Wednesday, June 3, 2009

AdminEssay: How Grand Is Your Plan? by Smellyia

I know I was working on Characterization in this series prior to my magnificent tropical vacation, but seeing how many fabu writers on this blog are doing such a bang up job of it right now, I figured I’d diverge. Also, in planning out where this series is going, I found that my outline no longer applied. So guess what? I had to revise and in doing so, I found the topic of this article.

The Grand Plan.

Yes, this is all about outlining. Fun, right? Indulge me with a resounding yes ma’am here because I am well aware that planning is no one’s idea of a whoppin’ good time. Well, what if I added a pina colada and a pool while you did it? Would that satisfy?

Alright, all jokes aside, we need to get down to serious bidness. I know the Style series talked about what certain authors preferred to do, but I’d like to explore planning a bit more, mainly because it is another bane of my creative existence. Oh, and The Plan is what I read about this last weekend.

Why Should I Put Myself Through This?
WHY??? WHYYYYYYY????!!!!

For one simple reason: To be all that you can be. Yeah, the army doesn’t own that one. But, seriously, outlining has some very valid positives:

• During the arduous outlining phase, you find the bones of your tale. Subplots form and the layers of your story develop. It’s the place where the one-dimensional become the possibility of a 3-D IMAX experience.

• The execution of this potential blockbuster is sooooooooo much easier with a map. Even if it’s just a sentence on the goal of a chapter, you have a place you know you need to end up and a place to start. Now if you are detailed, all you need to do is add the meat – some purple prose, action triggering dialog and tension.

• Problems during the development phase of a story expose themselves much earlier. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a glaring contradiction poke me in the eye amidst bullets and numbering rather than fifty thousand words in. It’s much simpler to adjust an ideology or plot thread within an outline than within prose.

• When you have a plan in place, the tendency to get bogged down with what I like to consider “flights of ideas” are less likely. Your story stays on track. No random cropping up of useless threads that are just cluttering otherwise solid story-telling. For the easily distracted and unorganized writer, this is perhaps the biggest plus of their organized outline.

You’ve Done This Already, Right?
I find three things are most important prior to constructing an in depth plot. Now each one, in and of themselves, are capable of holding down an article, so I will just graze my heffer hiney on through them.

Idea: The easiest part. Inspiration will strike the creative minded at any time, without care for circumstance or situation, hence the notebooks, netbooks, iPhone apps and good ole’ fashioned post-it notes the vigilant modern-day writer carries around with them. Wait. Easy? Yup, that’s what she said – EASY. The fact of a writer’s matter is that ideas are actually abundant and there for the plucking. Case in point; all of you who have more than one story going because you were inspired and had to write, raise your hands. At least half of Fandom just admitted to having Fic ADD. It’s alright. THERE IS TREATMENT, but that’s not our topic today. Pointing out this fact is just a way for me to bring you to the realization that as creative minded individuals, we have ideas all the time. Some are brilliant and when fleshed out, can make for wondrous pieces that should be shared with the masses, some not so much. But one will never know if this seedling of your Grand Plan is never worked on.
That is SO Not What She Would Do: Sure, you’ve got a protagonist chosen, but what do you KNOW about them? How do you know what they would do in any given situation? What path would they choose? How would they go about reaching their goals? Without proper development, how can you even begin to plot the ins and outs of your masterpiece? You can’t – well, you can’t and then sell us readers on the believability of said character’s behavior. So take an afternoon and get to know them. Draw up a worksheet, interview them and then you will know how this protagonist will reach the ultimate goal of the story.
They Live Here, There, Everywhere: Setting is as much a character as any living and breathing being. I could go one for days here, but that is not our goal here. Eye on the prize people. What I can tell you now is to take the same principles as you would with Character Development and apply them to Setting. It is essential to have a lush landscape for the plot to work in.

