a blog post about outlining.

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