“A person lacking bones is a jellyfish—an aimless, floating blob.” – Anon
An earlier post discussed this cool idea I had one Christmas vacation for a science fiction trilogy, and how I began by finding pictures of my imagined characters on the internet and summarizing them in a character outline. Each one had their own abilities and quirks. I selected cities of origin, personalities, accents, and even backstories for each one. My story would be rich!
But what was the story to be told? What were its beginning, middle, and end? And if it was to be a trilogy, I needed three story arcs, each sufficiently detailed to support a novel. Where to begin?
My first impulse was to just start writing. Perhaps the stories would find themselves at the tips of my fingers, so to speak.After all, I knew how a story worked.
Within the first pages I realized how wrong that instinct was. My pages were a mess, threads began and trailed off. I’m amazed by other novelists’ ability to weave together multiple story strands and to bring together most of them by the story’s end. How was I going to keeping track of all the plot twists, rising tension, “scenes”, foreshadowing…? You get the idea.
To put it simply, my story needed a skeleton, that is, an outline summarizing the essence of what would take place in each chapter. The “meat,” meaning the detailed dialogue and scene descriptions, could come later.
I’m a numbers guy. To help me assess how much writing I’d have to do, as well as to help me structure my story, I wanted an estimate on the number of chapters I should target. I looked at chapter counts for several somewhat similar books that I admire:
- The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins – 27 chapters
- Rabbit Cake, by Annie Hartnett – 48
- The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – none
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling – 22
- The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi – 47
- Infomocracy, by Malka Older – 33
- Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler – 25
As a new novelist, I wasn’t so bold as to break rules like Cormac McCarthy, and the thought of having to parcel my story across almost 50 chapters like Annie Hartnett or Paolo Bacigalupi frightened me, to be frank. I decided to target 27 chapters, fitting their themes into the story arc.
I outlined all three stories of the trilogy, to make sure they “fit” together. At first starting with several bullets per chapter, I expanded the outline free-form, combining prose and key dialogue with generic themes, locations, and actions. Eventually, I added the purpose for each chapter. As I began writing the prose that fleshed out each outline, I learned that to write each chapter comprised of 8-12 single-spaced pages, it helped to have a fairly detailed outline approximately one full page per chapter.
Here’s the early outline for a chapter in the second book of my science fiction trilogy:
Chapter Purpose: Discovering the Dragon
- Rebels follow Mei Juan as she does her grocery shopping at village farms.
- She teaches them Chinese names of fruit.
- One day, the bad weather horn sounds, and lightning flashes are seen approaching.
- “I’ve never seen such dark clouds,” said Marie.
- They start to run inside, but Leo stops and turns. Touching his visor, it morphs a few times:
- Visor (small then larger)
- Full-face fly’s eye
- Black radome with silver spiderweb
- “That’s not natural lightning,” he says. Something’s moving through the clouds. It appears to be cloaked. It’s only visible in a narrow part of the spectrum. I’m going up to a get a better look.”
- “Is it a good idea to fly into a thunderstorm?” asked Bel.
- “No,” he said coolly.
- After a moment Cole said, “Hell that’s what we do.”
- Leo cloaks Vulcan and takes off with his friends. Though dark clouds and the fact that the Dragon is cloaked make it difficult to see, Leo sees the true cause of the lightning: a Thunder Dragon is behind the cloud cover.
- He tells the others and they climb into his Vulcan craft to pursue and confront the Dragon.
- Rising above the cloud cover, they can’t see much because the Dragon is also cloaked. When the others say they don’t see anything, Leo decides to shoot it to make it visible. They get a clear view of the Dragon, who then sees and pursues them. The dragon sees and flies at them. It opens its mouth. A hawk flies towards them then abruptly turns away, just like when they entered a bad storm in Outer Memphis.
- “Dive Leo, dive!” says Bel.
- Leo puts Vulcan into a power dive just as a lightning bolt flashes overhead.
- They try evading it, hiding in the forest, and returning to the town, but the Dragon accidentally allows himself to become visible to the townspeople.
- Vulcan finally dives into the nearby river, and the Dragon departs.
I mix the chapter’s purpose, plot information, dialogue, and scene information in my outline. Powerful thunderstorms have been plaguing the region, for reasons unknown to the protagonists. In this chapter they discover the cause: man-made dragons that firing lightning bolts. It’s necessary to the overall story, and written properly, should be told with suspense.
Doing this helped me keep track of the big picture and my key moments. Not to say outlining is perfect—it can’t, by itself, solve a poorly-conceived subject, rambling prose, or dull characters. It does give you a framework to layout and grapple with the story in its entirety, helping to keep the train on its story arc track, so to speak, and always moving forward. I could see when I was getting off track or when my original plan wasn’t cohering as I’d hoped. These are necessary storytelling ingredients.
But not everyone agrees with this approach. I’ve taken writing classes and participated in groups where even the mention of outlining creates a stir. Some feel it best to “go where the pen takes you.” That may work for short pieces and for people publishing their tenth novel, but for the rest of us mere mortals, I strongly recommend outlining your work.
In effect, your outline is the story’s skeleton. You won’t win the marathon, which is your finished novel, with your skeleton alone, but I dare you to try winning without it!