Tag Archives: longread

Control freaks need outlines

An outline may seem essential but when does a map become a crutch?

crutchAre you a control freak? I am: I crave structure. When I decided to write a story and Google failed to find me a generic outline, I sought help.

  • A teacher explained that a story has a beginning, middle, and an end.
  • A movie maven explained my story needed a beginning, change, climax, denouement (wha-at?), and conclusion.

These were descriptions – where was the structure?

I cobbled together an outline from books about writing but it failed to write my story; an outline practically writes a technical report so its failure to write a story came as a surprise. Frustrated, I spent an afternoon writing a random scene – just to put something on paper.

I began by writing the middle of the story.

It worked: only critical characters emerged. The seeker and her comic relief, the love interest. The villain was implied: somebody was dead and a bad guy dunnit. As I developed the bad guy, he brought baggage and suddenly I had a dynamic cast, each with a purpose and the nuggets of a backstory. I could imagine where the scene might go (conclusion) and background needed to explain the significance (introduction).

My outline (below) placed the scene within a larger story. New scenes became imperative, not for the sake of word count but because I had to show the bad guy was evil and show why the seeker was attractive. I set them on a collision course and encouraged conflict (that was a hurdle: I shy from conflict) using this outline:

1. Identify the hero and the  status quo.

2. Introduce a change/challenge.

    • how does the hero change/adapt/resist
    • what happens to her/his friends

3. Introduce adversity/conflict.

    • betrayal
    • fear/sense of failure

4. Plan, work, stretch.

    • discover abilities & capacities
    • make new friends or watch friends grow to accommodate the adventure
    • develop a plan and  execute

5. First plan fails.

  • epic event so devastating the good guys rethink tactics, strategy, and the goal.
  • The failure that wasn’t an option became reality.

6. Look inward and fight yourself.

  • The main character grows and transcends a fatal flaw. This is not a happy occasion. The audience’s ability to connect and to empathize pivot on how your character handles it. Not to get all Musashi, but spend time on this scene.

7. Devise a second plan that requires sacrifice and fundamental change.

  • What is more important: acquiring the cool toy or succeeding without it?  Curing cancer or accepting that bad things happen?
  • What is success worth? Does the hero greenlight a cost s/he wasn’t  previously willing to pay?

8. Execute the second plan. Climax. Triumph – success at cost.

This success eclipses the first failure.  Make it real; if you squirm out, the audience will leave.

9. Tie up the loose ends. Curtain.

Themes and tropes

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in LibraryWhat do you think of themes and tropes? As someone who spent the better part of her childhood distancing herself from assumptions and judgments, to me they smacked of prejudice. In college, I successfully ignored them; meanings and implications arose in my prof’s head, elevating my third-rate term paper to an A on the unlikely merit of too few words.

Now that I’m trying, my writing has suffered. Clumsy, thumb-fingered attempts to inject good trumps evil and smart uncles keep a close eye on naïve nieces wink back from the page at me in tacky neon; forcing meaning into my story has killed the leavening, reducing 3-D adventures into a cautionary fable told by a well-meaning Aunt.

So I’ve rifled through my manuscript snagging pithy comments and hard-won paragraphs and shooting the delete key, clearing implications and leaving the readers to infer meaning for themselves.

Until today. I’ve been struggling (as with an 840lb bear, not a jar of pickles). My story is stalled and all I get when I pump the gas is an ominous series of clicks. But this morning dawned to reveal a trope that applied to my main character as well as the first guy you see in the story, whom I only created for colorful background.

They’re both the struggling kids of outrageously successful, notorious parents. Subtle tweaking will reveal parallels. I can’t wait to tackle the story again - let’s see if it works!

Maybe I need to draw and integrate characters into the story before I look for patterns. Is seek and destroy a legitimate way (for a newbie) to write?