My Outline Method and Thoughts on Writing

#1
I wrote an essay about why I switched from pansting to outlining which can be found here: http://royalroadl.com/fiction/chapter/119922

For your sake, I'll just copy and paste it. But it looks way cooler on that link.



Obstacles shape the character of the story, or more accurately, the response to the obstacles help define the story.

I'm not a great author, or even an mediocre one. My experience solely comes from reading and pushing my storycrafting skills via small online webnovel communities like royalroadl.com

My main goal has been to become a better writer. I used to think I was what people on the nets called a "pantser", or someone who writes off of inspiration and pure will alone. Then after a year of three half-realized projects, the evidence was too stark to deny. I needed structure.

This lead to a few months of diving into the theories of story structure ranging from the elemental (Joseph Campbell's works) to the memoirs (Stephen King's On Writing). I grew frustrated reading these books. I realized very quickly I wasn't looking for anecdotal advice from writers, which there happened to be plenty of. Instead, I was looking for the method, the how before the why. Don't get me wrong, I definitely wanted to learn why authors wrote the way they wrote, but more important to me was their workflow.

Workflow is a funny word I've picked up in my fascination with the not-so completely unrelated online community of digital artists. Communities like Artstation, Level Up!, and Sinix Design's quirky youtube videos reinforced to me that the ability to create interesting and powerful images is not only a skill, but a skill that can be developed with intention. It is important to have the end goal in mind.

To lead back to how this connects with writing, I realized that the best stories are crafted, whether in the mind of a genius author or, more common but not as readily admitted to, through planning and outlining.

The books that truly convinced me of this were Techniques of a Selling Writer and Storm Front. Techniques of a Selling Writer is crucial to every person who wishes to pursue a writing career and can also admit they might not be a genius. I grew up with an art master who denied any notions of genius, with the exception of Picasso. He firmly believed that genius was both developed and relative. However, that's a topic for a different time.

The book is littered with gold nuggets of information the amateur writer needs but didn't know they needed until they read it; like the importance of sequence, how the building blocks of a scene and story are not just important, but crucial in what order they are in. More than anything, the ideas are practical. Storm Front by Jim Butcher simply reinforced the ideas of Techniques of a Selling Writer because Jim Butcher's entire process revolves around it.

However, even equipped with my new sword of truth to fight the foggy darkness of writer's block, I found myself hitting another road block. The problem.

When outlining the obstacles, both great and small, that my character face, I got stuck. Questions like, is this problem big enough to the story? But is it relevant? Or even, what kind of fucking problem could I come up with that makes sense to my fantastical world?

And then I remembered another writing theory series I stumbled upon. It wasn't a book, it was the podcast Writing Excuses helmed by the beloved Brandon Sanderson. His was the missing piece. In fact, he had two missing pieces. I'll go into that later, maybe.

Long story long, I combined these techniques into something that works for me. Hopefully, some part of my new process works for you too. I won't go into why I do these specific things right away. I'll attack them in later pieces. For now, these is the meat and bones.




a. Character.

b. Situation.

c. Objective.

d. Opponent.

e. Disaster.

a. Motivating stimulus.
b. Character reaction.
(1) Feeling.
(2) Action.
(3) Speech.

Scenes:
     a. Goal.
     b. Conflict. foreseeable problem
     c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem
     (1) Reaction.
     (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice
     (3) Decision.

Climax:
     Isolation: The character is alone in his decisions
     Confrontation: Antagonist shows up
     Dark Moment: odds are stacked against him. Gets outclassed. Everything is going to hell.
     Choice: Not an easy choice. Bad versus Terrible choice.
     Dramatic Reversal: The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist's character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an UNEXPECTED WAY, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice.

This section simply acts as a reminder and focuser of what my story is about and the elements of a good story. Please refer to Dwight Swain's Techniques of a Selling Writer to understand this part.



The first thing I do is copy and paste this from a template I have on hand.

Part 1: Introduction to character and the pieces on the board. Keep explanations simple for new ideas, especially the more fantastical the element is. Personal problems are introduced either directly, through foreshadowing, or allusions
Part 2: external obstacle
Part 3: character fucks up or creates unintended consequences
Part 4: overwhelming odds from multiple directions, climax, the character is alone
Part 5: Conclusion, plot threads are tied up, keep it short

After that, I work backwards. I go immediately to Part 4 (or the third and final obstacle). I got this from Brandon Sanderson because he loves extremely well thought out climaxes.

Another thing I incorporate from him is separating the story into three parts:  character, plot, and setting. When it comes to amateur writers (me included), it's super easy to think of plot problems, events that sound super cool. Maybe our hero gets the unwanted attention from an evil god and the evil god casts overwhelming power at our hero. Notice the world overwhelming. The character has to always be outmatched, or else the dramatic reversal and catharsis will never be earned. It's the difference between riding a car fives miles and enduring painstaking training for a five mile marathon for three months and making it across the finish line with a dry mouth and a broken leg. The weight in emotions are different. The latter is less mundane. It is the story of a hero.

