Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tutorial Tuesday - Outlining the Story



*Spoiler alert.  Examples from Alien Rule give away the ending.*

Writers usually fall into two camps:  those who outline their stories before embarking on the literary journey, and those who jump in headfirst, spilling the tale's guts from the word 'go'.   These two groups are also known as plotters and pantsers (as in writing by the seat of your pants).  If you've read my previous articles, no doubt you've figured out which type I am. 

I require a roadmap to start my journey, even though the destination frequently ends up at a different locale than I originally planned.  My characters decide they have better things to do more often than not.

 Those of you familiar with Alien Rule know how it ended:  a huge fight taking place in a shuttle bay that crescendoed with our heroes and heroine taking out their enemies once and for all.  The original outline called for a dungeon-type setting in which the heroine and one of the heroes were tortured until they managed to thwart their foes.  The revised ending turned out much more dynamic and more satisfying, in my opinion.  And here's where I want to make my biggest point:  no one should be married to the outline they make at the outset.  It's a guide, not the Ten Commandments chiseled in stone.  Your story will evolve. 

So why do I bother with an outline if two-thirds of the way through it becomes moot?  I have a few reasons.  First of all, it provides me inspiration to write every day even if my mood isn't quite up for it.  I never get writer's block.  NEVER.  I credit outlining with keeping me from getting stuck for what's going to happen next.  And when I realize the end of the story has changed, I re-outline so I don't forget which way inspiration is pointing me. 

That's another place outlining saves me.  I forget stuff.  A lot.  I have to write down the sudden brainstorms, or I'll lose really good scenes and their details.  Without my outline, I'm left with that terrible 'it's right on the tip of my tongue' feeling, and I can't always guarantee I'll get that memory back.

Next, it prevents the mid-book crisis.  That's when somewhere in the middle of the story you run out of steam.  You may know how the book will end, but midway through the energy has dropped out, the ideas have dried up, and you're at a loss as to how to get to that curtain call.  You're left flailing around, unable to push your way through without herculean effort.  This is where a lot of authors get lost and will sometimes give up the whole project entirely.  Many books are stillborn at this phase.

Finally, outlining helps to point out where you need to focus on research.  Say you're not the outdoorsy type but a sudden flash of inspiration dictates your main characters fight for survival in the Grand Canyon because their kayak was destroyed in the rapids.  Knowing this during the outlining phase rather than when you're poised to write these newly discovered scenes, you can:  1.   Google kayaking;  2.  Check the television schedule so you know when to watch survivalist Bear Grylls drink his own urine; and 3.  Plan your next vacation to include the Grand Canyon.

Now you don't have to worry about halting the flow of a full-on writing splurge.  Armed with the knowledge of how to survive in the wild until the park rangers arrive, you can write yourself silly when you reach that point in your story because you have the information you need at hand.

Making the Scene

I outline my stories in scenes rather than chapters.  This comes from my experience in writing scripts, in which every scene change demands separation.  I like writing in scenes because it's easier for me to transition from one situation to another.  I switch scenes when there's a change in setting or POV.

Outlining helps guarantee me the required word count for a novel.  I have figured out I usually write over 1000 words per scene.  Some are much longer, others shorter.  But since I know my personal average, I have found that 60 scenes per book will usually give me a total of 63,000 - 100,000 words.  That's a pretty good word count range for a mid- to full length novel, one publishers seem to be happy with.  So that's what I aim for.

Drawn and Quartered

My books are split into four parts.  The first quarter of the book deals with introducing the characters and getting the story's conflict underway.  The second quarter deepens the conflict, setting up a struggle between hero and the villain/situation and perhaps hero versus heroine.  The third quarter gives the story its smoothest sailing, in which while conflict continues to build, there is still the sense that all will be okay in the end.  Then the fourth quarter hits, throwing everything into chaos and threatening the happily-ever-after the readers are rooting for until the stunning climax resolves everything for better or for worse.

This is how Alien Rule mapped out:

First Quarter:  Introduction of Jessica and the Kalquorian Crown Prince Clan.  Highlighting that despite the mutual attraction between Earther and Kalquorians, there is no way Jessica can join the clan.

Second Quarter:  The clan and Jessica fall in love and want to be together more than anything. Conflict and circumstance throw larger and larger hurdles in their path, keeping them apart.  The struggle to overcome these hurdles is highlighted here.

Third Quarter:  Despite continuing obstacles, Jessica and the clan commit to each other, determined to be together no matter what.

Fourth Quarter:  All is lost.  A challenge to Jessica's fitness to be Kalquor's future Empress as well as abduction drive her from the men she loves.  The climactic fight to save her puts the clan in harm's way.

