Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Outlining--Shannon Style

Since everyone seemed to enjoy the peek into my critiquing method last week, I thought I'd start a new weekly post series, giving you guys a glimpse of my approach to various writing elements/processes. But fair warning: my head is a crazy place to be. Enter at your own risk. :)

So today I thought I'd tackle my approach to outlining. And those of you that know me are probably thinking, "WHAT???? You hate outlining!!!!!!!" Which is true. Well...actually, "hate" isn't really a strong enough word. I loathe and despise outlining with the intensity of a thousand fiery suns, and nothing--for me--guarantees a dull, lifeless draft more than outlining the darn thing ahead of time.

But...I'm not totally a pantser either. I'm a connect-the-dotser.

I am way too OCD to just jump into a draft with no idea where I'm going or what I'm doing. So I do a lot of brainstorming before I start (in a very organized way--I'll show you guys my brainstorming method in another post). And part of that brainstorming is what I like to call a "loose outline."

Here's what I HAVE to know before I can start a draft:
  • Starting point
  • Inciting incident
  • Major turning point
  • Major turning point
  • Major turning point
  • Hopelessness
  • Climax
  • Resolution
Okay, so let's look at those one by one.

Starting point: My best guess at where the story should start. I'm usually wrong, and end up changing it later, but I pick the most logical place I can and work from there. Note: my goal is to always come into the story as late as possible. I want my inciting incident be less than 20 pages away from my starting point. Preferably 10.

Inciting Incident: Now, obviously, some stories follow a more untraditional plot structure, but most of what I write tends to be fairly plot driven. Which means at some point something needs to change for the character to really get the plot started--and the sooner it happens the better. (For example: in THE HUNGER GAMES, the Inciting Incident would be when Prim's name is drawn and Katniss volunteers to take her place.)

Major Turning Points: These can also be called "complications" or "reversals of fortune." Basically, I'm an evil writer, and I like to make sure nothing goes easily or smoothly for my characters. So I want to plan at least three major turning points for them along their journey to make them really struggle. I usually do way more than three--though several of those will be "minor" or sub-plot related--but the rest I like to leave up to the drafting process. I won't start until I have three awesome ones planned though.

Hopelessness: Have I mentioned that I'm an evil writer? Well, I am. In my screenwriting training we were taught that it was absolutely essential to push the main character to the point of "hopelessness"--and it's exactly what it sounds. Strip the character of pretty much everything they care about, make it seem like there's absolutely no possible hope for any sort of resolution, and then hit them one more time right where it counts, just to seal the deal. So I try to figure out the big things I'm going to rip away from my poor characters, and some idea of how I'm going to do it, before I dive in.

Climax: Usually follows the "hopelessness"--or, sometimes is wrapped up in the "hopelessness"--but we all know what this is. It's where everything that's been building comes to a head and boils over. The character must now face the problem head on. I absolutely cannot start writing a book until I know this, because it's the spot on the horizon that I'm driving the story to. My goal. I may not know exactly how I'm going to get there, but I have to be able to see where I'm headed. Otherwise I'll get hopelessly lost in the weeds and never find my way back out.

Resolution: I don't have to know all the specifics of the ending, but I do need to know whether it's going to be happy or sad, what the character is going to lose, what they're going to gain, and what major plot lines I'm going to tie up. But a lot will change as I power through the draft, so I try to stick to just the basics, that way I allow plenty of room for the plot to evolve.

I know that may seem like a pretty detailed outline, but it's really not. Usually it's about a 1-2 page document by the time I'm done. All I'm doing is giving the story its spine, and marking all the "dots" I need to "connect" as I write. It's a far cry from the scene. by. scene. act. by. act. 30-page outlines we had to do in film school. And that's what I want--because those outlines KILL my creativity.

For me--it's impossible to tell if a "small" scene is important until I let it play out on the page. It's too easy to say, "oh, nothing important will happen there, so lets skip to something bigger," and end up skipping all the good, fun moments that become everyone's favorite scenes. I *almost* made that mistake with my current MS, and if I hadn't changed my method, everyone's favorite character wouldn't exist. (True story. I'll share it someday, once I'm able to talk about my book online.)

But I also need some sort of structure to keep me from rambling all over the place. So that's why I've come up with this hybrid, Shannon-style method of outlining. It keeps me organized enough to not veer too far off course. But it gives me the freedom to let the story unfold more organically, so I can have those wonderful "gifts" and "surprises" that only come when writing freely, without preplanning. It's the best of both worlds. For me, at least.

