by Cindy Jones
Outlines generally enjoy lowlife status among writers these days, but I love them and believe they are misunderstood. As a person, I can't get past the coffee maker in the morning without an outline. As a writer, I depend on outlines to focus my creative power and tell me where I am, where I'm going, and how I'll get there. I recently spent Spring Break with an outline. Alone for 24 hours before family arrived, on a pressure-free beach staring at hours of profound silence that demanded nothing but breaks, I created an outline for my next novel. And now, fresh off the experience, I will explain, in Five Easy Steps, how I did it:
Step One: Spend two years on a back burner gathering ideas, researching, interviewing, and taking notes.
Take a break.
Step Two: Identify story arcs. Consider only major arcs (protagonist development, surface story, backstory, etc.). If you’ve completed Step Two, you deserve a break.
Snack on something not good for you.
Step Three: Divide a lined page into columns, one for each story arc, (three in my case), and list in bullet format, the events that take place in each story from the beginning to the end. Identify beginning, rising action, climax, and resolution of each arc. Sometimes it helps to make a diagram, inserting events on the line. Finishing this step will make you feel as though you have accomplished something.
Take a break. Check Facebook and make sure wine is chilling.
Step Four: Story arcs need a reason to be joined in the same novel, so each arc needs to inform or be informed by the other story arcs. As I read my notes from an interview conducted two years ago, (See Step One) I discovered that a point made in my surface story arc could speak to both of my other arcs. This discovery relieved anxiety regarding the viability of continued work on this project, and allowed me the luxury of...taking a break.
If you ever deserved a glass of wine, it would be now.
Step Five: I actually completed Steps 2-5 in one day, because I substituted chocolate and instant messaging for wine in the previous
break. Number a fresh sheet of paper from 1 to 20 or however many chapters you anticipate. Now you are ready to arrange the events from Step Three into chapters. Like braiding, take a strand from each story arc and, considering the connections articulated in Step Four, blend the multiple story arc events to create chapters for one narrative.
Wine break. (You'll need it for Step Six).
Step Six: Wait a minute. Wondering what Step Six is doing in a list advertised for Five Easy Steps? Step Six is not easy. It makes Steps 1-5 look like a walk on the beach on a gorgeous spring day. This is where things get messy and the prissy rules and fresh paper pack their sand toys and go home. Turn your outline inside out. Find a more original way to start your story. Reimagine the scenes to relieve the predictable stodginess of outliney Freytagian rules while retaining benefits of the same.
Step 7: Stop already with the steps? If you are like me, you have revised the outlines for every story arc more times than you can count. You've written between the lines and around the edges on all those neatnik pages you created in Steps One through Five and you've raided another ream of paper and several notebooks in the process. An outline is only good for as long as it takes to get a better idea. Like the navigating tool that recalculates directions every time you deviate from the path, rework that outline and use its focusing engine to push imagination, blazing new neural pathways, turning your story inside out, again and again, until creative results are maximized generations beyond your previous limits.
Spring Break is over and I’m exhausted.