Friday, September 21, 2007

Outlines, outlines

I'm a firm believer in outlining your story. There are a few successful writers out there who don't outline - Stephen King for example. Aaron Sorkin in TV (although Studio 60 could've benefited from some outlining, in my humble opinion.) And many writers resist outlining with all their might. "It messes with my creative process." "I get inspired as I write!" And on and on. Either these folks have a natural feeling for structure and what works in a story. Or their stuff meanders, wanders, offers up dry patches, and gets repetitive. They don't realize that outlining stirs your creativity - it helps you find out exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. It's the opposite of confining - it points the way, but also offers endless possibilities.

I don't think JK Rowling outlines. She's brilliant in her own way, don't get me wrong. But Book VII of Harry Potter got seriously dull there in the middle when the kids were camping the woods for months on end. A good outline will prevent that sort of thing by identifying it early in the process, giving you the chance to fix it before you spend all that time writing it. Once you spend days/weeks/months writing several chapters, it's a lot harder to just chuck them or even to give them a big overhaul. So outline!

I just finished a preliminary 15-page outline for the first novel in my proposed teen series, and a two-page 8-sequence outline for my TV spec. Victory!

The 8-sequence idea comes from Pilar's screenwriting class at On The Page, and I don't want to steal her stuff, so I won't detail it here. I ended up using it on my novel too. I'd already done the 15 page outline, but I went back and did a smaller, 8-sequence "beat sheet" (as they call it in the film/TV biz) in two pages, just to make sure that the structure of the outline worked. After all, you can do outlines until you're blue, but what good are they if you don't assess them and revise them in order to see what works? The good news - my outline works. I think. But the smaller 8-sequence beat sheet made me realize that I had a major turning point for my character lurking in there that I hadn't really zeroed in on. I've seen this in other people's writing too. A big, life-changing event occurs to the protagonist, and the writer just slides right past it, barely taking note. Beat sheets, outlines, structure - they all help you identify these moments.

The basic idea is that your character has a goal. (I need to buy milk to put on my cereal.) The character does something about that goal. (I walk to the store.) Complications ensue. (At the store, I drop the carton of milk, and the cute grocery clerk helps me clean it up, and it's love at first sight.)

From those complications, a new goal emerges (I want this guy to ask me out), the character takes action, (I return to the store the next day with my best friend to scope him out and flirt) , and another complication ensues (we meet him, we flirt, but he asks my best friend out instead of me). And so on. Now add on top of that, a structure - like the Hero's Journey, or Syd Field's 3-Act template, or Pilar's Eight-Beat template, and you've got a story.

The Hero's Journey is famous, but the basic idea is that a certain structure underlies the myths that last through the ages. This structure is useful in shaping a modern day story that will really work well for a modern day audience - and for future audiences. That structure is basically:

1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline.
2. A road of trials, in which the hero succeeds or fails.
3. Achieving the goal or "boon," which often results in important self-knowledge.
4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail.
5. Application of the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world.

As Campbell said in his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Your story doesn't have to involve supernatural forces for this structure to work. Almost every successful story you can think of, whether it's The Wizard of Oz, Chinatown, or The Great Gatsby, fits.

So now I'm off to write my huge, formatted outline for my novel. It'll be anywhere from 50 - 100 pages and really be a sort of first draft. And I'm also off to work out the scenes of my TV spec and get a more detailed outline for that. When I sit down to write these pieces, I'll know what I'm doing. New ideas will occur to me, and revision to the outline will occur. But I've got a map. Now I can figure out which path between point A and point Z I want to take. I usually favor the scenic route.

I'm off to England next Thursday. Yep. England. Two days in London, then a farm in Nottinhamshire, then York. I'm a lucky so-and-so, aren't I? But I'll be writing during the down times, taking that big fat notebook so I can keep moving forward. And perhaps do research for the next book!

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