What about you guys: do you outline? If so, how detailed are your outlines? And if not, do you do any preplanning, or do you just dive in blind? It's fascinating to hear about everyone's process. :)

38 comments:

  1. I always outline, but I don't think of it in terms of major twist or climax. I always run through the storyline in detail in my head, like watching a movie, then when I'm done, I write up a scene-by-scene outline, tweaking the details to make it exciting and natural.

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  2. I've only written one novel, so I can't claim it will always be the same, but I do outline. Mine is much looser and less detailed than yours, but it does contain major plot points and character development ideas. I like leaving a little room for things to change.

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  3. I've only written one manuscript and a partial. I outlined as I went. I'm thinking ahead to a totally new project and I'm going to be outlining before I start to keep on track better. I don't have all the turning points or the end yet so I can't start it. I think your method is great.

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  4. Now this is an outline method I can get on board with. Not too complicated... not scene by scene. Just a general idea. I like!

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  5. I like how you refer to it as connecting the dots. I hate outling, but I like having a rough idea where the story is going. Thanks again for sharing!

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  6. Thanks so much for sharing your outlining method. This post couldn't have come at a better time, because I'm restructuring my book (with the new female protag replacing the one I fired). I slugged through the tedium of a detailed outline the first time through, using the Snowflake Method. It's all well and good, that method, but what happens when you make a major, story-altering decision? 80% of all that hard work goes in the "cut" folder. I like your method because it organizes you without pigeon-holing the plot. Thanks!!!!

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  7. Very similar to what I do. And it works. Thanks for sharing! :)

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  8. Okay, that's where I start, but I do go a bit further than that with outlining. But I think that's the way for pantsers to outline. Thanks for sharing! And great chat last night. It was great to get a feel for an agent who isn't online much.

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  9. I pretty much do everything you mentioned, but I don't write it down. Everything stays in my head. I guess it's pretty dangerous because I could end up forgetting something, but I never really do. Although, it is one of the reasons I can't work on more than one book at once. Too much stuff going on in my head makes for one confused Emily!

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  10. Very cool to see your process. I'm a hardcore writer's-process junkie. Not sure why, but my heart gets all fluttery when I see a post on a writer's process. It's a sickness, I tell ya.

    Another of my sicknesses - outlining. My current WIP has a 45 page outline. My characters hate me for it. I'm trying to lighten up. :)

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  11. I don't outline on paper but have the conflict and resolution in my head. Then I'm a pantser.
    I should try outlining though for my next one. It might be a quicker process!

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  12. Wow, my process looks a lot like yours. I have to know the inciting incident, the major plot points, and the ending before I start writing. Then the pantser in me comes out as I work from one milestone to the next. Three characters that I never planned to have came about because of that.

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  13. This is such a great method. I need to work more on bringing my character to the point of hopelessness--that advice helps me a lot!

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  14. WOW. I can only read this in AWE!!! Seriously. I'm so thoroughly ashamed to say that I'm a complete and utter panster/pantser!!!! No method to my madness!! Oh dear - explains a lot!! LOL!!

    Thanks for sharing your amazing outlining procedures here!!! Your structure building is done on very solid foundations! Unlike mine! LOL!

    Take care
    x

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  15. I sometimes do a very loose outline like you've covered here. You should check out bubbl.us. I wrote a blog post about it. My son showed it to me first. You can do pretty bubble charts of your outline. It rocks!
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

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  16. I am going to bookmark AND print this for my next story. Love it, #1!! :-)

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  17. I am a very loose outliner. I didn't used to be and I found that I wondered all over the place.lol So now I write major plot points down, sometimes conversations that I want to insert later, and try to stick to most of it when I feel like I am getting off track.

    It seems to work.

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  18. I had a bad, long-lasting habit of jumping in blind. The result? Soooo many unfinished stories. I'd have my beginnings, some idea of the end, but I'd get miserably lost in the middle. Still, I'm not organized enough to do major outlining - so I've started listing ideas at the end of my MS of where I think the story should go and what I think should happen and then try to incorporate those ideas as I write. It's helping... :)

    Some great tips here, though! Definitely something I think I could do - thanks!

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  19. I love this! I, too, hate outlining, but I also tend to get lost when I just write, so this seems like a great compromise...much better than the approach I took on my current ms, which was to write as much as I could of a first draft with only a vague plotline in mind (I got about 70k in), stopping just before the climax to figure out what I thought of the draft, writing an outline for round two, and rewriting the whole novel from scratch. Not exactly the most efficient process, haha.

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  20. Oh Shannon this is just what I needed to read. I was hammering scenes out so easily until I came to a simple scene and I immediately wanted more action, so i stopped for a while to write a query letter for a pb and I haven't gone back yet. (A few days starts to add up, dang query letters)Will print this out, thank you so much!

