Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Outlining a Story

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
I’ve been asked a few times lately to write a post about how I outline.
This is something I’ve been reticent to do, since I don’t really think of myself as an outliner.  My outline process does seem to work for me, though, and in the hopes it might help someone else, I’ll share it.  But it’s not pretty.  There are no highlighters or index cards around.  And at times, it seems like the ramblings of a crazy person.
With that caveat, here we go.
Pace--I outline generally as quickly as I can. My goal is to get through the thing, look for places where the story seems weak, fix the outline, then either hand it in or start writing the book.
Format—The outline looks like a story.  If I’ve really thoroughly outlined and gone scene to scene, the outline runs anywhere from ten to twenty-five pages.  It’s in paragraph form. I sometimes include dialogue. There are no numbers on my outlines since I’m a fervent believer that numbers and words should stay segregated (this would explain my grades in Algebra all those years ago.)
Starting out—I write three series, so to keep my head straight, I put a list of all the recurring characters at the top of the page before I start out.  I start out with my victim, as usual, and come up with a quick list of who might want to kill such a person.  With that victim and that list, I start writing the outline.
My outline’s first draft (and only draft, if it’s self-pub. I clean up the outline if I’m handing it into an editor) reads as if a child is telling a friend about a movie they’ve seen.  You know what I mean:  And then this happens! And then that happens! And then…
I go through the whole story scene by scene: body, suspects identified and interviewed, second body, suspects interviewed, alibis checked out, sleuth in danger, murderer revealed.  Sometimes I get carried away and stick in some dialogue as I go…frequently without the use of quotation marks. I’m flying through it, doing a brain dump with the story.  If I need to do extra brainstorming as I go, I do it on a different Word doc. 
Then I’ve got a skeleton of a story.  There isn’t setting in there.  But it’s an outline.  I don’t think my editor necessarily wants to see description in my outlines and I sure don’t.  I just need something to get me started. 
Then I go back to my opening scene and add some other things in:
I hint at the trouble that’s about to engulf the story.
I like to tie in the beginning of the story with the ending—sometimes with a subplot, sometimes with the opening scene. I think of ways to do this, and then put my first mention at the start of the story.
I do try to have a sort of “Save the Cat” moment at the beginning of the story—some way to make my protagonist sympathetic to the reader.  I tend to write protagonists who are prickly and difficult and this helps to soften them up. 
I list my characters on a separate page.  I make a few notes about them…what they’re afraid of, what they really want in life, where they are now.  Then I think of ways that I can possibly give them an arc over the course of the story.  Can I make readers end up relating to a character they originally disliked? Can I give some extra dimension to a character who just seems always cranky, cheerful, remote, whiny?
My editor for the quilting series particularly likes it when I can weave different characters’ stories together—one helping the other to grow or change in some way.  She feels it gives the story a sense of completion in smaller ways…not just the murder investigation being solved.  I do look for ways to do this.
Subplots are vital to my stories and are ways to incorporate humor, diffuse tension, help readers connect with characters, or even help solve the case.  I brainstorm ideas…as many as I can think of and with a variety of different characters…and then see which idea is the strongest.  Especially if it’s an idea that can also help me accomplish other story goals at the same time.  I stick the winning subplot(s) into the outline.
Strictly for mysteries—I check out my clues, red herrings, alibis.  I make sure the story will be fair to the readers and that they have a shot at solving it.
I make sure my readers’ favorite recurring characters are in the story.
I look for spots that seem boring.  I look for spots where my protagonist appears to be taking a backseat. I look for spots to put in clues and red herrings for my sleuth to explore.
If the outline is only for my eyes, then I’m done.  If the outline is for an editor, then I try to make it sound more sane...I put in punctuation, for instance. :)  I tell my editor I’m open to changes.  And I warn her that I may change the story, too.  I frequently do.
As for the character description, chapter breaks, et al…those go in after the first draft is finished.
And…that’s about it.  It’s really a very simple process. A scene by scene outline that basically covers the entire the book takes me almost a week to write and edit.
Then I write the book.
How do you outline, if you do?  Does your process work well for you?