Setting problems are less easy, but can come to me swiftly enough. For example, Harry Dresden from Storm Front has magical abilities that passively short circuit nearby technology. This means he can't make calls on the phone for help from his allies when something bad happens. Or his car shorts out because fuuuuuuuck.

Does magic count as setting? I think so. Ultimately, you decide, but my argument stands. Magic is unique to that world, so it counts as setting.

Character obstacles tend to be the toughest, especially among writers on royalroadl. I believe this simply because I read a lot of the fiction on the site and most of the characters are one dimensional. An easy cure for this is when writing the character sheet, skip everything else and go immediately to character flaws. I'm going to go into character flaws and their importance in the future. However, one thing I'll touch on is character flaws are almost intrinsically linked to the character's strength. It's something that is undeniable to them unless the story demands they change.

For example, pride can both lead to the inevitable failing of hubris and straighten a spine with courage when confronted with danger. The willingness to protect friends at almost any cost can lead to impossible decisions to be made. No one cares about the haircut of your fucking character. We care about what tempts her, what haunts him, what they have to keep in the dark lest they succumb to it

Then put those walls in the character's paths.

This is why litrpg stories like Awaken Online and Delvers LLC are so consistently popular in their communities. They have characters we really care about. This doesn't mean go full balls to the wall character drama. Melodrama is not the same thing as drama. Avoid gimmicks. Reverse and divert tropes and cliches. Challenges your idea of where the scene may go. Bend the stream so it can turn into a mother fucking river.

So, the previous structure will develop into something that looks like this:

Part 1: Introduction to character and the pieces on the board. Keep explanations simple for new ideas, especially the more fantastical the element is. Personal problems are introduced either directly, through foreshadowing, or allusions




Part 2: external obstacle

Character obstacle


Plot obstacle


Story obstacle



Part 3: character fucks up or creates unintended consequences

Character obstacle



Plot obstacle



Story obstacle




Part 4: overwhelming odds from multiple directions, climax, the character is alone

Character obstacle



Plot obstacle



Story obstacle




Part 5: Conclusion, plot threads are tied up, keep it short





Part five depends on how many plot threads I need to tie up and how many promises to the reader I need to fulfill.

Part one is usually a minor plot thread mixed in with a few character obstacles that come up every few scenes. This is how themes are made! Or can be made, as long as it is relevant to the story. hahaha. It's that repetition.

Parts three through four have bullet notes under each obstacle. I try to keep to it to two or three each, depending on the length of the book. As you can see, I try to incorporate one cool thing that happens. However, sometimes that cool thing can cause an unintended problem.

Keep in mind that the length of the book DEFINITELY controls the kind of story that comes out. If you want something speedy and fun to read, stick to writing a novella. This has its own challenges.

Each bullet note represents a SCENE AND SEQUEL to me. Refer to TOFSW (Techniques of a Selling Writer). This is important because each scene is crafted to accomplish something.

And then, I go back to my initial notes, those reminders of what a scene and sequel are.




Part 1: Introduction to character and the pieces on the board. Keep explanations simple for new ideas, especially the more fantastical the element is. Personal problems are introduced either directly, through foreshadowing, or allusions

     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice


Part 2: external obstacle

Character obstacle     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

Plot obstacle     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

Story obstacle     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice


Part 3: character fucks up or creates unintended consequences

Character obstacle      

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

Plot obstacle      

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

Story obstacle     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice


Part 4: overwhelming odds from multiple directions, climax, the character is alone

Character obstacle    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice



    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

Plot obstacle

  •  a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice


         (3) Decision.

     

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

Story obstacle    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice


         (3) Decision.

    

  • a. Goal.


         b. Conflict. foreseeable problem


         c. Disaster. unforeseeable problem


         (1) Reaction.


         (2) Dilemma. (Questions asked), Bad choice vs a terrible choice


Part 5: Conclusion, plot threads are tied up, keep it short




So, at this point, I fill in the blanks. However, I go back and forth in the bullet notes as I see fit, trying to weave the story threads in a way that is both plausible and entertaining.

A note on the Disaster for royalroaders. I think this is a huge problem in the community. There are too many stories where the hero isn't truly challenged. This is because there are no complications in their scenes. What I usually see is the hero has the goal to defeat a dragon. Plans are made. The dragon is defeated. That's all fine and dandy, but as a reader and a fan, I want to see something more like this.

  • hero has to kill a dragon to rescue the princess with his band of merry men within two days or the princess dies

  • the dragon is powerful and wise

  • the hero's men aren't so merry. only twelve hours away from the princess' death, the men's personal interests conflict with the hero's and they not only abandon him, but strip him of his sacred sword, trusty steed, and all ability to trust people.

