Earlier this week the wonderful Ilona Andrews took on a writing question about how she writes story outlines. She laid out a great method, with a lot of insight into her writing method. But for me it was not really the full answer to the question. I mean, please do not get me wrong, it was an amazing example of how brilliantly her mind works. But it was not a story outline, in the sense of what most of beginner authors think about. What it is we google furiously about.
I have written books with a couple of different formats and methods. I plotted one, I pants another, both were trainwrecks in their own way. I was lost. So I did what we all do, I spent too much time on the internet trying to puzzle it out. I settled on a blend. I take the methods preached by The Smarter Artists (oh there has been some Kool-Aid drinking, soon I will tell you about my favorite cult) and a healthy dose of Jim Butchers lectures on youtube while I read his blog on LiveJournal. The blog is old, and I pray the site never archives, I refer to it often. The final ingredient is a healthy and often reread of Ilona’s entire catalog. Their turn of a phrase, the structure of a chapter, all of it, I highlight it to the death of any white on the page and try to absorb the craft.
Now, using her sample (you can see the full post here) we will dissect my process a bit. I have put her amazing sample story for Red Riding Hood at the end of this post. Please, with this post, don’t feel like I am saying that this is easy, or I know it all… I just know that finding a method that works is a personal fit and sometimes the examples of others helps tremendously. For me this is how I go about it.
Generally I sit down with a story already playing in my head. Some parts are clear, others are stuck in a limbo. For Ilona she can craft on paper, I need a few crutches. To see how she brilliantly pulls it out of the air refer back to her post.
First I start with a story arc. This is a Jim Butcher contribution. I have found that if I do this FIRST I can close plot points and have a much higher chance that there will be no plot holes. He has an amazing amount of helpful explanations here but we will pare it down just a little. On the white board I draw a large arch (think pretty happy single colored rainbows) Make 5 ticks (lines), one at each base, one dead center and then two in between. We will add more soon, but I start there. Now, in a couple of words where does your mind start this story? Generally we know the beginning the middle and the end. Fill those in (left, center, right). Using the Red Riding Hood story from Ilona the 5 ticks would be:
- Family and Cape
- Go to Grandma’s
- Huntsman Trap
- Red foils the Wolf
- Wolf save Red Riding Hood
Now I create and start filling in additional ticks as they come to mind. If you don’t yet have a clear picture, just let your mind wander and think about what the story will hold. I have had up to 21 ticks on an arc, but often those are things I build after we move forward with the rest of the process. Once you have gotten to a slow point on your board put it aside and start on the next part.
While you are working the other points go back to your board as the new “tick” points become more clear. For characters I draw small arcs that open and close their usefulness to the story. (sometimes I use a color designated for that character to make it more clear) For example using RRH from below you need a tick that introduces Ranulf and then draw a character arc to the tick that closes him, do this also for the hunstman, and grandma. This does NOT mean we don’t see the character again, it means that their purpose in the story has been revealed and perhaps closed.
This is also a Butcher gem, the Story Skeleton. This is the main plot of your book broken into two sentences. I fought this SO HARD… but it really and truly helps. I rewrote Reign Drops a dozen times, mostly because I could not set it into two sentences. If you want to get to the meat of your story , try to apply this. He breaks it into this simple format.
Using our example story I would try to state it something like this:
When girls in the village start going missing, Red Riding Hood, who feels safe in the woods, tries to safely deliver the elixirs to her Grandmother. But as she is trying to evade the wolf will she figure out in time that the real foe is the huntsman?
Now I start working my beats. Story beats is a fairly common phrase that you can google for more information but I am basing this predominantly on the “Beats 2.0” used by the Smarter Artist crowd. The main gist of this is simple. Take a little time here to invest yourself into the storyworld. I use Scrivner, so the following discussion will be based on those features, but I am certain that you could build a folder and put all of these elements into word docs just as easily. You do you.
The highlights are as follows. For each of the following things create a folder and add in the elements that will allow you to have the most information about each.
- Characters: for each character you have write a short blurb about them, when possible provide yourself with some pictures to assist you visually (referred to as casting) You can create as many character profiles as you care to but everyone mentioned in the story beats should have one to start with, even if for now they are blank.
- Locations: for each location provide yourself with some details or pictures. This is generally limited to 3. If you have too many important locations consider how well the reader will be able to follow along with the story. (if this is a road trip type story you simply have to understand that only a few places will have huge meaning and the rest should not be overly invested in)
- Timeline: How long of a period does your story cover? This is important for flow. This will help you keep track easily of things like season, weather, time of day, age of characters, etc. Give it a little thought now and it will be smoother later. You are the only one who sees this, you can change your mind later.
- Short Beats: Short beats are generally a 1000 words that tell your story from start to finish. Usually when I have completed my short beats I go back to my white board and complete my smaller acrs (we will go over that in a minute) The story sample below is just under 1000 words and a perfect example of short beats.
