Creating Outlines, Even When You Don’t Want To

Creating an outline for a short story, essay, or novel is one of the most repulsive things that writers have to do.   The very thought of building a paper skyscraper of “1 … 2 … 3” and “a … b … c” is enough to make me turn to a more lucrative life, like grave-robbing.

But, like grave-robbing, outlining is a necessary evil.

So without further ado, here is an outline that I wrote solely for purposes of this blog post.  It takes the simplest form of romance story and adds a little extra whammy at the end.  It’s not going to win a Pulitzer, and it’s not going to become the next Gone with the Wind, but it will help give us something to work with …

* Boy meets girl

* Boy loses girl

* Boy gets girl’s best friend’s sister only to realize that she’s his second cousin.

You see, I live in Alabama, where such freakiness happens on a daily basis.

My point of this absurdity is this: It can be fun to make an outline.  And, sadly, it is essential.  I’ve come to this stark realization as I have succeeded to fail at short fiction for 18-some-odd-years now.  But here’s the thing that I think is cool about creative writing: You do not have to have an outline for the very first creative writing attempt.  If you look at my blog post from last time, you’ll see how I suggested turning off the computer monitor in a “use the Force, Luke” kinda way.  I’m a strong advocate of this approach for your zeroth draft.

Is “zeroth” a number?  Well, it is in my world, where color of the sky is … ah, never mind.

But let’s say that you’ve got this character and you want to write everything you possibly can about her.  You know what she says, you know what she does, you know how she acts, and you know she likes kick-ass shoes.  That is all just too cool for school.  And she will, by the way, turn out to be the antagonist of the boy in the plot above.

Once you’re finished slapping electrons on your screen, you’re going to come away with a sense of satisfaction and contentment that is pretty darn similar to the feeling when school lets out for the summer.

But now that your zeroth draft is finished, you really do need some structure because odds are long that this initial cut has any semblance of a solid plot.  Maybe the girl met that boy in my crazy outline above, but it probably didn’t go anywhere.

So, in order to create your outline, you need to know how it ends.

That bears repeating: You need to know how your story ends.

In fiction, the ending is the beginning of everything.

In creative nonfiction, it’s the same.

The reason we read fiction is to escape, to have a diversion, to immerse ourselves in the head of a person in another place, another time, or even another planet.  And really, the same is true for essays, although in that case you’re immersing yourself in the head of an actual person, since most essays are written about the author’s personal experiences.

And having a good, solid, satisfying ending is one of the rules of creative writing that cannot be ignored.  Ever.   In order to be a success, for yourself, for your audience, you must write an ending that ties everything up in a neat little package.  Anything less is cheat.  You’ll be cheating yourself and cheating your audience.

Think about it: If you write a story that has no real ending, that just fades away into a mess of chaos and uncertainty, then why in the hell would I bother to read it?  If I wanted to see that kind of depressing mumbo-jumbo I would just sit back and watch real life unfold.  And here’s another hint: Readers love twist-endings.  This plot device is most commonly called the O’Henry-Twist (and sometimes the Asimov-Twist in science fiction).  Readers gain tremendous satisfaction from this type of ending because it is unexpected, often humorous, and evokes that good ol’ ooh-ah feeling.

So, here is the ending to our hypothetical romance that I joked about above:

  • Boy gets girl’s best friend’s sister only to realize that she’s his second cousin

Now, take this one line and work backward.  Basically, since you are the god or goddess of your creative writing, you get the luxury of being a time traveller.  Ask yourself, why did the boy not wind up with his second cousin?  Why did he not know she was his second cousin (hint: I have cousins in FL and NC I’ve never met).  When you answer that you’ll have the previous bullet.  And then you’ll need to ask why the boy did not get the girl he was after.  And when you answer that, you’ll be able to fill in the “next” bullet, again working backward.

As you might expect, there are hundreds of resources for doing this kind of thing, as well as finding inspiration.

If you use Google, then type “plot outlines for stories” in the search field and you will be dazzled by  the number of plot outlines that are already available.  Another awesome resource is the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) where you can read moviegoers’ synopses of every movie out there.

A simple outline on an index card will do.  You don’t need anything sophisticated.

Plotting, like grave-robbing, is simple …

… and evil.  Bwa ha ha ha ha!

As always,

Peace, from Keith

© Copyright, 2011, Alan Keith Parker.  All rights reserved.  If you steal my creative work, then you are a complete and total scumbag.  Clipart used in this blog are free and utilized under fair-use laws.

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2 thoughts on “Creating Outlines, Even When You Don’t Want To

    1. I hate them, too. I’d rather have a root canal to be honest. For me, I can’t make any real progress without one. But they really do take bite out of the creative side. Hope you keep reading, and thanks for the kind words!

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