Writing Excuses 12.24: Creating Great Outlines
Key points: This episode is about outlines to help you write, not sales tools. People like structure, it is comforting. Mix a familiar structure with a bit of strange, and you can relish the oddity. First, the Kevin J. Anderson: pitch, expand to 5 pages, 20 pages, and keep blowing. Thumbnail sketch, synopsis (internal beats), scenes. This approach keeps you focused on what this novel is about. It also gives you room to be creative and get the discovery writing out as you expand. Beware, too much interesting stuff in the outline can make writing the novel boring. Don’t try to include everything, just the key details. The Wesley Chu: outline 30%, write a bit, outline more, write more. The structuralist: seven point, three act, Hero’s Journey, etc. Create your beats and build the outline. Also good for diagnostics — what’s wrong with this story? The George R. R. Martin: use historical incidents. Often used in science fiction and fantasy, based on a historical record taken fantastical. The Sanderson: build your outline backward. Start with a great ending, then look at what promises lead to that. How do you justify awesome things? Prequels, interstitial tales. The strength of an outline is that restrictions breed creativity. Structural requirements can push you in directions you might not have gone otherwise.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 24.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Creating Great Outlines.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] That cracks me up every time. All right. Outlines. This is one that’s very much in my wheelhouse, so to speak. How do we create a great outline?
[Mary] I don’t know, Brandon, how do you create a great outline?
[Brandon] Well… I actually have an outline for this episode.
[Mary] How about that? What are the chances?
[Brandon] I like to outline so much that I send Writing Excuses all big outlines of things.
[Mary] He is not kidding. This is not a joke.
[Brandon] No. The outline for this season’s 18 pages long. So I’m just going to pitch some outline methods I’ve seen at you guys and ask you guys if you’ve ever tried any of these, what your thoughts on them are. The first outlining method that I put on the outline for the outline…
[Brandon] Is what I call the Kevin J. Anderson. Now, Kevin, when I’ve talked to him, he’s a very strict outline writer. What he does is he starts with the pitch that he sends to a publisher. Which we’ll talk about writing pitches later. He takes a few paragraphs, and then he just starts expanding that. He writes a five-page version of that. Then he writes a 20 page version of that. Then he expands that to a novel. Have you ever done this? Have you ever tried anything like this?
[Mary] That is essentially very similar to the way I outline, actually. One thing I want to flag right up at the front is that when we are talking about outlining in this episode, we are talking about the outline that you use as a writing tool. We are not talking about the outline that you use to sell a novel, which is a completely different animal. Yeah, so I start with that thumbnail sketch idea, which is like a paragraph, this is what the novel’s about. Then I unpack that into a synopsis, which is here are some of the internal beats. Then I unpack that into, okay, this is exactly what this scene is going to look like. Now, I say exactly what the scene is going to look like. There are times when, in fact, I just have a scene… Like, in the current project, The Faded Sky, I have a scene that is something goes wrong in space! [Exclamation point]. So you can be a little fluid. But by the time I get to that scene, I will have fleshed it out.
[Brandon] I’ve heard that famously in the ET outline, there was a line that said, “And they escape from people chasing them.” Which became the famous ET flying from the moon scene, and stuff like that. But the original outline, it was just that.
[Wesley] That’s all you need. I mean, most action scenes are like, “And they fight…”
[Wesley] And somebody is alive and somebody’s dead.
[Mary Anne] And for comedy, too, right? Hijinks ensue.
[Brandon] Hijinks ensue.
[Mary] Romance. Matrimony ensues.
[Mary Anne] That’s right.
[Brandon] What is the strength, you think, of this outlining method? What does it give you?
[Mary] Well, for me, the thing that it gives me is that it’s starting from a central core of this is what the novel is about. Every time I’m going into it, what I’m doing is I’m unpacking. So this novel is about a meteor hitting the Earth and we… And kicking off the space race. That’s kind of the core of The Calculating Stars, the thing that I’m actually working on. So then, I unpack that. Okay. So the meteor hits the Earth, how does that affect people? So it affects my main character because she’s a rocket scientist. Okay, how does that affect her? So the unpacking means that I’m always staying centered over the core idea. Then, I’m getting more detailed. But the details that I’m picking are all supporting that one point.
[Brandon] When I’ve done things similar to this, it felt like, to me, it also gives you a lot of chances to get the discovery writing out as you expand that outline. Right? So that you are having these chances to be creative with each expansion. You might think, “Oh, an outline locks me into things.” But you’re getting to change this with each revision of this draft, until finally you’re very comfortable with this outline, and you know the scenes are going to work, and you can then write them.
