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On Narrative Structure: Outlines

On Tuesday I told the story of the time I learned why I was such an awful baseball player: I only learned after it was over that I was severely nearsighted. I suspect my lone experience with team sports would have gone a lot differently if I’d played the season in glasses.

I’ll never know, though. I suffered too much humiliation, and my teammates suffered too many losses at my hands, so none of us were really anxious to get me back on the field the following year. So, as it happened, I never even tried again.

The story, there, is in the sequence. If a couple key things had happened in a different order, my story might be a vastly different one. Novelists these days (and readers, too) tend to be pretty dismissive of plot, but the whole fabric of your story — no matter the genre — depends on the things that happen, and what order those things happen in.

So, at the very least, you should give it some thought. My first NaNoWriMo prewriting assignment is designed to make you do just that, so let’s consider what kind of preparation needs to go into a mock Table of Contents.

Get in Late, Get Out Early

One of the most important aspects of nailing down your sequence of events is first choosing the outside boundaries. Just like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, it’s a lot easier to define the outside edges first, and then fill in the middle.

So start by figuring out your beginning and end. You don’t have to know the actual scenes, what happens, but you should know vaguely which portion of your protagonist’s life story you’re going to tell.

To do that, you have to have a story — and not just a story, but a protagonist’s story. That’s probably the most painful problem I’ve seen in new writers’ manuscripts: they’re telling some great scenes and some fascinating characters, but they don’t actually tell any one character’s story.

Figure out a plot arc. If you need help with that, you’ll probably find it in a later exercise — the Conflict Resolution Cycle worksheet — but you can also dig back into my archives to find other posts on plot and story structure.

The key, though, is to pick a protagonist and give that character a distinct plot arc. Something happens to him, messes up his life, and he goes on a quest to fix it. Along the way he encounters obstacles, and finally overcomes them to banish the new conflict from his life during a big scene called the climax. That’s your plot. That’s your story.

Once you have your story…focus on telling just your story. Get in late — start telling the story with that first event (or as close to it as possible), instead of trying to establish your character and your world and your philosophy beforehand.

Then get out early. As soon as you’ve driven to a climax, tie up your loose ends quick and stamp “The End” onto the page. If you focus on just telling your story, you’ll have a much easier time choosing which scenes to write in October, and actually getting them written once November rolls around.

Manage the Reader’s Understanding

Now, that said…you do have to do something to tell your readers what your character’s life was like before The Event. And if you’re writing any kind of imaginative setting, you’ve got to fill your reader in on the special details of your world, too. It’s a tricky prospect.

One of the cleanest ways to do that is with backstory — within your natural narrative, refer back to things in the past to present them to the reader. This can be done with flashbacks…but don’t. Unless you’re already an expert, don’t.

Instead, try to find ways to work it into the plot. Maybe your protagonist runs into an old classmate he hasn’t seen in years, and you tell the reader about the character while the character catches up with an old friend. Maybe your protagonist ends up on the wrong side of the table in an interrogation room, and you illuminate the reader while a hard-nosed detective grills your protagonist for details.

Your job, as I’ve said more than once this summer, is to tell your readers everything they need to know, before they need to know it. Keep that in mind, and then choose the simplest story structure that will manage it.

Ultimately, your story events should unfold in a logical order — and that’s not just following cause-and-effect within the story world, since you have full control of what does and doesn’t happen.

No, your story structure should gradually illuminate more and more of the plot details until, just at the right time, the reader and the protagonist arrive together at a point of complete understanding (we call that Plot Point II, or the transition between Act II and Act III), and then march hand-in-hand toward the final confrontation that will resolve the story’s conflict (we call that the Climax).

Build a Mock Table of Contents

So what do you do with all that? You build a sequence of events. Which events will tell your story? Which events will reveal the information your readers need (whether it’s about the plot, or about the characters caught up in it)? Which events, in which order, create the story you want to tell?

Think about it for a little bit…and then write it down. That last sentence could describe the process of writing a novel, or of creating a plot synopsis, or just an outline. In this case, we’re going smaller still. We’re going to make a preliminary Table of Contents for your novel. Come back tomorrow for detailed instructions.

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