Thursday, November 12, 2009

Admin Essay: Outline the Moon


So, you're in the shower, or stuck in traffic, or brushing your teeth, minding your own business when the bunnies attack. Sometimes they're cute and fluffy and pink. Sometimes they're dark and ragged and horrible. But they are always interesting, different, original, and attention-nabbing. And for some reason, they always seem better than the bunnies that attacked last month, or last week, or yesterday.

What bunnies am I talking about, you ask?

The plot bunnies of course. Those shiny new IDEAS that make you stop suddenly in the shower, jump out, grab the nearest tube of lipstick/eyeliner/vial of blood and start writing things down anywhere you can find a relatively flat surface.

And then you go off and finish your day. You let the idea stew in your mind, you let the writing become permanent in the bathroom, you think about investing in a dry erase white board to have surgically attached to your neck.

After some thinking you decide the idea is good enough, you have time (ha!) and, more importantly, you really really want to! So, you sit down to write this plot bunny into a story. And then, of course, you realize that you don't have it all worked out, every idea is coming at you faster than promotional New Moon footage and you are overwhelmed.

So, what do you do?

Why, you write an outline of course!

Okay, so, some people don't like to. And there's pros and cons. I go back and forth with the whole thing, sometimes within one story. But this article isn't about the pros and cons, it isn't about making the decision. This is about outlining your story in a way that works for you.

Ummm, I tried writing this article using someone else's story (so as to promote awesomeness) but I feel weird outlining a story I didn't write, and it's distracting from writing this article. Which I'm writing we're just going to use mine, sorry 'bout that.

Now remember folks, there are many different types of outlines, I'm only going to cover the ones I found useful, but really, use whatever works for you, and feel free to change these and smoosh them together, or whatever. No one needs to see or understand your outline but you. Do what works.

I've found that most outlines can be put into three categories. Theme, points, and description. I will go over one of each category, and provide some links and such to other examples.

The first category, theme, is my favourite. It is very general, very broad, and can be applied in a variety of ways. You can use it before you start writing your story to plot out your main conflict, who it affects and how you want it to be resolved. The beauty is that it doesn't really cover any plot, so it is still very open to changes that characters demand be made, as long as those changes fit with the theme. It is an excellent tool to go and check back with every now and then, to remind yourself what tone and mood you want your story to have.

Theme: Man against Himself

Bella is lonely

A. Bella devises a plan to change her future.
B. The person she recruits for help in this, throws her for a loop
C. Bella sees that not all people will let her down/leave her on her own.
Resolution: Bella conquers fear.
Conclusion: Bella is ready to face life as a strong young woman, with plenty of love and support.

See how beautiful this is? It didn't really give anything away about my story. You wouldn't know from reading it that the story is a comedy, or what Bella's personality quirks are, or why she is lonely, or how she comes to her big revelation at the end. You just know the main points of the conflict. You can still make plenty of changes and not affect this outline at all.

Because the outline is so short and general, it also works to apply it to each chapter. Or I have found, if you don't like writing an outline before starting your story, this is a good one to use while editing a story. Once you're done writing, and have the conflict all worked out, draw up one of these and use it as a guide when deciding what you need and what you don't. It has many uses.

Also, I stole this from an author's website but cannot for the life of me find that website again thus I cannot give credit. But I didn't come up with this, I only love it.

The second type of outline, points, is the one I usually do first. It's a step past the mad rush for pen and paper (or whatever substitutes you can find) and jotting down whatever comes into your head. It's when you take all those papers, napkins, bathroom sinks, pile them together and create something cohesive.

You can break it down into scenes or characters, or plot points but I usually break it into chapters. Copy and pasted from my master google doc:

Day 1

Bella the shy nerd, a senior in high school is determined not to graduate without losing her virginity. After overhearing a boy say something about not caring what kind of pussy he gets, as long as he gets some, she decides that she may as well approach the one guy she really wants to ask. Edward. She matter-of-factly walks up to him and asks if he would like to sleep with her on Sunday. She even has her blackberry out to schedule it in.