We’re Stuck in the Middle, Beginning and End With You
This can also be looked as your Goal, Conflict and Resolution - the three major parts of your tale that make your Story. Now the real work of bringing your Grand Plan to fruition begins and it all starts with pulling together everything into the Dread Pirate Outline. This is where focus becomes the name of the game and that tortured artist hat you’re wearing needs to get switched out for the organizer extraordinaire fedora that itches like a mofo.

I am going to set up the three pronged Plan into an outline below that can be applied to any story development – traditional for most creative writing courses – to show you what I mean:

I. Beginning or Goal: This is your Grand Entrance, where you hook your reader line and sinker. It’s a nasty way to say this, but if you fuck it up, ain’t nobody buying the rest of your tale.
a. Background: This is where exposition is YOUR BEST FRIEND. This is the moment of when, where and what. Leave one out and we are confused – unless you are clever as hell, then you really do deserve that Pulitzer.
b. Action: Please do not start a story off when NOTHING IS HAPPENING. If you do that, the reader has already closed the book.
c. Why Am I Reading?: ESTABLISH your grand theme, the ultimate question. This, like desire, is the driving force of any plot.

II. Middle or Conflict: So many fail here, either putting too much at the beginning, too much at the end, drawing out needless plot lines or skipping too much. I am guilty of all four at one point or another. This is where instinct takes over and technical tendencies should follow up after inspiration has had her merry way. Once Inspiration has marinated the meat, THEN let the technical nazi in you beat it into submission. God, that sounds dirty.
a. Bulk: This should be the majority of your story. Exposition and revelation can be littered throughout, but the main conflict happens here.
b. Cockblocked…again and again and again: Build that tension, make them work for it and when it seems like all shall be ponies and rainbows - cockblock your protagonist again. With the tension comes frustration and while many times I have wanted to throw a book out the window, I know I won’t. Why? Because the author has done a killer of job of making me need to see how in the Hale the main characters will answer the ultimate question set forth in the beginning.

III. End or Resolution: Where the reader should find their satisfaction. This is your end game and while it is the shortest part, it is responsible for much. This is where you tie up all those loose threads you’ve been dangling in front of your readers for the better part of a hundred thousand words.
a. Crisis: This is the breaking point. For a surfer, this is when they have paddled like a bat out of hell to catch that perfect wave after spending an afternoon continuously disappointed by the crap swells. They are on the brink and going for the stand up or eating it and that is where we transition to….
b. Climax: No, not the kind you folk are thinking of, but in a well written book – it’s pretty damn close. For the surfer, it’s when they have bypassed swallowing a gallon of salt water and are standing, triumphant like a modern-day Eddie Aikau, as they balance their way through the onslaught of sea. This is the moment of reckoning, of truth, and where the readers finally get some damn answers.
c. Consequences: This is not always cut and dry. Sure, the surfer could have won that big tournament or just the respect of the locals. Maybe it isn’t so neat and answers lead to more questions, but the feeling of completion should be there. An epilogue is not necessary to insinuate change. If done correctly, the ending as a whole should suggest that X happened and Y – while not laid out meticulously – is the new dawn of the day. Consequences is a feeling, predictable, yet unexpected. It doesn’t need to have that perfect bow, but satisfactory should at the very least be stamped on your readers’ foreheads.

Now outlines can take many shapes and forms, but I find this basic structure of a story helpful as a fledgling writer who swore against outlines initially. They can be much vaguer including just the highlights or detailed chapter-by-chapter, but the point is that you have a map for the epic road trip you are planning to take us on.

Remember: An outline is just a guide, nothing set in stone. If brilliance strikes you – go with it! You never know where you might end up. Your story could be better than you ever imagined thanks to her holiness, The Muse.

Outlining is the Death of the Creative Mind aka I Never Do One
Whatever. I don’t believe you. You know why? Because in coming up with your idea, you have already started a plan. It may not be perfectly organized or even laid out, but you have a general idea of the following:

Beginning: You KNOW what spurned your character to be in the situation they find themselves in.
Middle: May be very vague, but you KNOW there is a general idea of how they are going to get to the end.
End: You may not know how, but you KNOW the ultimate question must be answered and I bet you have a general idea of how you’d like to see your characters end up.