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  21. My outlining is a lot like yours - funny, because I learned it from mu husband who writes screen plays!I need to know the major turning points and the climax before I start. Then I can fill in the blanks as I write.

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  22. we have a really similar style of plotting. Nice post!@

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  23. I used to just sit down and type without any real goal in mind. If I thought enough about the story ahead of time that I figured out the ending, I would get bored with the story and never finish it. But now, I make a very bare bones skeleton of a plot before I write. Helps to keep me somewhat focused.

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  24. My original "outlines" look a lot like yours. :) I have to preplan at least a little bit. Then, as I meander through my first draft, I give every scene a "header," or description. After the first draft, I take all the headers, make an outline, and then change it all up. Then I can go in and write the book the way I meant to!

    Thanks for sharing your process, I love learning how other writers do it.

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  25. Great post. Thank you for sharing your process. :)

    I'm a join the dots outliner as well. I feel all stilted if I write the whole thing out.

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  26. THis was great! Thanks for sharing. I like how you talked about the inciting incident and you want it to happen by page 20 (at the latest). I've been revising and revising my beginning trying to get that point just right. It was also helpful to me to see how you outline. I hate to outline, but need a boundary at least! I think I'm going to stop my new project and try your way...especially since I'm stuck on what the turning points and major conflict should be. Any hints for figuring this kind of stuff out!! ;)

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  27. I'm using a very detailed outline this time around, but it didn't start out that way. It started with something similar to what you described, but then I expanded each piece a little bit, then filled in things I wanted to happen, and the next thing I knew, I had a pretty hefty outline of each scene. Of course, now that I'm writing I've veered way off course and half my outline is irrelevant, but at least I know the ending. That's really the most important thing for me.

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  28. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am a pantser but do have a tendency to wander through the weeds while writing. You have given me hope without having to become an outliner.

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  29. No outlining for me...hate it! I have however, created detailed character sketches, and in my head, I know where things are going. Like you, I have a high level idea of the story, and as I write the details come out.

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  30. I'm Goldilocks.

    On WIP1, I did too little. Didn't write a thing before starting the novel. Had an idea of the beginning and the end, and the characters, but nothing else.

    On WIP2, I did too much. One word: spreadsheets! Never finished the actual novel.

    On WIP3, I did in-depth character sheets, and fuzzy plot outline.

    Someday I hope to find the porridge that's just right.

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  31. I use the storysaurus method... it really is THE only way to go, plus--there's shirts.

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  32. Great stuff, this post! I'm definitely NOT a pantser, and work similarly to you, but you're a little more organized than I am--I like that. Will have to try to plan more of those major turning points...at least roughly.

    There's definitely still freedom and nice surprises while connecting the dots, but I like the security of having the dots there in the first place. Altho sometimes characters veer off in a different direction after you get to know them! It's all about being structured yet flexible, I guess.

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  33. Love this post! *love* I'm the EXACT. SAME. WAY. You make me outline and *thud* the muse kicks the bucket. What am I saying? She's a goddess. She just high-tails it out of there. Anyhoo, I *was* a die-hard pantser, but decided to change my ways for NaNo. Only because I didn't want to get totally stressed and flake out completely. So, I *gasp* plotted, and this story shows it. Mine is very loose as well to keep the muse appeased, but it's there and I don't think I'll ever go back to straight pantsing again. EVAR.

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  34. Outlining has never worked for me. *blush* Yes, i'm a pantser. Your style of outlining seems so much simpler than anything I've tried. Very intriguing. Hmmm .... Thank you!

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  35. Wow, this is pretty much how I "outline" my novel too. I usually have a 1-2 page "notes" page with the same type of elements- the start, inciting incident, Turning points, climax, resolution. And I also usually have a list of city names, character names, history of my world, and things like that. I'll also put some backstory on there so I remember who knows what and when while I'm writing. Thanks for the peek into your writing!

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  36. My first 3 books, I've been a total pantser, but I am craving some direction for the next one. I am going to try this! Thanks for posting!

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  37. I generally start out like this, but I always leave myself open to change. Generally, my 3rd or 4th idea for a turning point/climax/whatever is infinitely better than the original. As I start writing, I keep my notebook handy and just add to the pages of notes to myself as I get new ideas. Reading through in the end is always amusing, as the plot goes 3923 different directions. But I muddle my way there eventually!

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  38. This post is made of awesome, and missing it is what I get for getting behind on my blog reading.

    Anyhoo...

    I love this method, and it strongly resembles the method I'd like to use (as opposed to the one I've actually used in the past). LOL

    Thanks for sharing! :)

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