Friday, July 5, 2013

Recipe for a Story

Today I will talk about the process of developing a story, from idea to polished draft. Outlining has been my key to keeping a complicated story together, and while I have learned a great deal from other writers and various online sources, I’ve created my own method from the experience of applying some of these techniques. Since it was through other authors sharing their method that I was able to develop my own ideas, I would like to return the favor. If you are a writer who has wrestled with outlining and a story that never seems to hold together, or revision that makes you want to throw your book away, then I hope these ideas will inspire you.

1)      The Premise

For me, writing a story starts with a premise, an attempt to capture the tale in a single statement. This isn’t necessarily a log-line or a summary of the plot, however it is the key thing your story will be about. It is rooted in your character, his or her conflict, and what happens as a result of that. In this statement, you have a chance to meet your central character, learn his or her fears, and ask, a little like an interviewer, what happened to them. You also have a chance to get the “real story” by spending some time developing your premise (for some great ideas on how to make a successful premise, refer to Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass,

2)      The 3-Part Outline

After spending some time with your premise, you want to move on to a 3-part outline. I find that most of my premise, if developed well, fills the end section; a good story is rooted in a good ending. In this next stage of development, I tend to explore the premise a little deeper. In the case of my current novel, my premise introduced me to a young man who had to break free from an intricate web of intrigue, and so in looking deeper I asked, “How did he get caught in it?” Ultimately, this showed me a battle scene, the point at which Jak is alone and must fend for himself. This stage of outlining is not necessarily linear – you might find yourself going back and rewriting your premise, then you might find it changes the 3-part outline. That’s great! It means you’re discovering your story.

3)      The 9-Part Outline

Once you have a good sense of a beginning, middle and end, you can break these up. There are many variations of the plot-point model, but I have learned to boil it down into nine parts, since this allows me to take beginning, middle, and end and look at how to stretch them apart equally. It really doesn’t matter, so long as you observe some important elements of what makes a successful story arc (check out Wendy Wheeler’s depiction of it,, or visit for the very useful screenplay analogue).

4)      Profiling

This all seems like a step-by-step procedure, which it for the most part is, however, there is another dimension to outlining that becomes relevant as you reach point. Generally around the time between the simple premise and the 3-part outline, I begin to create separate profiles for characters, settings, and anything else that forms a list (as a fantasy writer, that means nations and cultures, for example). It’s far more efficient than scribbling it onto your outline in the margin (where you likely will forget about it), or in a notebook where it will be out of order. Cue cards work wonderfully, since you can spread them out around you for quick reference, put them in order however you like, and they don’t fall apart after you are one year into writing your novel. Some writers use Scrivener, with its many handy tabs, but I prefer the cue cards because then I am not limited to spreading out my notes on a computer screen.

The reason this profiling is important is because you will likely find, as you move from the 3-point outline to the more involved 9-point one, that it’s hard to figure out what to add. The reason for this is because you might have only met a key character and someone directly related during your initial outlining. Opening up this separate avenue of exploration allows you to draw on deeper resources to make your tale interesting. You might have something that takes place in a village, but when you go and start profiling the village, some back-story will emerge and give you an idea. Or, you might introduce your heroine’s alcoholic mother and realize, then, that her method of escape is drinking. My current project grew a dissonant romantic dimension when I decided I needed to add some key female characters, and as soon as it did this, many other layers appeared and I had no problem filling in my 9-point-outline.

5)      Frame by Frame

Before I start writing, I go through one more step, because often, when I’ve met many characters and fleshed out various settings and have spent time filling in my detailed outline, I end up envisioning key scenes. I call them frames, to distinguish them from scenes or chapters, because when I first write them down I don’t know whether they are actually scenes, chapters, or just powerful moments in the story. These will be unique things from my outline where I can isolate the five senses, some powerful emotions, appreciate thematic development, maybe even capture some dialogue. This step is straight forward. Go through your outline and every point on it you feel stands out, create a separate page, number it, then fill it in with key details (I like to add a column on the right where I list sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and emotions). My current book has 26 of these frames, and even now, finishing up the 18th of them, I find each one has led to a rewarding chapter with its own inner sense of resolution.

6)      Filling the Blank Canvas

By the time this is finished, if you’re like me, you will feel like you are ready to “start writing”. But, because of this approach, it feels more like entering another stage of development. Which it is! However, sitting down and writing the words that will bring the story to life introduces twists beyond anything the outline could have predicted—this is the whole thing the outline has built toward. Whether you outline or not, you still must create, move from the simulation of blueprint to the wild, unpredictable world of building, which is why I strongly believe the argument that “plotting” takes away the element of surprise is wrong. If anything, I’ve realized that outlining better prepares you for the surprises you will encounter, and in fact allows you to make them all the more interesting.

This is the hard part of writing, outline or no outline. No matter how much you prepare, how much you can anticipate, creating the words that will become your story takes a lot of sweat and discipline, and, above all, trust in a process that “just works”. It takes a long time, which is why the detailed frame-by-frame outline helps to keep you rooted and to remember your overall objective. Every time I sit down to write, I go through the pages, which helps me to see the larger picture of what has unfolded. Whatever today’s writing surprises, anchoring myself in the outline helps me know better which ones will work and which ones should get deleted before I get my yarn in a snarl.

7)      Revision

The outline helps with revision as well. I spend, on average, 1 month for every 10,000-20,000 words on the actual writing process, then a fraction of that time on revision. However, most writers reverse this process, going over several drafts linearly, adding, deleting, tweaking, hoping it will all come together. The advantage of the frame-by-frame outline is, when it’s all completed, you can go one step further, break your novel down into sub-frames, an overall storyboard schematic of how the story is laid out. You have, now, not only an outline to help with writing, but to direct revision. As you comb through your manuscript and look for ways to sharpen your prose, you have a basic framework against which to check for plot inconsistencies, to understand character motivations (especially non-POV), to decide if a revelation introduced in chapter 8 would be better in the latter quarter of chapter 18.

All in all, outlining makes not only for a smoother writing adventure, but a cleaner final product. Most importantly, outlining is just as much a part of writing as the writing itself, an added dimension that you, the writer, get to enjoy.

Graeme Brown is a Winnipeg author and junior editor for Champagne Books. He writes epic fantasy, with his first story, The Pact, now available. He is a frequent blogger and a tweeter, and a third year math student.


Allison Knight said...

Funny how some of us write in such a similar fashion. I call the process different names, but it amounts to pretty much the same. Although I do find as I start the writing process, things don't often go exactly according to the outline. For some reason, I have new characters showing up once in a while or my original characters doing some I didn't expect. But I consider that the really fun part of writing, like the two comedians who just showed up in Lovesong. (grinning)

Browng34 said...

Oh, Allison! I really relate to that bit about the surprises. Yup, the outline is just a good measuring tool, a check, but, boy oh boy, the gremlins that await in the can outline til your blue in the face, the that will never take away the element of surprise!