If you have an idea, you already KNOW something. Without having at least the ghost of a Grand Plan, there is no story. It still takes active thought to write each chapter from the idea and in doing so, you are outlining in your brain.

Detailing a story with paper and pen is not everyone’s cup and that is so very okay. Do you leave yourself open to technical issues later? Sure, but does it make it wrong to work this way – nah. Everyone is different and the beautiful thing about writing is that it is an art and can break existing rules while making new ones up. But no matter which way you are looking at it – some plan (coughoutlinecough) is taking form somewhere in your writer’s world.

Note: The world of FanFiction is very different from the O-Fic world. You post chapter by chapter (in the majority of cases), so if midway through you want to change some aspect of established plot-lines – tough shit. It’s already posted and you have to work with what you got. This in and of itself tests the writer in us all and where an outline could have saved you from later issues. However, these instances, as I have been victim of many a time, are excellent learning lessons.

Tip: If hardcore outlining sends a fog of constriction over your tortured artiste, try to write your idea out first as a rough draft. Then go back and do a generalized outline over the major sections. By doing this, you can pinpoint where your work thrives and where some serious tightening needs to be done.


I. Intro – Wannabe surfer is trying to gain the locals respect, but due to his newbie status can’t catch a break. Can he come out on the other side victorious?
II. Middle – Surfer has constant run-ins with locals, perhaps a particular group, in his ultimate quest.
III. End – Does he catch that big wave? Does he answer the question of prevailing over insurmountable odds and show the power of human perseverance?
From here, you can fill in and find the places that will make your final draft all the more alluring to the reader.


I. Listen to your favorite song. Hear it. Pay attention to the lyrics. Break the song down into the story it wants to tell. The chorus is your anchor amidst the verses. Pick out your beginning, middle and end.

II. If you are planning a short piece, say ten thousand words or less, do a generalized outline: Beginning, Middle, End. Under each section, make a statement of the goal of each. No details – just overall goals. From there, put the outline away until you have finished the piece. Once complete, take your general brainstorm (coughoutlinecough) out and see if your work satisfies your goals. Revise the outline or the story as needed and then compare this to previous work of your own.

Beta’d by tnuccio

Smellyia is an admin for this blog and has recently learned the genuine bliss of outlining. Ha! She is currently fighting against the likes of John Gardner (elitist snooty writer type) when it comes to the art of craft. Oh, and she is singing along with Glee.


  1. You guys here are TLYDF are my new heroes. I love the recommendations (of course) but all these articles on how to be a better writer are just knocking my socks off. I'm amazed at how much I've learned about writing in such a short time. Okay, well, maybe "learned" might be a bit premature... If what I write sucks I promise not to mention you, but if I knock it out of the park you will have eternal love in my "Thank You" pages.

  2. I kind of want to laugh and cry right now... A friend/reader of mine just emailed me asking for advice about writing a story, leading me to write a very detailed email describing pretty much exactly what was written here, though obviously in a less eloquent format.
    To add the cherry on top, I recommended this blog at the end of the aforementioned email, saying they had a few articles that might also be of service.
    In other words, I agree wholeheartedly with all that was said above, and I wish I had visited here before checking my email this afternoon, lol. Good article.

  3. Yay for plotting. Good job at explaining why it matters, and done with humor. :-)

  4. Thank You guys - I'm just pulling together and regurging ;) - I actully ran into my college english/creative writing professor the night before i wrote this and asked her some questions bout how we did the traditional outlines - she's a Dominican Sister btw - and had a great convo about plotting.

    :( sorry Muffn - you can still link her tho - there are tons of articles for her - try the tags: Deconstructing, Style, Craft and Riting Skool.

