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NaNoWriMo Special: The Quick and Dirty Outline

WritersdontcryI have a love-hate relationship with outlines. On the one hand, outlines force you to do all the hard parts all at once, up front, which sucks and can take forever. On the other hand—they force you to do all the hard parts at once, up front—helping you avoid pitfalls that might cost you significant word count later, and meaning that once you get to the actual writing, it will be smooth(ish) sailing! Or at the very least, easier than it otherwise would be.

So how do you go from killer idea to awesome outline? First off, it helps to remember that the outline is not the law: it’s more like a guideline, really. The second thing to remember is that writing thingsOutline_big down—and saying them aloud, too—allows different parts of your brain to work on your idea. So, the sooner you start getting bits of your idea down, and the sooner you start talking about it, the more of your brain you can bring to bear on shaping your idea. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first go round—writing it down is part of the process.

There are as many different methods for outlining as there are authors out there. That being said here is one method I’ve used and recommend for quickly and efficiently turning your idea into an outline.

Step 1: Find the Heart of Your Idea

A good first step is to try to put your idea into a one-sentence summary: the legendary elevator pitch. A humble man finds a dangerous, powerful ring. A good, innocent southern girl falls in love with a vampire. An outcast boy who grows up in a dragon-hunting town befriends a dragon. If you don’t have an idea yet, try one of the simple combinations from “Found Objects” in my last post on coming up with ideas.

Obviously, these one-sentence ideas aren’t done yet: they lack the complexity that makes them truly interesting. But you can see how the plot could quickly emerge for each of them by asking and answering simple, Socratic questions. Like, why does a good, innocent southern girl like Sookie Stackhouse fall in love with a bloodsucking vampire? Why, because she’s psychic of course, which makes it hard for her to enjoy the company of others, and you can’t read a vampire’s thoughts. (Of course!). Doesn’t that just open up a whole new can of worms? Which leads us into our next step.

Step 2: Expand on Your Idea

Once you have your core idea, writing more about it will help you pull the threads of your story to the forefront. You can do this any way you please, but one of the simplest ways is to ask questions. Start by stating the heart of your idea, then ask a question about it. Each question and answer ideally opens up more of the plot, cast, and setting, until you have most of the story figured out.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings: A humble man finds a dangerous, powerful ring. Why is that a problem? Because the dangerous, powerful ring would attract those interested in its power, meaning the humble man is now a hunted man. What must he do to be rid of the burden--can he throw it away? No? Why not? Because that those who hunt it would use it to destroy the world he loves. Okay, can he give it away? No? Why not? Because no one else can resist the temptation of the ring’s power without turning evil.

You can also use a tape recorder, and have a friend ask you questions. (Or a five-year-old. As any parent knows, they’re great at this kind of thing.) They can sometimes help you see your idea from a novel perspective, as things that are obvious to you, may not be so to them.

If friends and five-year-olds aren’t available, sometimes an imaginary friend works just as well. One trick I find helpful is using the strong, opinionated voices of established characters to help flesh out a character and plot. The benefit of this method is that it can also help you find your character’s voice. Using that method, the above section might go more as follows:

Frodo: Aaah! Who are you, and what are you doing in my kitchen?
Professor X: No need to be alarmed, Mr. Frodo.
Magneto: We’re here to make sure you make the right choice.
Professor X: What he means is we’re here to help you make the right choice for you.
Frodo: About what?
Magneto: That ring you found. We know others have been hunting you for it. It won’t stop. It will only get worse.
Professor X: It is your destiny to determine the future for us all.
Frodo: My destiny? I’m just a hobbit!
Magneto: Sauron doesn’t care if you’re just a hobbit. He will kill you to get that ring and then destroy all that you care about.
Frodo: That sounds awful! Here, you take the ring! Take it!
Magneto: <reaches>
Professor X: <puts out a staying hand> No, Frodo. We won’t take your ring from you.
Frodo: Please, then help me get rid of it.
Magneto: You can’t get rid of it. Sauron would seize it, and that would be the end of this place. Take the ring and wield it! Use its power to protect the Shire. Why should the good also be the weak?
Professor X: It is not weakness to avoid using the ring. Frodo, do you know what happened to the last hobbit to wear the ring? It twisted him into a pale shell of himself, who killed his best friend. He still lives, tormented by his obsession with the ring.
Frodo: I need to talk to Gandalf. He’d be able to tell me what to do.
Magneto: Do you always do what Gandalf says?
Frodo: Well, he is a wizard, and I’ve known him all my life.
Magneto: He isn’t a hobbit. Or a part of the Shire. How can you trust him to have your best interests at heart?
Professor X: Because he would never take the ring. <pointed look>

Step 3: Put the Pieces In Order

Now that you’ve written a lot about your character, write down your observations, and try to put them in order. The easiest way to do this is to identify the problem, the initial solution to that problem, the resolution to that problem, and the new problem it causes. Rinse and repeat that cycle until you have reached true resolution—the ending of your book. For example, in How to Train Your Dragon:

  1. What is the character’s main problem?
    Hiccup’s not strong enough to be a good dragon hunter, so he doesn’t fit in—not even with his own dad. Also, girls like boys who kill dragons.
  2. What it his solution to this?
    Hiccup is creative and smart—he builds contraptions to catch dragons! And his latest one actually works! He thinks. But no one believes him, so he goes out to prove it.
  3. What is the resolution?
    He finds the dragon! He discovers he likes the dragon, and he learns a lot about dragons from it.
  4. What new problems does this cause?
    His new skill in dragon hunting class attracts a lot of attention, and one of his jealous classmates discovers the dragon…

And that’s it! Pretty easy right? Okay, maybe not. But it’s still should provide you with a solid start. And then it’s time to get writing! Come back next week for tips on how to conquer the blank page blues—be they your first page of your first chapter—or of your twenty-first. Happy writing!

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