[Wesley] Basically, you’re saying you pants the outline instead of the book.
[Mary] Yeah. My feeling is… We’ve talked about this before, that discovery writing versus outlining, that it’s a spectrum. I feel like discovery writing and outlining… Or planning… Happen in every novel, they just happen at different points for different writers.
[Wesley] Unless you’re outlining the outline.
[Brandon] Yeah, well, you know.
[Mary Anne] So this is something I struggle with a lot. As a short story writer, I could hold the entire story in my head, basically. I knew beginning, most of the middle, and definitely the end, usually before I put the… Before I start typing. Like, I just work it all out first, then it’s a matter of getting it down. I figure out some details as I go, but most of it was already there. I can’t do that in a novel. I cannot hold the whole thing in my head. So I tried with my first novel, just writing a straightforward outline, but the problem I ran into is that I’d worked out all the interesting stuff in the outline, so when I went to write it, I got bored.
[Brandon] That’s a classic discovery writer problem, actually.
[Mary Anne] I hated it. I just… I mean, I finished, but I didn’t even like the book by the end of it.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s classic. In fact, I should make the point… We’ve made it before on Writing Excuses. If outlines don’t work for you, don’t use one. We’re talking about them this month, but discovery writing is perfectly acceptable.
[Mary Anne] Well, but I will say that… I’m not sure [inaudible] Because the second time I tried to write a novel, I was like, “Okay. I’m not going to make that mistake again. I’m just going to start at the beginning and go.” And figured it out as I went but that led to a very murky middle, where I spent a long time kind of like writing scene after scene that didn’t really progress.
[Mary] I think one of the things that you can do to deal with this, is that a lot of times I think that discovery writers who are transitioning to outline, do too much of the outline. You don’t actually need… Your… A really detailed outline. It’s… This is a piece of paper that exists to remind you of where the story is going. It exists just to help you hold the story in your head. You don’t need all of the details written down. You just need the details that you’re afraid you’re going to forget.
[Mary Anne] That helps.
[Wesley] So, one thing I did in my previous book that really helped me a lot was I try… I used to try to outline the entire book. Then, every time I jumped the tracks, and I’m going on a whole different route, then I re-outline the entire book. That’s when I get my seven versions of… Outlines of a book. So the book I just handed in, that just came out in October, The Rise of Io, instead of outlining the entire book, I outlined like 30% of it. So I got there and then I kind of, by that time, by that point, I had veered a little bit off the tracks, but then I veered… I outlined another 30%. So instead of on entire book, I kind of hybrid outlined, where I pantsed a little bit, outlined a little bit, stayed on track, and that way, I’m course correcting the entire time, without having to do the entire book and get so far off track that…
[Brandon] That sounds… Like, most people will disc… Find their own method as they do this. It’s going to be some hybrid. In fact, we’ll talk about doing some hybrid methods later on, on the podcast. But, yeah. Let’s go ahead and do a different… Talk about a different method of outlining, which is one that I know, Mary, you’ve done. This is taking some sort of structure that you want to try out, whether it seven point story structure, nine point… There’s so many of them online. The Hero’s Journey, whatever model you want to use. Three act. You’re going to say, “All right. I’m going to take the story that I’m thinking about, and I’m going to use this to create my beats and build an outline that way.” Have any of the rest of you done that ever?
[Mary Anne] I feel like I’ve… I think coming from mainstream lit, I’m so resistant to all of these. I think I just have to get…
[Brandon] That’s good.
[Mary Anne] No, I think I’ve got to get over it. Like, I think… So one… I wrote this story, 7 Cups of Water. It is a short story, but it has actually a very explicit structure. Like every night, these two get together, they drink another cup of water together, and stuff escalates over time. As I’m writing it, I kept thinking, “Oh, this is so artificial. The reader’s totally going to get irritated by that.” But it is, I swear, one of my best stories, and one of the most satisfying and organic feeling stories, despite the fact that it has this very mechanical in some sense structure.
[Mary] So one of the things about people is that we are pattern seeking creatures. We like structure. This is one of the reasons that… I am not a parent. But those of… The other three podcasters know this, that one of the things that makes kids act out the most is not having consistent structure at home. Rules that change. We like it when we understand how things go. It’s very comforting. One of the things that that can give you, we talk about a lot the familiar and the strange. If you have a familiar structure, and you’re marrying it with something that’s odd, then it… That’s when you can relish the oddity. Without having to be like, “Where’s this going?”