  5. Haha, yeah... I linked her to the site and directed her to all those parts on your labels list... I find it utterly hilarious JUST how similar the advice was; I even mentioned pina coladas, though my reference was an example rather than your use of the drink as a bribe... Thus is the proof that great minds think alike, eh? ;)

  6. Thanks for posting's very helpful! : ) I have a question though about something you wrote though (referenced below):

    "Note: The world of FanFiction is very different from the O-Fic world. You post chapter by chapter (in the majority of cases), so if midway through you want to change some aspect of established plot-lines – tough shit. It’s already posted and you have to work with what you got..."

    I understand why an outline is helpful, even in the most basic form, however, I'm just wondering when talking strictly fanfic why you cannot change an established plot line just because its been posted. I wonder about this because when I first stumbled across fanfic writing and sites I could not help but think what a great place to learn and refine your skills, and what better forum than getting direct reader/beta feedback? If it means you have made some kind of mistake or have decided to change paths for whatever reason, is there some strict implied rule out there that stipulates not changing things after posting? I totally see where it can potentially make the story feel disjointed and perhaps even alienate readers, but every decision and choice we make has both risks and benefits. So do we write and post for the sake of the fanfic world we are posting to or do we write and post for the sake of writing the best possible story? Just thought I would throw that out there as my curiosity was piqued! Thanks for writing such helpful articles and posts! They are always greatly appreciated! : )

  7. Thanks! And very good point. I should probably clarify what I meant.

    Sure you can do whatever you'd like, however, if you are trying to write a cohesive story, switching up established plotlines or character traits mid-fic may cause you to run into problems.

    Now, you mention writing for the fanfic world...this is where I can be controversial in my personal ideas. And be assured - these are just my personal views and that's my reality - not necessarily anyone elses.

    I think that if you are writing a fic AND posting it - you are writing for the FF world by attempting to write the best story you are capable of. You want people to read and enjoy. If you didn't care, you wouldn't post. At least I wouldn't. I have a load of work that is all my own that is only seen by my eyes - that's when I write for self. The material I post, however, that is for others' enjoyment. So in its essence, posted work - for me - is for the masses and giving them disjointed stories because I changed my mind doesn't seem fair to the reader. BUT THAT'S JUST ME!!!!

    Now what I mean when I say switching up is more extreme. Sure we make mistakes and have to adjust our plots as we go in the FF world. My fic, Disaffected, is a perfect example. The first 8 or so chaps are a hot fucking mess LOL! And when I hit a certain point, I had to reassess, change my outline and DIRECT my fic elsewhere while still maintaining consistency so as not to lose the core of the story. I didn't do the best job - but like you said, this is where we learn and it was a great lesson!

    Now, for example, if your Bella is a waitress in Vegas with minimal education, but has a knack for simple wisdom without the fancy trimmings is having a conversation with Edward and all of a sudden she is using academic speak with words your reader would have to look up because you wanted her to now be intellectual - that would make me blink a time or two. It's inconsistent and does not improve, but distract. If you want a more intellectual Bella, just write one - in a different fic. Same goes with plot lines.

    Granted, I mentioned direction before - sure you can change direction anytime - just make sure it's believable and isn't exactly out of the very very very left field.

    So you are so very right in saying that adjustments for the good of the story should be made. I meant more that fics that want to completely change the core of the story. That would not a better story make ;). There is definitely no rule to say you can't do any of that (unless you've paid for such rules in formal education;), but if your goal is to retain readers and improve, I think it is way more of a challenge to retain consistency while redirecting.

    I mentioned this earlier on and I think this applies here: "Remember: An outline is just a guide, nothing set in stone. If brilliance strikes you – go with it! You never know where you might end up. Your story could be better than you ever imagined thanks to her holiness, The Muse." A change in direction that works within the core principles you've set forth is always okay - it's up to the writer!

