Outlining: Another Method

Since NaNoWriMo is starting up in a couple weeks, I thought I’d post something a little different today (and I might continue posting a-little-different things through November, since I’ll be pretty busy — I’m aiming for 100k next month!).

For yeaaaars and yeeeeeaaars, if you had asked me to write an outline, I would have looked at you with unveiled horror and slight nausea, with tears springing to my eyes. I would have offered to clean your entire kitchen as a more preferable alternative. That’s because my concept of an outline was the kind that you learn in third grade:

  • I. Introductory paragraph.
    • A. First Point
    • B. Second Point.
      • a. Supporting evidence

…and so on. Great for academic essays, utter shit for novels. I had tried to force a novel into this format a few times before. It was like trying to force one’s feet into really painful shoes. Hated every second of it, felt in nigh-physical pain, cried a lot, decided that outlines were The Worst Thing That Ever Were Invented. But my mama didn’t raise me to give up after the first try, so I did some research and experimented with other outline methods, NONE of which jived with my brain, none of which made the job easier – and that’s what they’re allegedly supposed to do. If a method didn’t make me cry, then it killed all the enthusiasm and interest I had in the idea and left me high and dry with a soggy, cold idea-corpse. Not sexy.

So for years I accepted that I simply did not have a brain that played nice with outlines. Seat-of-the-pants discovery-writing was what worked for me (within a limited definition of the word “worked”). Then one day I found myself with a half-written novel on my hands and no idea of what was going to happen next. I *needed* an outline – when you’re lost in the wilderness, what you want is a map and a compass (or, y’know, a smartphone with GoogleMaps on it). So I came up with a very cunning plan – a plan to trick my outline-hating brain.


“Aha,” said I, “I will devise a system which is entirely new to me, so my brain will not even recognize that it is looking at an outline. Sneaky!”

The problem with the third-grade structure had been that it didn’t show the relationship between events, or how one event would affect a cascade of later ones. Other methods proved too detailed (“list all the characters who are in this scene, and the purpose of the scene, and the goals of each character, etc etc”) or required me to somehow psychically know the ending before I’d gotten to it, or they didn’t seem to show me any kind of structure whatsoever.

So this is what I came up with. It is as close to trail-blazing discovery-writing as it can be without actually doing that thing.

You have FIVE different scene headers to choose from: Situation, Problem, Complication, Solution, Result. These are divided into neutral-energy, negative-energy (something working against your protagonist, or something they have to react to), and positive-energy (things your protagonist does to advance the story, or to react, or to solve problems).

A Situation is a neutral-energy scene that sets something up or introduces something new. You’ll usually find a Situation at the very beginning of the outline (note: that doesn’t mean you actually have to start writing there).
Example:

  • Situation: Bilbo throws an awesome party for his and Frodo’s birthday. Everyone is invited.”
  • Situation: This is Harry Potter. His relatives suck a lot. No, like a lot. Also, weird stuff happens around him sometimes.”

A Problem is a negative-energy scene that – omg – introduces something your character has to react to or solve.
Example:

  • Problem: Blah blah blah THE RING IS EVIL leave it to Frodo.” (A Problem scene can also simply introduce tension or the plot of the story – it doesn’t have to be a necessarily bad thing. It can be small-scale or large-scale.)
  • Problem: Hagrid turns up. Holy shit, Harry is actually a wizard! They gotta go to the Wizard Mall and take advantage of all them back-to-school sales.”

A Complication is a negative-energy event that makes your protagonist’s life more of a headache than s/he deserves. A Complication is the asshole twin brother of Problems.

  •  “Complication: Great, and now the Nazgul are coming to take the Ring and kill us all. Also, where the fuck is Gandalf?”
  • Complication: Wow, Wizard Mall is full of cool stuff. How is Harry going to buy a new trapper-keeper AND his books AND a friendly animal companion/mascot?”

A Solution is your answer to the reader’s inevitable questions, or your protagonist’s attempt to get themselves out of the fire and back into the frying pan. Note: This does not always have to be successful or even effective. A Solution scene is a positive-energy scene, meaning that the characters are attempting to make forward motion towards their goals (it’s still positive energy even if they fail, btw — if they fail and then something bad happens, that would be either a Complication or a Result). If you don’t like the word “solution”, you could also use Reaction.

  • Solution: Frodo and the Hobbits get the band back together and go on tour. Away from those creepy raspy groupies who want to kill them.”
  • Solution: HEY GUESS WHAT HARRY, not only are you a wizard, but you’re a wizard with a ridiculous amount of wizard gold; please don’t use it to break the Muggle British economy.”

A Result (generally neutral energy, but this one’s squishy and can be many things) is what happens as a direct consequence of a previous Problem or Solution scene. Depending on the effectiveness of the Solution, it can be either a positive or negative thing; it’s usually negative when it’s a result of a Problem. You can consider it a cousin of the Situation scene.

  • Result: Frodo and the Hobbits get the hell out of Dodge and immediately start getting themselves various kinds of lost and confused.” (Which can then lead into your next set of Problems and Complications.)
  • Result: Harry has a grand old time shopping in the Wizard Mall and eats a giant delicious ice cream, which gives the readers an emotional resolution to the icecream-less horrible-relatives situation from before so that we can launch on the real adventure with light hearts and minds. Harry’s guard is down when he walks into the robe shop–
    Problem: –And meets the first of his three arch nemeses.”

I like this way because it is VERY squishy. It doesn’t require me to commit to anything besides the barest skeleton of the plot, leaving tons of wiggle room to change my mind fifty times about, for example, whether Donald McSideCharacter is going to be in a given scene or not. It also CLEARLY shows the relationship between actions and consequences and the way that events string together into something resembling an actual plot; each scene depends on the ones before it for support. I also like to break the outline down into “movements” – for my own convenience and because it gives my brain an idea of timing and proportion.

Remember also that you can mix these up in whatever kind of order you choose. The seventh movement of my current outline (the one I’m writing for NaNo) looks like this: Situation, Problem, Problem, Complication, Solution, Problem, Complication, Solution, Result, Complication, Complication, Complication, Result, Result, Complication, Complication. (As you can see, the characters are going through some shit.)

So that’s how I do it. 😀 If you hate doing a thing, figure out what exactly you hate about it, and then find a way to do it without the bit you hate. There’s no right or wrong way to make art, but there is a way that’s going to be easiest and least-painful for you, and everything is much nicer when you do it your way instead of forcing yourself to do it someone else’s way.

If this method appeals to you and makes sense with the way your brain works, let me know in the comments! 🙂 Happy NaNo!

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