Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

On Outlining (Part 1 of 4)

I’ve finished the first act of A Box of Ink in its preliminary draft and am now moving on to the second. Given my September-or-so’s series on structure, I thought it would be worth describing how I’m outlining, mainly because I feel like I’ve learned how to do it all over again.

Back in the good old days of elementary school, I learned that outline looked like this:

  • I. Main topic #1
    1. Supporting idea #1
  •                                                i.     Proof or example
  •                                               ii.     Proof or example
  •                                             iii.     And so on
  •         2. Supporting idea #2
  •         3. And so on
  • II. Main topic #2
  •         1. And so on

This is what my outlines look like now.


I call this the “divide and conquer” or “sandwich” method, not that you’d know that from my notes, because really, my outline looks like nothing more than notes. Then again, the outline is just a fancy way of traipsing up notes, so this is probably just fine.

Two Pieces of Bread

“An American can eat anything on the face of this earth as long as he has two pieces of bread.” It was as true when Bill Cosby talked about eating a dead bird in Italy as when we’re writing stories.

We hear a lot about opening sentences, that they’re supposed to draw us in. So: know that you have to do this. Remember it. Next, don’t think about the ending of the story, but about the resolution of the conflict. Is it a fight scene, an epic battle between a mighty dragon and a bunch of lousy humans? Or is it a conversation between that mighty dragon and a tiny, hairy-footed burglar?

Got it? Okay. You’ve got your lead into the story and you’ve got your climax. That’s your bread. For A Box of Ink, my opening mystery is that Jill (protagonist) has received a mysterious jewelry case that has made her sick. The climax is that she fights off the antagonist, although she does not defeat him. Simple enough.

The Stuff in the Middle

Unless you’re my brother making a meat sandwich (a bit of mustard layered between two pieces of meat), you’re going to want some extra flavor besides that bread, however good and homemade it might be. For argument’s sake, we’re going to have on our sandwich some meat, some condiments, and two vegetables: four primary ingredients. That’s the act structure.

Act structure is open – two, three, four, five, serialized, whatever. Your opening decision might not be the best decision in the end, but that’s what editing is for. Start off making a decision. In the case of A Box of Ink, my decision is 4.

Act I starts the same as the book starts, with the mysterious present, but the act needs to end on a high note (similarly to how the book ends), with one of the four highlighted moments that advance the plot. In my case, that is the discovery that one of her friends can do magic. Act I being act I, this is the place for exposition. My sense is that any character who doesn’t appear by the end of the act, or any fundamental, important fact, shouldn’t get added later. Every other act is for development of the world set up in act I.

Act II starts with Jill’s friend teaching her how to control the magic of the jewelry case; it ends with a fight in the streets when she is attacked by two monsters that she shouldn’t be able to see.

Act III starts with Jill being hunted and ends with her being kidnapped.

Act IV starts with her escape and ends with her confrontation of the antagonist.

Then there’s a denouement, but pssh. That’s a long way off. The acts (and here’s where the sandwich metaphor starts getting unpleasantly like a Dagwood sandwich) are basically, each of them, their own, smaller sandwiches, not just meat and condiments.

This is where “divide and conquer” becomes more useful as a term, because now I don’t have to think about writing an 85,000 word book, which is my goal for A Box of Ink. I can think about writing four acts, and if they clocked in evenly (they won’t), which are basically four short stories of 21, 250 words each. And that’s a lot more manageable.

Part 2     Part 3     Part 4


3 responses

  1. mitya

    My first reaction after (re)reading this post is one of contrasts:

    1. My striking realization while reading Da Vinci Code years ago that every single chapter ended in some kind of emotional climax. I like the way you’ve broken the work down into more manageable smaller sandwiches. I guess Brown just stacked up a bunch of bread.

    2. I am curious to what extent this kind of meticulous planning is “standard” – I am familiar with “series bibles” from Battlestar Galactica and Lost, and of course J.K. Rowling has talked about writing the Potter books. But before five years ago, this aspect of fiction was something largely unknown to me. I’m just curious whether these more recent cases have somehow “inspired” your work approach, or whether I had just never thought about this rather obvious aspect of things.

    November 19, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    • The “bible” is something different – that’s for keeping track of continuity (must be sure that what happens to Jill on December 15 in book one is the same thing that happens to her on December 15 in book three; Sam’s cane is typically in her left hand; etc.).

      I don’t know when the idea of a series bible came into play – I’ve read that die-hard Trekkies used to try and make sense of Kirk’s various “stardates,” but the creators admitted they were just making stuff up. I believe TNG and later Treks were more assiduous in tracking those details.

      As far as outlining goes, it’s mostly been a question of teaching myself how to write narrative in long form – though frankly, I wish I’d had this technique when I was working on my dissertation.

      I came up with this formulation beginning in Sept when I was thinking about structure and outlining other people’s books. I’m sure that it’s derivative in a variety of ways based on the stuff I’ve been looking at (Jane Espenson’s writing about Firefly, for one – her take on the end of a chapter/scene needing to be “curiousity-inducing” triumphs for me over Brown’s “OMG! CLIFFHANGER! TURN THE PAGE!) – but derivative or not (I prefer to think of it as a “synthesis”), it’s new for me.

      Especially the sandwich part.

      November 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

  2. I like your sandwich analogy–I’ve never thought of writing in those terms before. I do a lot of young writer workshops and I think my students would also relate to your “sandwich.” Like you, I also like to set small, achievable goals, so that I have a feeling of accomplishment at the end of my day. Love your blog and I’ll be back!

    November 9, 2011 at 11:49 am

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