Saturday, May 26, 2012

Spell It Out For Me: How to Outline Your Stories

Does anyone here hate to outline their stories? *looks to audience, counts dozens of hands, sighs, and then launches into lecture* Okay, yes, outlines are boring, tedious, time-consuming, and it feels like they kill the creative spark, dousing that fire of literary aspiration before it even has a chance.

Considering all of that, why would you ever want to use an outline? I have given several good reasons in the post below this one, but I'll give one great reason right here: an outline assures that your story has a goal.

While that might not seem all that important when you're furiously scribbling down a brilliant first chapter, eventually inspiration will slow down (due to the need to eat, sleep, or go to one's day job), and when you come back to the story, it could be difficult to recapture that creative spirit. (For those of you who have no problem with this, please share your secret.) For the rest of us, here are a few prompts that will need the next 4 to 5 scenes outlined before you start writing them. I'll provide the pitch of the story, and you write a few sentences for the first 4 or 5 scenes.

Pitch 1: Sara was having a tea party with her favorite dolls when she abruptly finds herself transported to the place she had just imagined. Her dolls are real people, and she is welcomed warmly into the family. Since she pretended that her dolls were princesses, the family in question is royal. The opportunities for fun are nearly infinite, but so are the intrigues and plots against the royal family. Will Sara be stuck in the middle?

Pitch 2: As a member of EarthForce's forward brigade, Jackson knew he would see battles and enemies that most humans couldn't imagine...but he never expected to face other humans in battle. When Jackson's expeditionary brigade lands on a newly discovered hospitable planet, they try to lay claim to it for Earth's burgeoning population, only to find that humans already live there - and they refuse to relocate. Torn between duty to his unit and his duty to humanity, Jackson struggles with whether he should follow the customary order (cleanse future colonies for the human population's arrival) or side with the humans who were there first, and know the danger of the planet well.

A Word About Outlines

Unless you're an absolute genius, chances are you'll need an outline to tackle a writing project of greater length. Note: Even if you are an absolute genius, it's still a good idea to organize those superior thoughts using an outline.

I'm currently gearing up for JuNo (National Novel Writing Month's June event), so I am rediscovering the value of a detailed outline. The book I will be writing for JuNo is called "Mindbreakers' Rebellion". It's about what would happen if telepaths started cropping up in distressingly large numbers. We're not talking Professor Xavier and Jean Grey... more like the gradual creation of a new species (tentatively called homo sapien telepathus, though my Latin is rudimentary at best. If anyone knows better, I'm open to suggestions on the genus and species naming conventions.)

Since I'll need to write at least 50,000 words for this story in the next month, I began writing an outline of the scenes. How to the two main characters meet? Which secondary characters are more important than they seem, and how can I drop hints? Is the villain hiding in plain sight, or hiding 'off-screen'?

By creating an outline, I can answer all of these questions before I ever put pen to paper. An outline also helps me determine what ending will be most enjoyable for the reader, most believable, and work out the challenges in writing whichever ending I decide on.

See the post above this one for prompts that need outlines. Have fun, and keep writing!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Make Your Story the Life of the Party

Complete the prompts below, each of which depicts a different type of party. Try to answer these questions, and see the post below for other ideas about how to use a party setting to explore your characters' reactions to each other. Who attended the party? Does your main character want to be there? If not, how does he or she cope? Is there food? (Is it any good?) Who is hosting the party, and why have they chosen to do so?

Party Sequence One:

As she looked out from the balcony and saw the cascade of period costumes, swirling on the hardwood dance floor, she wondered why she wasn't enjoying the party more. All of her friends had been invited, and they were here. Everyone else seemed to be happy, so at least she wasn't a complete failure as a hostess.

Then, she saw the reason for her irritation. Across the room, in a ridiculous outfit that didn't match the period theme (as clearly stated in the invitations), stood her oldest enemy...

Party Sequence Two:

He snagged a snack off a passing tray, plopping it in his mouth, chewing, and swallowing without admitting to himself that he didn't even know what kind of cheese he had just eaten. His dress shirt scratched uncomfortably in his waistband, his polished shoes felt too small, and the marble floor caught every inane laugh and loud brag, amplifying the noise until his head ached.

Why was he here again? Oh, right... he was being supportive. He sighed, grimaced, and then waded back into the chattering crowd with a forced smile plastered on his face...

Expanding Characterization: Party On!

A great way to introduce the hero, villain(s), secondary characters, and stock characters is to invite them all to a party as part of your book. While not every story is well-suited to throwing a party, I think you'll find that only the most strait-laced, strict, or unusual of settings would absolutely forbid any prospect of a party.

Whether your characters are attending a dance, having drinks at the governor's mansion, or playing video games during a sleepover, there are many possibilities for exploring your characters' reactions in this less serious environment.