The Super Six - Something Big Happens

Before putting together the whole outline, I determine the pivotal points that the book hinges on.  These are the major scenes that drive the story.  These six main scenes are the opening scene, second quarter opening, middle of the book, fourth quarter opening, climax and end scene. 

Again using Alien Rule, here's how those scenes played out:

Opening Scene:  Looking for a Kalquorian clan to save her from a death sentence on Earth, Jessica performs an exotic dance for members of the alien race, hoping to attract mates.  Crown Princes Clajak, Bevau and Egilka are in attendance.  Despite being betrothed to another woman named Narpok, they are determined to seduce Jessica.

Second Quarter Opening:  Jessica, infatuated with the Crown Princes but refusing to be won by them, is captured by the three men.  The clan takes custody of Jessica so they can enjoy her for the short time they have before taking her to Kalquor to join another clan.

Middle of the Book:  In love with Jessica, Clajak, Bevau and Egilka renounce their unwanted betrothal to Narpok to make the Earth woman their mate despite the trouble they know it will cause.

Fourth Quarter Opening:  Jessica is abducted by the brutal enemies of her clan who plan to take her away from her mates forever.

Climax:  The clan and Jessica engage in a battle to the death against their enemies.

End Scene:  Jessica is formally acknowledged as the clan's mate and Empress of Kalquor.

And Now ... The Rest of The Story

Because I'm aiming for 60 scenes, I know that the Super Six will fall around the following points on my scene list:  Opening is Scene 1, Second Quarter Opening is Scene 15, Middle of the Book falls on Scene 30, Fourth Quarter Opening comes at about Scene 45, Climax is Scene 59, and End Scene is number 60.  These are approximations, obviously.  I have ended up with as few as 54 scenes in my initial outline and as many as 65.  It's a fluid number, changing as the story wills it.

Now I fill in the gaps between the major scenes, creating a list that will guide me along as I write.  I'll give you a rough example of how Alien Rule's first quarter scenes are laid out.

Scene 1, Opening Scene:  Looking for a Kalquorian clan to save her from a death sentence on Earth, Jessica performs an exotic dance for members of the alien race.  The Crown Princes Clajak, Bevau and Egilka are in attendance.  Despite being betrothed to another woman named Narpok, they are determined to seduce Jessica.
Scene 2:  Jessica preps for meeting a Kalquorian, discovers it is the leader of the Crown Prince Clan she will spend the night with.
Scene 3:  Jessica meets Prince Clajak, is seduced, and they make love.
Scene 4:  Next morning Jessica and Clajak make love again, Jessica discovers the clan is already betrothed to another woman, gets in argument with Clajak and storms out.
Scene 5:  Clajak and clanmates argue over royal duties and Clajak's refusal to perform them.
Scene 6:  Jessica meets Prince Bevau who apologizes for Clajak's behavior, he explains monogamy is not expected for a clan until they actually join with their betrothed, the clan's mate-to-be is a spoiled woman they do not like, Bevau and Jessica make love.
Scene 7:  Jessica and friend Michaela practice for upcoming Coming of Age Festival dance.
Scene 8:  Jessica accompanies friends to eatery where she meets the arrogant Prince Egilka, they argue, she storms off, he follows.
Scene 9:  Jessica and Egilka continue argument in the woods, Egilka coerces Jessica into having sex with him, despite the attraction Jessica now refuses to go to Kalquor because the attitudes of Egilka and Clajak have made such a bad impression on her.
Scene 10:  Egilka, Clajak, and Bevau make up with each other, discuss seducing Jessica further and convincing her to come to Kalquor with them.
Scene 11:  Jessica's nightmare, leaves her apartment in the middle of the night for a walk.
Scene 12:  Jessica encounters hostile Earther soldier, evades him.
Scene 13:  Jessica and Clajak have an encounter that ends with their lovemaking, attraction grows but Jessica still refuses to go to Kalquor.
Scene 14:  Jessica and Michaela dance at festival.
Scene 15:  Jessica pursued by Clajak's clan through festival grounds.
Scene 16, Second Quarter Opening:  Jessica, infatuated with the Crown Princes but determined to not be won by them, is captured by the three men who have fallen for her.  The group makes love on an altar in full view during the festival.  The Kalquorians take custody of Jessica, determined to enjoy her for the short time they can before taking her to Kalquor to join another clan.

I know now exactly where I'm going with this story, at least until something better comes along, as it usually does.  Still, every time I sit down at the computer to crank out that day's allotment, I'm never at a loss as to what I'll be writing.  I don't get stuck wondering how I'm getting from point A to point B.  I know what's coming up in the days ahead and if I'm fuzzy on the details, I can be sure to get my research in. 

If you're a pantser who gets bogged down and loses momentum on a regular basis or if you've always wanted to write but don't know where to start, give outlining a try.   It will keep you on track and might just save your story.

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