Day 2

Bella is all sure he will say no and is trying to compile a list of acceptable others to ask but not having much luck.
-he says yes under the condition that they get to know each other a little
-if there's time in this one, Bella goes to the bookstore.

So, as you can see, this is much more detailed than the previous outline. Like, intensely more detailed. But it still isn't complete. It doesn't mention every single point in the chapter, just the important ones that I need to move the main plot along. It doesn't mention the four other characters I introduce or any of my secondary plot lines.

A similar kind of outline, shown here (as copied from Pastiche Pen's livejournal without permission):

Outline for If Love Could Light a Candle (first 4 chaps)

I. For Whom Do You Pray?
a. Ordinary murder – Candle Scene February 3, 1928
b. To shrink or not to shrink – face off with between the Yankee and the confederate - December 18, 2004 - Forks, Washington
c. Spying
1. on Ben
2. on John
3. on Bella - January 17, 2005 - Forks, Washington

II. Perhaps the Box is Better Left Closed
a. Starter murder
b. 1. Alice, Jasper
2. Edward, Tanya video
3. Alice statue
c. John and his technology problems
c2. January 25, 2005 - Edward Meets Bella - intrigued - personal battle with bloodlust and lust…

III. On the Differences Twixt Monsters and Men
A. Little Dorothy, Krazy Kat and Ignatz, pedophile, boat – sparkly skin – kills the man underwater - comic books...
B. Rosalie and Jasper on wanting to be human and yet not wanting to be: braying donkeys, trumpeting sneeze, oinking, squawking, lowing. Jasper reflects on time with Maria - insane asylum in Mexico. Edward reflects on what it is to be a vampire
1) that which sucks blood: mosquito, vampire bat, leech description - distended until popping - but vamps just absorb - like living rocks – coral
2) the polar nature of vampire skin - like hell below - pressure so dense but equally hungry
C. Maggie sitting outside with Charlie. Charlie uncomfortable. Conversation – her cat died. Edward reflects on domestic house cats. Charlie suggests getting a dog from the pound.
d. Bella Time
1) February 1, Edward notices tiny changes in Bella – bruise, eyelashes, dry skin, long white neck. Bella is unlike the rest of her kind – age wise, maturity, etc. – “We’re all limited in some way. We can’t be what we want to be.” Bella book conversation. “times up.”
2) February 8, Charlie missing her mother – Bella’s fears about being tied down—and yet needing to care for others. Maggie smiles at Charlie. Charlie insists on driving Bella. Edward at the piano.

IV. Beauty Hath Fangs Like a Rose Hath Thorns
a. Plays Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp on the piano. Edward the actor—a bored misanthrope being an ass, pretending as the young socialite. The sister killer. The tortured social outcast in the family below. Ostracism. Psychological Abuse. Being different. – weird how girls from his youth are his mother’s age [thought occurs as he looks at Emily and Scarlet and Norma). Game at the ouija board. Meeting and death at the piano.
b. Feb. 10, Edward at the piano. Meddling Alice, Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “But I’m not the apprentice Edward—I’m the sorcerer.”
c. Feb. 11 - Ben discusses upcoming dance; he wants to ask Angela. Meeting at basketball court.
d. Feb. 15, Appt with Bella. "pretty" - age focus,
e. Venus and Psyche. Jealous Rosalie
f. He ends the chapter sitting on the mountain; mention song; talk with Carlisle on penance and redemption. Discussion on “who notices what.” Carlisle, “some people are more open to the supernatural.”

This one, has less plot detail then mine, and more points of what each character does during a chapter. In ways it is more detailed and in other ways it is less. If you read my outline through, you would get a decent summary of each chapter, it you read Pastiche's you would know what happened in each chapter but you might miss the overall plot. But they are still very similar outlines and, key point here people, they both work for their respective authors.

The last type of outline I'm going to talk about is the description outline. I find this one works best in conjunction with the theme outline. Or works if you know what you want the inciting incident to be, or know your ending, or something like that, but are having trouble coming up with the rest of the story.