    Oh and this sounds really really bad, and I was almost offended the first time I read it, but after reflection, additional reading and even discussing it with a professor and a family member who works within the literati, I have changed my mind. I once read (cannot remember where or who said - but I will do a search) this: "Only the pretentious write for themselves. A storyteller's goal should always be for the readers' pleasure, that is where any writer's pride lays." It went something like that and I have come to agree. Writing for self is where we start, but the story is only as good as a readers' enjoyment. And since the fanfic world is our reader - then we should respect them as such. BUT we should never let the masses control every aspect - as we respect them, they should respect us in return.

    And really thank you so much for making me think on this for a bit today - I needed the stimulation!

  8. Wow! Thank you so much for the explanation and your honesty!

    I have to say, I totally agree with you now that I understand more where you are coming from. I guess when I was referring to plot changes I was more talking about making smaller changes--things that might change the direction of the story after the fact, but not so much change how the characters are portrayed. I hadn't thought about major characterization changes as a possibility, and that I can see being a huge issue. I suppose if that were something that a ficster were contemplating, perhaps they should save it for a new story ; )

    I was thinking of my own experience in writing my first fanfic, and I had been flying by the seat of my pants for the first 3 or 4 chapters before I actually started to outline stuff. I found that when I did start an outline I totally blocked up. It was horrible! Baaaahhhh! Then I finally finished the 3rd and 4th chapters and just threw in this odd element that totally reframed the entire story and the plot. I got lucky and it all seemed to kind of work out. But again, I had not posted the stuff only to change it; it happened while I was writing. I have reposted several times with corrections and chapters that are more fleshed out, but that was after I started getting beta help.

    Please keep in mind that I am coming from a very novice perspective--as a person who is only beginning to toy with the idea that I may be a writer...Catherine Spangler helped me realize that over on the Twilighted forums (hehehehe!). Basically, I approach all of it as a learning experience--an experience that I have chosen to share with all of those willing to help me tackle my first story--props go out to all of you who have!

    I can honestly say that I have been squarely hit in the face with the reality that there are so many talented people that write fanfic, that it is not just a hobby as some might think, and that a lot of really moving, sincere, and even titalating stories have been posted throughout the fanfic world, and everyone who particpates should be so proud and in awe of what is at their finger tips.

    Back to the topic at hand though, in essence I completely agree with what you are saying that we write for the fanfic world, but with the idea that there is a mutual respect between writers and readers, so yay! I get it. You have captured yet another budding fictster with the nuances of writing fan fiction!

    Thanks so much again for your have also made me think a lot today ; )

  9. GIrl - we are all novices to an exten except for a very select view - me being one of the biggest!

    Kudos on going with your gut and improving your story! I know outlining is not for everyone. Sometimes a thorough outline is almost impossible for an author. One I have enjoyed lately said that in his outlining process, about 2/3's of the way through he could just not get any further. SO he started to write and the meat of the story took its own form - albeit his ultimate goals were congruent with his initial outline. My own outlines are bizarre - some parts are fleashed out to the minute detail and some chapters are like one sentance stating the goal of the chap. WWDAN had song lists, detail and character pop-ups. Disaffected's end is outlined vaguely and my next fic has in depth chap by chap goals & detail. As you can see, I am very inconsistent in my habits. So we all have our own method to this madness.

    Also, beta help - when the partnership is the RIGHT one - is invaluable. I am thrilled to hear you found someone to go with you on this writing journey.

    For me, fanfic is a hobby, but many more put more stock in it and I commend them for bringing us their talents and sincerely hope those who want to succeed in the world of writing do so. I am medically trained and will probably always utilize my education - being hat it cost me a small Ethiopian Village and the better part of my twenties ;) - but writing fic is my creative outlet - that and drawing and reading and taking jewelry classes and traveling and apparently redecorating my house! And I find it extremely intriguing how so many people come from all different places to share in this mutual interest. Some look as ficwriting as a catalyst for bigger and better and some use to just have fun (I am the latter), but regardless, I think we all get something from each other in this surreal life. I love hearing the different viewpoints and discussion - one of the many and slightly insane reasons I started this blog.


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