Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

To Outline or Not to Outline that is the Question

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 22•17

Story offers enduring emotions and shared experiences. Storytelling in all its forms is a mysterious unfolding along with a whole bag of magician’s tricks used by the writer. But to perfect your story, be it a novel or screen play or memoir, you need to apply the logic that comes with plotting and planning. Now, stories often come from a kind of dream place, or the unconscious or subconscious if you will. Because storytelling has these gossamer origins, often a story  won’t conform to a 3-act structure or hero’s journey.  The writer can get stuck between the desire to improvise and discover and the need to outline or plan. That’s when you cover the basics by sketching a beginning, middle, and end, however brief.

Now, some lucky writers can see the story as a whole, will know their ending from the get-go. Some writers, though, find that writing fiction is an act of discovery, a search for meaning and truth. No matter if your process is a compulsively-finite plot chart or a loosey-goosey freefall, at some point, you need to clarify the main events and why you’re using them, and know how your main characters will suffer and change.  Most stories also need a truth, a grounding in the real or fictional world, and a cause-and-effect sequence of events.

Consider these points the bone structure of a story:

  • A protagonist who will suffer and somehow change* because of the story events.
  • The suffering and changes will be unique to the protagonist’s background and weaknesses.
  • The protagonist’s emotional or physical  baggage hinders his or her success.
  • An inescapable setting or environment suited for a significant backdrop and interactions. Better yet, one that presents an additional obstacle.
  • An event, circumstance, incident that kicks off the story and presents a problem. This incident forces the character to react or make a decision. It’s the set-up for the drama to follow.
  • A moment where the protagonist is engaged, even if reluctantly, in solving the problem and there is no turning back.
  • A plausible reason for the protagonist to engage in solving the problem or achieving a goal.
  • A complication, twist, or test that makes the problem more difficult to solve.
  • An ending that plausibly ties up what has come before, shows the results, solves the story problem.

And if you’re thinking formula schmormula, analyze fairy tales or classic tales. Because these storytelling elements have been around since the beginning of time, which equals the beginning of storytelling. A classic tale retold by the Grimm brothers and first published in 1812 featured siblings  Hansel and Gretel caught in a horrific situation. The set up: A woodcutter’s  family has hit hard times. There’s not enough food to sustain the struggling family. This mirrors the reality of centuries of struggles and deprivations from crops failing, famine, and tyrannical dynasties exploiting the starving population.   In a version published in 1857 their mother is dead and their father has remarried. The parents decide to lead the children into the woods and abandon them there, perhaps hoping that wild animals will provide the solution. The children overhear the desperate plot and collect stones to leave a trail to follow back home.  They return home to their surprised parents. The next day the woodsman leads the children deeper in the woods and again leaves them. The children leave a bread crumb trail, but it disappears, perhaps eaten by birds.

The complication: A witch lives in the deep forest. She’s a cannibal and has constructed an edible  house to lure starving children into her clutches. The hungry children fall on the house, devouring the goodies festooning it. And are, of course, captured. From there the clever children turn the tables and capture the witch. In the end they return home and their father vows to never sacrifice his children again. The plot or plan holds the story up, keeps it moving until a conclusion. You can do this.

*series characters often change less than characters in stand-alone novels.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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