Finish the party sequence prompts above, adding in things like:
A) Whether the hero and villain would fight each other even though everyone else just wants to enjoy the party,
B) Whether the hero enjoys the party or spends the night avoiding an angry ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, or
C) If the party comes to an abrupt halt, what caused it? Earthquake? Magical portal opening? Someone called the cops to complain about the noise?

Use your imagination, and have fun writing!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stating the Obvious Subtly

There is a fine line between hiding hints in your story (so that they aren't too blatant) and hiding them so well that the reader is confused when the big reveal (villain's identity, plot twist, love interest, etc.) happens. Take a look at the example below, and then practice writing the scenes described in the prompts in a subtle way, rather than an obvious one.

Obvious: As he walked down a dark alley, his skin prickled, overly alert for any sign of an attack. He rounded the corner of a dumpster quickly, wishing he had a weapon of some sort. When he saw the frail, broken person lying on the cracked asphalt beside the dumpster, he realized he had no need of one. He recognized the man from the bar two nights ago.

"The man you asked me to look for?" the broken man said in a raspy, fading voice, "His name is Summers."

Subtle: As he walked down a dark alley, his skin prickled, overly alert for any sign of an attack. He rounded the corner of a dumpster quickly, wishing he had a weapon of some sort. When he saw the frail, broken person lying on the cracked asphalt beside the dumpster, he realized he had no need of one. He recognized the man from the bar two nights ago.

"What happened to you?" he asked the frail, broken man, kneeling to check for wounds.

The broken man laughed, but stopped when cracked ribs made their presence felt. "I couldn't get his name. This..." he gestured at his crushed chest, "happened first. But he mentioned a warehouse on the south side of town...something about plastics."

Prompts: Now, try writing the following scenarios subtly. Don't give away the answer in the first page, or even the first chapter.

Scenario A: Your character is running late for a class at college, and someone has stolen his/her homework. Was the homework stolen, or just misplaced? If misplaced, then what clues about the dorm room will help him/her find it? If stolen, will a roommate or security guard help him/her find it?

Scenario B: Your character is working at a lemonade stand, and he/she witnesses something that hints at a larger crime being committed. What is this 'something', and what does your character do about it?

Have fun with it, and keep writing!

Dropping Hints for Your Characters

I recently read a book - the author of which I will not embarrass by naming here. It was a good book, with a likeable anti-hero, plenty of suspense, intense action, and a well-designed plot. The one weakness to the book was how the author introduced a dead, mostly useless character.

Rather than simply asking a motel manager if they had any messages, the two main characters are arrested by the police. While under arrest, one of the main characters is questioned about the death of a man who was staying in their motel. This gives the secondary main character an opportunity to tell the main character about the dead man - who he was, why he was in town, and how that helps them in their current mystery.

Unfortunately, the whole chapter felt contrived and overblown. From the police kicking down a door to the easy brutality inflicted against the main character, the main point of the chapter seemed to be making the town's police force unpopular with the reader. I already knew from previous chapters that we weren't supposed to like that town's law enforcement, so I didn't need this chapter to remind me so blatantly.

That being said, I have purchased the other two books in this series. However, that was in spite of the chapter I just mentioned. The anti-hero is sufficiently likeable, and the plots are intriguing enough for me to ignore that one chapter as an unfortunate anomaly in the writing.

How would I have handled it differently? See the post above for an example and some practice prompts.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

In Dire Literary Straits

This bookend prompt presents a scene where your main character faces the unforseen problem of an overdue library book. The problem is surprising to your main character, because she never received a library card! Fill in the details between the Left and Right bookend prompt, helping the character with this problem. See the post below this one for strategies on how to solve, avoid, or surrender to the problem of overdue book fines.

Left Bookend: I opened the mail that had my local library's name on it, wondering why they were writing to me. I think I went there once on a school field trip or something, but I've never been back since. The paper I pulled out of the envelope looked official, like a bill.

Right Bookend: The one thing I could be sure of by the time I'd finished was that they would never send me any mail ever again.

A Good Way to Make Your Story Longer... Surprise Your Characters

A good way to add words to your story is to surprise your characters. It can be a pleasant surprise (i.e. the super actually fixed the plumbing in your main character's apartment), or an unpleasant surprise (i.e. despite sending payment for a bill on time, it arrived late... and now your main character owes a late fee, as well as the original bill).

In my opinion, unpleasant surprises are better. Not only are they more realistic and relatable, but they also take up more space on the page.

If you can link the unpleasant surprise to your main plot, that's great. If you can't, it will probably reveal a side of your main character that the reader hasn't witnessed yet.

The unpleasant surprise can be anything from a wrongfully-sent foreclosure notice to a change in a plan to attend a play/movie/event that the main character somehow misses. Either way, presenting this challenge will show your main character's:

A. creativity in succeeding despite the unpleasant surprise,
B. stubbornness as he or she refuses to change his or her plans, or
C. resignation as he or she decides to avoid the problem entirely.

See the writing prompt above for an example, and have fun writing!