- Long Beats: For ME the long beats are as follows. I copy and paste the short beats into this folder. Now I start seeing where logical chapters would fall and break it part, assigning numbers to each segment (like the format this segment is broken into) . I use this area to note where character and story arcs open and close, so I make certain that when I am writing them I am certain to hit on those points too. I also incorporate the timeline aspects here. ALl of this is so that I have brief notes of the expectations for each chapter. IN NO WAY am I confined to it as I write, often the story flow changes it, but this allows me to see how to stay the course for the long term goals.
- Blubs: Yuck, we alllll hate blurbs. This area is something you will fiddle with from time to time, but I create the folder here to have a spot to paste in favorite lines, and make general notes.
WHEN do we start to write?? I know, I know. This generally takes two days, sometimes longer. But if this is going well you will find that the story is clearer in your mind, that things are more interesting and you understand it better, and this will show in the writing. You will have fewer drafts (seriously, I rewrote chapter one 19 times once, just to scrap it when I figured out that 1&2 needed to be together and from a different POV, this was pre-beats)
If you are wanting to explore this format try using the provided example story and breaking it all out into the steps that we have covered. Think of it as a free writers workshop! You didn’t even have to leave home. Let me know how it goes, I would love to hear your feedback.
RED RIDING HOOD Re-imagined by Ilona Andrews
Red Riding Hood is a very nice girl, who lives on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. The forest is a dangerous place. Two girls from their village had gone into the woods and never came back, but Red Riding Hood isn’t scared of the woods. She loves wandering under the big old trees and goes there often, which is why her grandmother, a powerful witch who made the woods her home, gave her a red cloak for her birthday and told her that it would protect her in time of danger.
One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asks Red Riding Hood to deliver some bottles of imported nightshade to Grandma. Red Riding Hood puts on her cloak and goes to the woods.
In the Red Riding Hood’s village also lives a very nice boy, whose name was Ranulf. Ranulf is a hunter and he is really good at hunting, because Ranulf is a werewolf. He keeps his magic a secret, because people get scared of werewolves and Ranulf didn’t want to scare anyone. Even so, people don’t like Ranulf. There was just something odd about him that makes them worry. So Ranulf keeps mostly to himself and doesn’t talk to smart and funny girls like Red Riding Hood.
For awhile now, Ranulf has been finding disturbing signs in the woods, animals who were hacked to pieces. Then, the girls disappeared. Ranulf knows that something terrible is in the woods, and when he sees Red Riding Hood leave by herself, he decides to follow her. But because he isn’t well liked, he turns into a wolf, so he can follow her undetected.
Red Riding Hood notices the big bad scary wolf and tries to lose him.
Unknown to her, Red Riding Hood is being stalked by a woodsman whose name is Gary. Gary is a very sick person. He liked to kill small helpless animals and set things on fire when he was younger, but now he grew up into a big strong man and he is looking for bigger things he could kill and torture. From Gary’s point of view, things that come into his woods belong to him and he can hurt them however he wants. Ranulf smells Gary early on and decides that nothing good would come from the woodsman being there.
Woodsman Gary, Ranulf and Red Riding Hood slowly make their way through the woods. Gary keeps trying to get Red Riding Hood. All the while Red Riding Hood thinks the wolfs if her real problem…
Red Riding Hood notices the big bad scary wolf and tries to hide from him. Just about when he is ready to discover her, her cape turns her invisible.
Unknown to her, Red Riding Hood is being stalked by a woodsman whose name is Gary. Gary is a very sick person. He liked to kill small helpless animals and set things on fire when he was younger, but now he grew up into a big strong man and he is looking for bigger things he could kill and torture. From Gary’s point of view, things that come into his woods belong to him and he can hurt them however he wants. Ranulf smells Gary early on and decides that nothing good would come from the woodsman being there and decides to put himself between Gary and Red Riding Hood.
Woodsman Gary, Ranulf and Red Riding Hood slowly make their way through the woods. Gary keeps trying to get Red Riding Hood. Ranulf keeps trying to keep Gary from getting Red Riding Hood. Red Riding keeps trying to get to the Grandma’s house safe and outwit both of them.
Gary, who is an impatient and impulsive bad guy, decides to abandon his pursuit of Red Riding Hood and instead to head directly down to Grandma’s cottage and wait for Red Riding Hood there. He arrives to the cottage to find the old witch is out, so he breaks the door and goes inside. While inside, he finds a transforming potion and takes it, turning himself into Grandma.
Red Riding arrives to the cottage to find her Grandmother inside. But Ranulf, who followed her, smells Gary’s scent and realizes that grandmother was the woodsman in disguise. He attacks Gary to save Red Riding Hood. Not realizing that Ranulf is trying to save her, Red Riding Hood fights him off and locks him outside the house. Gary has been waiting for this moment for a long time. He wants to hurt her very much. He just keeps smiling and smiling, but Red Riding Hood’s grandmother wasn’t the smiling type. She realizes something is wrong and when Gary attacks, she was ready.
Meanwhile, Ranulf finally finds the way inside the house. He breaks in just in time to help Red Riding Hood finish off Gary. Ranulf turns back into a human, and he and Red Riding Hood cleaned up the mess and waited for grandmother to come home together. Red Riding Hood always kind of thought that Ranulf was interesting but he was always off by himself, so now is their chance to finally get to know each other.