(Everyone Needs an Outline part II)
By Nichole Giles
If you’re a regular reader, you might still be scratching your head about the three-word outline mentioned in last week’s blog. You’re probably wondering how it’s possible to outline a story in three words, and what to do to prevent your story from being turned into a plate of spaghetti.
Before I explain, I must credit this entire way of thinking to Jon Franklin, author of “Writing for Story, Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.” (This particular topic is discussed in chapter VI: The Outline.)
The format goes like this:
You’re allowed only three words per line, and one of them has to be an active verb. You can’t use any type of preposition, nor can you use adjectives or adverbs. Only nouns and ACTIVE verbs. Franklin stresses this point in big boldface letters, saying, “Stories consist of actions.”
The complication is the turning point in the life of the character, the one that gives the story reason. The development is how the character deals with the complication, and builds up to the resolution, which is the end of the story.
As you write this outline, make sure to leave out all of the dreaded “to be” verbs—is, be, am, was, were, have, has, being, been, do, does, did, could, would, should—otherwise, your story will be lacking in action, and you haven’t thought it through well enough.
Next, be sure your main character is in the statement. He or she is, after all, the person the entire story is built upon. If your main character isn’t in the outline, your story isn’t focused.
When you read back through your outline, ask yourself if you can picture the scenes in your mind, and if your beginning and ending match. If so, you have created a successful outline. This outline is the backbone of your story. Pat yourself on the back.
Here’s an example from one of my own nonfiction outlines:
Complication: Washington receives orders
1. Washington gathers party
2. Washington spies
3. Survives elements, attack
Resolution: Washington delivers report
Now, I will not claim that this is a perfect example. I’m fully aware that number three bends the rules a little. It should say, “Washington survives.” But, for my own sake, I’ve left it as is to remind myself of the specific scene I wish to write about in that particular instance. Notice however, that the complication and the resolution match. Which is the most basic, important element of any outline. The beginning must match the end, or you have no story.
Obviously, there’s so much more to this method of writing than I can ever explain to you in a blog. If this idea intrigues you, I suggest running—not walking, sauntering, or strolling—to your nearest library or bookstore and picking up a copy of the book mentioned above. You’ll be a better writer for it.
That’s it. Give it a try. But I’m warning you; it’s harder than it sounds. The good news is, once you have a basic outline, you’ve already fought half the battle. You’ve taken control of your story, and your noodle. Yeah for you!