Now that I’ve explained why you need to outline, let’s talk about how you outline. One of my favorite books on storytelling is Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking At Used Car Prices. This book probably more than any other influenced how I outline a story.
Before you can figure out the characters, before you figure out the plot, before anything else, you need the idea. What’s your story about? Don’t try to write a page. Don’t try to pitch a whole concept. Don’t think plot. Think simpler. Can you say what your story is about in one sentence? Maybe even one word? Get it distilled down to the simplest concept. Or if you’ve got nothing, then just start with one word. Let’s use The Shawshank Redemption as an example. Shawshank’s one word would be “Hope.”
This is the seed of your story. Everything grows from this one thing. Now, take the word and turn it into a sentence. This sentence should still be more about theme than plot. “The Shawshank Redemption is about hope and friendship enduring through the darkest of times.”
Now that you’ve kicked your idea around a bit, it’s time for a quick and dirty outline. You don’t even need to name the characters. Just write up what the basic story is. Don’t worry. None of this is in stone. Any of it can be and probably will be changed. Just write it out and see where it goes. Don’t go longer than a page or two. Get down the time, the place, and the people. This outline should be an extrapolation of your sentence but now you’re getting into the plot of it. This is where a lot of magic can happen if you’re lucky.
One note. When it comes to rewriting, the earlier you do it, the less you have to do of it. Rewriting a sentence at this stage might save you hours of rewriting later. Just don’t get carried away. Like I said, this isn’t the final outline.
Now you should have an idea of what your story is about. It still needs work of course, but you’re getting somewhere. Keep in mind that this particular outline isn’t going to be used for any actual writing. It’s just there for the next and in many cases, the most important step: Creating characters.
Over the years, I’ve read many books, articles, and websites about the writing process and how best to craft a story. The result is that my creative process is an amalgamation of these various sources and some things that I’ve found on my own that tend to work well.
What I want to cover here isn’t specific to the novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo, but just what my approach is to creating a story. If you’re a writer, you may find this useful. If you’re not, then you might be idly amused. Whenever possible, I’ll give credit to my sources.
Before I get started I should point out that I am going to assume that you know how to tell a story. I’m not going to talk about three act story arcs or defining the narrative or any of that because really if you can tell a joke, you can tell a story and if you tell a story, then these tools will make that story better.
The first thing you have to understand is that outlining is your friend. When I first started writing, I loved that I had no idea where the story was going as I wrote it. It was exciting discovering with the characters what was going to happen. While, it was fun, it rarely led to great storytelling because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when you get there.
I once attended a talk with mystery writer Earl Emerson. He said that in the beginning of his career, he’d write entire novels with no outline and no idea how they’d end when he’d start. And every one of them got rejected. After years of this, he decided to break down and do an outline. The first book he outlined, he sold.
There are those who would say all the writing before was a waste of time, but that’s simply not true. I believe the more you write the better you write regardless of what you’re writing. Writing a novel isn’t like building a house. It’s like a road trip. You need a destination. You need a road map. And you need to remember that the map is not the trip. Once you start, you’re still just as likely to find some surprises along the way. And that’s what makes the trip worth it.
Around this time last year I had a conversation with my wife that went something like this:
Wife: Have you heard of NaNoWriMo?
Me: That thing where you try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month?
Wife: Yeah. You should do it.
Wife: But you’re a writer. You could do it.
Me: No. Trying to do that would kill me.
I’ve written one novel. It took me almost a year and it drove me more than a little insane. At the time of that conversation, I’d just finished it. Doing a novel in a month sounded impossible at the time. While I chose not to participate, 165,000 decided they would. Of those, only 30,000 succeeded. That’s a completion rate of just over 18%. Less than one in five. I had made the right choice.
HOWEVER, as a writer and a husband I felt just a little chickenshit. Let’s face it, when an attractive girl asks any guy “Can you do it?”, it doesn’t really matter what ‘it’ is, we want to be able to say, “Of course I can.” And in this case, it’s my wife. One of the nicest parts of being married is having only one girl you’re trying to impress and so while I didn’t participate last year, I kept thinking about it.
This year, I’m ready. I’ve got the idea, a rough outline, and a plan. I’m getting as many social obligations out of the way before the end of the month as I possibly can. I’m writing something every day just to write. I’ve even consulted with my HR department at my job to make sure I can take a day or two off if it gets towards the end of the month and I need the time. November 1st, I start writing my second novel.
Wish me luck.