[Brandon] I’ve… when I’ve done this before, when I’ve looked at people doing it, it can be a great tool. The thing is, you have to realize, no format is perfect. These are usually tools we use as diagnostic tools. My story is broken. Maybe I could take at look at some of these structure things. Or, you’re building your story, and say, “All right. I really should have a point like this, I should have a part like this in my story.” Don’t feel like you have to hit every point immediately like it says in the story structure outlines or things like this. The seven points or whatnot. But it can really teach you to start thinking about structure for your stories in a different way.
[Wesley] There’s been times where I have an entire book finished, and I actually reengineer an outline out of it, just so I can take a look at it and go, “Okay. This is why everything felt weird, because this whole portion of it is kind of dead and useless, or there’s a lull in the plot.” So, reverse engineering works really well as well.
[Mary] I’ve done that as well, too.
[Mary Anne] So, I have a different method…
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary Anne] I don’t know if it’s a method, exactly, but what I’m doing right now. So George R. R. Martin famously said that he based Game of Thrones in part on The War of the Roses, right? That he’s taken it actual historical incidents and used them for his structure. That’s what I’m trying to do now. I’ve gone… I’m reading Sri Lankan history and… Because my book is essentially kind of… The war in Sri Lanka is at least a big piece of it. But in space with aliens. So… I’m looking at actual incidents that happened, and just making sort of a history, then we’ll be thinking about how would that play in space with aliens.
[Brandon] That’s great. I’m glad you brought that up. That’s like a primary way of writing science fiction and fantasy, I found, is go look toward a historical record and make this fantastic.
[Mary] I have certainly never done that in my own novels.
[Brandon] No, no, no…
[Brandon] I really like how you invented that without a summer thing.
[Mary] Yeah. We… That was completely made up. But it’s true that a lot of times… One of the things about looking at history is… We say that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. History goes in cycles. There are certain things that happen as a natural extension, so when you start looking at that, of course it’s going to read as organic and real. Because that particular historical thing has happened in various ways more… Over and over again. So, this is one of the reasons why it’s such a powerful tool.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Mary, you’re going to tell us about The Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth?
[Mary] Yes. So I picked this up, The Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield. I picked it up as research for these astronaut books that I’m working on. I was expecting a book that was straight up memoir. What I actually got was a book that is about space, but it’s really a self-help book that’s cleverly disguised as a memoir from an astronaut. Chris Hadfield is this really compelling storyteller, and he’s Canadian. So he’s super nice.
[Mary] But he manages to package all of these stories about the time that he nearly went… That he went blind in space and nearly died, as learning important life lessons. So I’m reading this book like, “Gosh, this is a really compelling space story. Oh. Oh, that’s useful for my day-to-day life.” I’m now a better person for having read this story. Part of why I’m suggesting it this particular week is that he is very good at giving you frames of reference. I think that that is super useful.
[Wesley] Because he’s in space?
[Mary] Because he’s in space. But I think it’s super useful when you’re sitting down to do an outline to have a frame of reference, and to recognize that you don’t have to have particular expectations going into it. He’s just… It’s a great book. You’ll just love the heck out of it.
[Mary Anne] I read it and loved it. I will say that the main thing it did for me is it killed my desire to be an astronaut.
[Mary Anne] Right? Like I… You know… Because I think I had this image of the glory of it. Right? And reading the book, there is so much dreary routine to the actual job. I was like, “Oh. I’m glad he’s the one who did that.”
[Mary] Which is much like writing.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go into one more outlining method, which I have humbly titled the Sanderson.
[Mary] Oh, really, deah, tell us about the Sanderson.
[Brandon] So, the way I do outlining is I build my outline backward. I do this specifically because I want to have explosive, powerful, and interesting endings. It’s all about the promises. So I look for how am I going to fulfill a cool promise. Then, I’ll find out the promise I can use to justify these really awesome moments in stories. I usually start my story with awesome moments in my head that I’ve been working out at the gym and I’ve been going on the elliptical, listening to epic music. I’m like, “What is a scene that gets set to this music?” That’ll attach to, of course… I’ve had ideas in my head forever. I’m like, “Well, what’s a scene with this character where they really realize who they are?” Build that scene. I have that scene. Now I need to justify that in the book. So much of my writing is about justifying awesome things. The whole Stormlight Archive is about I want people who have magical power armor and giant swords. Those are both fairly impractical things to be doing, so let’s build a soc… A world where you need those things. Right? So… Have you guys ever started with an ending first?
