Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Outlining and Story Structure

I'm a discovery writer, aka gardener, meaning I generally don't do a lot of outlining before I jump into writing.  I prefer to start with a situation and some characters, and then see where things go from there.

But that doesn't mean that outlining has no place in my writing process.

In my current project, for example (my novel [very] tentatively titled Before the Dark), I've already discovery written the first draft.  I didn't have an outline when I wrote it.  I had a vague idea of where I wanted things to end up, but even those ideas were blown out of the water by what actually ended up happening pretty organically.  But, now that I'm tackling the revisions and trying to produce a coherent second draft, I'm running into some difficulties.  Most of those difficulties are of an organizational nature.

So, I've turned to outlining after-the-fact.

This may seem completely backwards to many of you (and for many of you, it probably is--writing is relative, after all), but for me this technique often solves many of those organizational issues.  Getting my ideas out there, in the first draft, is often the easy part compared to organizing them into some sort of recognizable story in the second draft.  The same was true for me when writing academic papers as well, and I used this outlining technique often when I was in school, for research papers and short stories and even with some of my essays.

I was actually pretty resistant to using this technique this time around, though.  And, now that I think about it, I usually whine a bit or put up some sort of pathetic, pouty fight before succumbing to the idea.  A part of me still wants to believe in the purity of the muse, I think, and keep that dream alive.  But the pragmatist in me knows how silly that is, and knows how much more important hard work and tenacity are than what little inspiration my muse has ever really given me.

I'll admit, I've never outlined anything remotely this large before (my novel currently sits at 190k words).  I had to approach it a few different ways before I finally found a method that worked for me.  But when I finally found a method that worked, things really took off.

I'd heard the folks over at Writing Excuses* mention a 7-point outline before, but hadn't put much stock into it because, hey, I'm a discovery writer and should despise outlines by nature, right?  Wrong.  At least I was.  So I realized my transgression, repented, and took the 7-point story structure idea for a spin.

I've been very pleasantly surprised by the results.

A bit about the structure itself:  Dan Wells is the one who has sort of commercialized the form, it seems (although he admits he stole the idea from a role playing game manual ... O.o).  He has a brief explanation and a link to a great power point presentation here, and I'll also post the first video in a youtube series, in which he presents said outline, below.   All in all it's great stuff, but here's the basic structure of the outline:

  1. Hook - where things begin (usually the polar opposite of the Resolution)
  2. Plot Turn 1 - introduce conflict
  3. Pinch 1 - something goes wrong, bad guys attack, general peace is destroyed
  4. Midpoint - where character decided to start ACTing instead of REACTing
  5. Pinch 2 - apply more pressure:  a plan fails, mentor dies, bad guys seem to win, etc.
  6. Plot Turn 2 - the "final piece to the puzzle" of the character's struggle
  7. Resolution - where things are, well, resolved--it's what the story has been working towards the whole time!
I won't go into a lot of detail because Mr. Wells explains things much better than I could (check out the links if you want more info!  Seriously!).  It's pretty elementary stuff, and honestly it seemed a bit too rudimentary for me, to begin with (I don't know why I thought that, other than my own stupid pride).  But as I applied it to my story, things sort of just fell into place.

Of course, my whole novel doesn't boil down to one simple 7-point outline.  Each of my main characters actually has one 7-point outline to themselves, and some characters even have more than one outline addressing various conflicts.  So even though the form itself seems simple, things can get complicated pretty fast, which was good considering Before the Dark is much more complicated than I ever intended it to be.

The good news is that I'm pretty much finished with the outlining process at this point, and I feel pretty good about it.  I already feel much more direction and purpose regarding my revisions.  I'm excited to get back into the swing of things and make this thing into a real, cohesive novel.

I'm also a full advocate of the 7-point story structure form, now, which is something I never thought I'd be.  But there you go.  Something new every day!

*  A phenomenal podcast about writing.  If you're at all interested in the craft, you should check out a few episodes.

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