Basically it is a list of questions that force you to think about your plot and characters, and then you write down the answers in as much or as little detail as you wish. An example:


Working title:

“Type” of novel best suited to this idea:

___Mainstream (Describe):

___Category (Genre): check one (or more, if the idea might cross genre lines).
___Romance ___Western ___Fantasy ___Action/Adventure
___Mystery ___Horror ___Science Fiction
___Other Feel free to type in a different genre if you feel yours is missing. Know what readers want to see in a genre before holding yourself down to it.


Main Characters (list only up to three major characters)

Character #1—the protagonist (the hero or heroine of this story)


Primary Goal:

Most notable personality trait(s):

Character #2—the antagonist (the main “opposition” character)


Primary Goal:

Most notable personality trait(s):

Relationship to protagonist:

Character #3—a major supporting character


Primary Goal:

Most notable personality trait(s):

Relationship to protagonist:

Setting(s) (If your novel has multiple settings, list only the two main ones)

Setting #1:

Time frame:

Reason for using this setting:

Setting #2:

Time frame:

Reason for using this setting:

What is the main complication of the story (the central problem that must be solved by the main character)?

What are the primary obstacles preventing the main character from achieving his or her goal?

How is the story resolved for the main characters (how does it end)?

Take the rest of this page to summarize in present-tense narrative, your story idea.

Now I'm not going to fill this one out, as the answers are usually pretty telling (Also, I'm lazy.), and these outlines are actually my least favourite kind. I'm not really sure why, but I don't normally use them. I do find them to be helpful when I am stuck. Stuck on a setting, or a character, or I did THAT last chapter which prevents me from doing THIS in the chapter I'm working on. Filling something like this helps you to take a step back from your characters' lives and look at the story as a whole. So you can think about what it needs to work, not what the characters want.

I also find that filling these out makes me give my characters faults. I am really good at giving my characters quirks and personalities, but I don't like giving them real faults. I either like them too much or understand where they are from too closely.

All in all, there are many different types of outlines (I was hoping to get a chance to try out the old school version of getting file folder, laying open and drawing a big W on it. The peaks and dips representing where your plot rises and falls and you jot down plot points along the W. Alas, I did not have time and therefore cannot give my opinions.) but whether you are outlining your full story, a single chapter or just a scene remember to do whatever works for you. A lot of authors blog about different ways of outlining, I highly recommend checking out your favourite author's site or googling around a bit. Try a couple different versions before settling on something that you like.

What type of outline do you use?

Moon.witche is the crazy lady behind the Temptation Podcast and others. She likes YA books, refuses to read slash, and does theater crap. (Heh-heh) She also writes a funny fic How My Life Was Ruined in 14 Days. Her birthday was this past Monday. :-)


  1. I think I'll be taking this, studying it, and really taking it to heart. Because my problem is that everything is in my head...which is long as I have enough of the story in my head. Which I usually don't. So thank you.


  2. Heh. My new way of outlining? Dozens of post-it notes on the wall, each of a scene. There are gaps, and sometimes only a word on the sheet, but I can move them around as the plot changes, replace a sheet, and send photos to Kyrene.

    Although I haven't done that yet.

    Thank you for some new ideas though. (:

  3. Oh, and Caitlin, I loved BTW how when I was prepping this to be posted I see "taken from Pastiche Pen's LJ without permission."



    You think you're soooo funny.


    (I know, a very non-scary grrr.)

    And like I said in that LJ post, I see an outline as a repository more than anything else. You deposit all the good stuff you've thought of into piles and then as the story starts to take shape, you chuck the bad and keep (and improve upon) the good.

  4. My outlines are (until very recently) nonexistent. I find that when I write things out, I lose the excitement of having a new idea. But then, I lose a lot of my original ideas along the way (and get stuck with writer's block). Bleh, I'm just lazy.

    It's an awesome article, though. I think I'll use some of the examples later on.

    And I LOVE the pretty pink graphic for it. :)


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