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:
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. 🙂
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