The “What?” of your story is the plot. What happens to your characters? What do they do? What adventures do they have? What is the action of the story? The Three Little Pigs provides some pretty funny characters, but there is no plot until the Big Bad Wolf comes calling. A hike through the woods can be beautiful, but it’s not much of a story unless . . . one of the teens in the party steps off the trail and gets lost . . . a late/early winter storm strands your characters in the wilderness . . . a mamma bear takes exception to your characters getting between her and her cubs . . . a dead body riddled with bullets is found at the base of a cliff. Setting and characters are important, of course, but they are not the thing that prompts your readers to keep turning the page.
It is the plot—the action—that drives the story. Whether it’s a romance, a mystery, an adventure, a comedy of errors, a space epic, or a western—whatever the genre—the plot is the story.
To Outline or Not to Outline, That Is the Question.
Using an outline to write a story is an age-old trick to help writers get started and stay on track, but an outline it not an absolute necessity. Some writers can’t write without an outline, and some never use one. This is another one of those “it depends” topics. For me, an outline is a useful tool when (1) I have an assignment to write about a certain topic, and I don’t want to miss something I was supposed to include; or (2) I have a specific and firm number of words and/or pages to write.
(1) When you don’t want to leave anything out:
When I was in school, I almost always used an outline to make sure I covered the material I was researching thoroughly. From my first college paper back in the dark ages, when I was pounding out papers on a typewriter, to my twenty-first century master’s thesis composed on a computer—and all those essay exams I wrote long-hand in between—I used this writing technique. I still will use an outline when I’m writing nonfiction for the same reason. I generally don’t actually use a formal outline, but I do make a list of points I wanted to cover, move them around until I feel they are in a logical, linear order, and then sort my research into the appropriate sections. It is a way for me to check off each subtopic and make certain I use all the resources I want to use in the proper place.
(2) When you have a firm page/word count:
Today, I’ll use outlines when I ghost write short stories, because if I am assigned to write a complete story in 4,000 or 6,000, or 10,000 words, I need to figure out ahead of time what scenes I’ll need in order to tell the entire story. Again, I don’t do a formal outline, but I will do a list of needed scenes, note what has to happen in each, who needs to appear when, and through whose point of view the scene should be told. Then once I have the number of scenes, I can get a general idea of how long each scene needs to be to reach the final word count.
I don’t, however, use any kind of outline for a novel. For me, that’s the joy of writing book-length fiction. I start with a general idea of a plot, create the characters, set them up, and then just let them go. For me, part of the adventure of writing book-length fiction is that I can create the scene, place the characters, then sit back and watch what happens as I write. Sometimes, I end up with a 60-page novella and sometimes a 400-page epic. It just depends on how the story unfolds—and how long my characters want to play in my story.
Plays and screenplays—the ultimate outline:
Drama—whether a full-length stage play, a one-act, a television script, or a screenplay—is particularly wedded to a certain number of pages, making a loose outline imperative for me as a writer. The general rule for script writing is, on average, one page of a script equals one minute on stage. This is, of course, a very general rule, because how long a page takes depends entirely upon how much action is required. A page of straight dialogue will generally take about a minute to run, but other issues, such as conflict, choreography, laughter, romance, etc., can change everything.
Again, when I’m writing plays or screenplays, I don’t do a formal outline but rather think in terms of the acts and scenes needed to tell the story in an effective way. Come to think of it, what I’m really doing is what in the movie business is called creating a storyboard. I am certain my background in theater—my first fiction writing was a full-length play script—is what has me always thinking about story in terms of scenes and dialogue. This has always made it pretty easy for me to write effective dialogue in my fiction, but it did make moving from brief “stage directions” to narrative prose a challenge when I first started writing novels.
Focusing on the Plot
I am currently in the middle of turning one of my novels into a screenplay, and boy has this exercise given me a new appreciation for those screenwriters who take on book adaptations! The decisions about which scenes must be included and which can be cut are sometimes agonizing—after all, they were all necessary to the original story when I wrote it!—but this exercise has also given me incredible insight into what makes a scene truly essential to the plot of a story, and how clearly narration should be kept to a minimum. “Show, don’t tell” is a lot easier in a play, because unless you create a narrator as a character (think of musicals like Once Upon a Mattress or Into the Woods), the plot is completely defined by dialogue and action, leaving all descriptive narration up to the scenic designer and costumer.
This move from prose to play script is an exercise you might want to explore, if you have, for example, a long story you need to cut for a contest or magazine submission. Try rewriting it as a play script, cutting your page count in half as you do so. The scene analysis required by this exercise will help you to really focus on the plot—the core of your story—allowing you to see which scenes really are essential in order to tell the story, and which might actually prove superfluous.
Next time, we’ll look at the “When” of a story and the details that put it in its place.