[Mary Anne] Uhhhh…
[Wesley] Can you clarify real quick that you mean by building backwards? Like, do you have the very last scene, and then like write the scene before that, and then the one before that?
[Brandon] No, no, no. The outline… I outline backwards. So what I do is I start with the ending. Here is this cool ending. By ending, I’m usually not meaning dénouement. I’m using here is this really cool…
[Mary Anne] Climax.
[Brandon] Focused climax scene, often where a character’s soul… Kind of they realize what they are, overlapping them doing something really cool. Then I will put that in my outline. Then, I’ll put bullet points underneath it for all the things I need to have happen in this story to justify this, and work backward. Then the first bullet point becomes where I… My starting point for my first scene.
[Mary] I am accidentally doing that. I just suddenly realized. Oh. Because the two novels that I’m working on right now are prequels to The Lady Astronaut of Mars.
[Brandon] Yes. Of course.
[Mary] I have to build towards The Lady Astronaut of Mars. So there are times when I’m like that would be really cool, and I can’t have that thing because it takes me to a different ending.
[Mary Anne] That’s what we’re doing right now with Tremontaine because it takes place 20 years before Ellen Kurshner’s Swordspoint. So it is a prequel story.
[Mary] The thing that we did with Serial Box, which was about Catherine and Charles II. There’s history that we are locked into, and we’re like, “Can’t… Gotta build.” It’s like we can’t have an illness here because we know that the plague is coming up in the second season.
[Mary Anne] I’m sorry.
[Wesley] I’m sorry. Go ahead and finish.
[Mary Anne] I was just going to say, I am also working backwards now, which is new for me. I usually I start at the beginning, and I write linearly. Now I’m realizing that to…
[Brandon] Let’s emphasize. I do write the books linearly forward. But I build the outline backward.
[Wesley] I just realized that I’m doing the exact same thing…
[Wesley] I’m cowriting a book with Cassandra Clare for…
[Brandon] Of course.
[Mary] Right. Of course.
[Wesley] [garbled] called The Lost Book of the White. The parameters we have for that book is Magnus and his boyfriend are on vacation in Europe for about a month…
[Wesley] In the first half of the fourth book of her main series. So they’re off screen for the first half of the book, and then they come back in the middle of the book to kind of continue on to finish the book. So that’s the parameter I have for this entire book I’m writing with her is we gotta…
[Brandon] You told me…
[Wesley] Keep everything in that slot.
[Brandon] That there are certain things those characters have mentioned through the rest of the series that happened on this that are requirements that you deal with.
[Wesley] Right. So like the other characters make references, “Oh, there’s Magnus at the Eiffel Tower. There’s Magnus at… Wearing an Indian sari.” There’s Magnus doing all these different things. So now we have to not only put them on vacation for a month, they have to hit all these… Five, six places, and they have to establish a relationship, and they have to come back at the end of the book completely…
[Brandon] In one piece.
[Wesley] In one piece.
[Mary] So one of the funny things about this is I actually find this kind of externally imposed structure a little bit freeing, because it eliminates a number of the choices off the table. Which means like… I like working with constrained parameters. It makes it easier to say, “Well, I can just discard these things.” Which means that I’m really only looking at three choices. Which of those choices is the most interesting? As opposed to… All of these things, and which of these is going to… Well, where am I going down the…
[Brandon] This is the strength of an outline, right? The lead designer of Magic: the Gathering, Mark Rosewater, always says restrictions breed creativity. Now, this isn’t an absolute. Sometimes you need to be able to just throw out the outline. But I loved, when I was growing up, the TV show MacGyver specifically because I have these three things. What can I do with them? That restriction made a more interesting show than if he had unlimited resources and would just be like, “Well, I’m going to make… I have a jet plane, we’ll fly there.” No, you need to make a hang glider out of these…
[Mary] Out of these garbage bags and PVC pipes.
[Mary Anne] This is why I like writing sonnets. There’s that structural requirement is interesting. It pushes you in directions that you might not have gone otherwise.
[Brandon] All right. Well, we are out of time. We are going to go ahead and have Mary give us some homework.
[Mary] Yes. Okay. So we’ve talked about a bunch of different outline structures. What I want you to do is I want you to take the list of events in whatever it is that you’re thinking about writing. I want you to take a list of structures. So, seven point plot structure, The Hero’s Journey, all of these different things. Heist! List out the scene types. Then slot the scenes from your event list into the scene type list for each of these different structures. See which of these kind of fits organically with your story, and which one kind of makes you excited, and what opportunities they allow.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.