  • he goes through the tumult of emotions, questioning everything he held dear, including honor. his values are challenged. this is unexpected to both the reader and the character, thus creating a more interesting scene. The reader and character think, "what next?"

  • the hero has to decide between challenging the dragon alone or try to convince the poor village of farmers to help him save someone they've never met and risk their lives while doing it. If he chooses the former, his failure is certain. If he chooses the latter, there is a chance, but there is another obstacle that he is coming from a position of weakness and will have to beg.

  • he decides to go the village and sees what happens with only the image of his love's smile dancing in his broken heart to carry him forward. He has no better choice.

Isn't that more interesting? It's harder to write, but definitely more interesting.

This my most recent and new method I've been working on. I'm currently using it to turn my joke fiction RE: Ebola into something more compelling and worthy of a reader's attention.

Please keep in mind that you can just poop this all away if you've ingested everything so far, but I challenge to think about story structures when reading people's works. If you're a writer, it will definitely help you with your own craft. If you're a reader and not a writer, it will act as another tool to help you articulate what it is you like and don't like about the piece.

What's both shitty and great is, as webnovelists, we can put our work out and get immediate feedback. However, don't let that distract you from the ultimate purpose of creating an interesting piece.

If you get anything out of this, remember these three things.

  1. Make interesting scenes/chapters by creating a complication right after of during the solution of the foreseeable problem

  2. write more from the perspective of the characters and develop their thought process. This can be done via the reaction and dilemma.

  3. finish your goddamn story. No one likes dropped fics. I've dropped three because they got out of hand. I used this method to help contain my story and challenge my creativity.


I hope this helps, Beans. I hope this fucking helps.




Here are the tools I've used the most:
-Writing Excuses Podcast
-Techniques of a Selling Writer by Dwight V Swain
-this is a link that leads to a more in depth method that Jim Butcher uses. It's fucking gold and I refer to it daily. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1a0ll3XxM5bRyv3xHpNfuRld4q5-9bKpW-K4_LLWESak/edit?hl=en_US

Re: My Outline Method and Thoughts on Writing

#4
Interesting, it's been a while since I've seen anyone talk about outlining using something besides the snowflake method. :)

Quote:
a. Character. 
b. Situation. 
c. Objective. 
d. Opponent. 
e. Disaster. 

If you write more, what I'd like to know is, how do you brainstorm character? What additional or different techniques do you use to brainstorm setting, etc. for everything in this list.

Re: My Outline Method and Thoughts on Writing

#5
Quote:Part 1: Introduction to character and the pieces on the board. Keep explanations simple for new ideas, especially the more fantastical the element is. Personal problems are introduced either directly, through foreshadowing, or allusions 
Part 2: external obstacle 
Part 3: character fucks up or creates unintended consequences 
Part 4: overwhelming odds from multiple directions, climax, the character is alone 
Part 5: Conclusion, plot threads are tied up, keep it short 


This is OK when you are first starting out, but it is important not to stick to this format too closely or it'll end in some cliched movies (think of nearly every buddy movie ever made where 2/3 of the way through, the characters have a fight and falling out and then reunite 10 minutes later for the climax). The three act structure (parts 1/2 are act 1, parts 3/4 are act 2, part 5 is act 3) is good for very basic outlines or story treatments, but when you get into full outlining, you'll want to go chapter-by-chapter rather than story-beat-by-story-beat, because it's sometimes hard to visualize exactly how long a certain scene or subplot may take until you get into the nitty-gritty of it.

Re: My Outline Method and Thoughts on Writing

#6
Trying to write outlines is why I didn't write anything for years. I told myself not to start a project unless I had it nailed down in an outline with all the details fleshed out. This resulted in dozens of partially started outlines that went nowhere because I can't see the future.

I have no idea how ANY of my stories will end. To find out I have to write them. However, I consider all my first writing to be my outlines. I will sit down and write 15k words in a day and hammer out a book in a couple of weeks. This "ROUGH" (and I do mean rough) draft then functions as my detailed outline. I then go back chapter by chapter and spend dozens of hours cleaning them up and putting things into say chapter 1 that now foreshadow things I know will happen in chapter 18 because I have it all written.  This then become what I call my fist real draft.

From here I can then go through it again chapter by chapter with a focus on making it readable for an audience.  So maybe its an outline by a different method, but trying to do it in a structured way like you have above makes writing impossible for me.

Re: My Outline Method and Thoughts on Writing

#8
You know the funny thing is I learned how to type accurately and fast by playing video games. The old school RPG games like everquest required you to communicate but voice chat wasn't a thing yet. So years of playing that later and I was a hyper fast typer. I still make plenty of mistakes but that's why I have to go back and spend hours in a single chapter.

So in this case, you can thank video games.