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WBSchmidt
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I mentioned in the Novel Support Group that I started using a new technique to help me outline my current novel. Below is my (long) post regarding this.

=-=-=-=

I recently read on another forum something that gave me an idea that may help me outline my current novel. Essentially this forum thread presented a question to ask yourself when analyzing a scene. I don't remember verbatim but this is the question I now ask on my scenes.

* Previous to this scene, what must occur for the events and actions in this scene to be plausible?

I added some additional things I wanted to determine about the action(s) the character would perform in a particular scene:

* Means
* Motive
* Opportunity

These may sound familiar. I think these questions are often used in mystery stories (especially in murder mysteries). I wanted to apply them to the final climax in my novel. Essentially I'm outlining backwards. From that analysis I hope to gain a list of scenes for my novel. These scenes would be "required" in that they must appear in the novel in order for the final scenes to be plausible. This will become the "bare bones" of the plot outline.

Let me know what you think. This may not work for me but hopefully this discussion will help someone. Many of you are more experienced than I am but I will demonstrate how I hope to apply this. Feel free to add opinions.

Example

Let's say we have a novel which can be described like this: A humble servant boy kills his King. It may not be a "high concept" idea but hopefully it will suffice for this example.

We immediately know of two scenes we will need to write. One shows the servant being humble. This will be our Ordinary World and should be one of the first scenes in the novel. The second is the battle between this servant and his King. This will likely be the final climax in "act three" if you use the Three Act Structure (this is what I try to use currently).

Since I'm working backwards I will analyze the final battle scene. So, the question now arises: What previous events would allow this scene to be plausible? Let's take the three questions (motive, means, and opportunity) and apply them.

Motivation
What would motivate a humble servant boy to kill his King? You would need to create an entire story arc to completely do this justice. Such scenes in that arc would be the Inciting Incident and the Act Climaxes of the story, especially if this battle with the King involves the Central Question to the novel.

How big this story arc is will depend upon this servant. For example, if he loves his King in the beginning you will have more scenes to portray than if this servant already hated his King. To answer the motivation will likely take a bit longer with a "loving servant" because you need to convincingly change that character.

Means
To me this asks the question: What does this servant need to have or know to kill his King. Let's say his King is a gifted swordsman. If the servant is to kill the king with a sword what skills does he need to know to defeat the king in battle. This will be another story arc of the servant learning the skills needed to challenge the king in combat. If this servant has never held a sword you will have a larger story arc than a servant who has studied the sword for years (such as a squire).

Opportunity
The servant will need to somehow have access to meet the king in order to do battle with him. If the servant works in the stables he may never have a chance to meet the king. However, as a personal servant he could see the king every day. In either case you will again have a full story arc to develop where he eventually gains access to the king so that he may battle him.

Analysis
I will take one extreme of this servant and provide him the following traits:

* The servant loves his King
* The servant has never held a sword
* The servant works in the stables and has rarely even seen the king

Now I have a very daunting task of getting this humble servant boy to kill his King. For the sake of this example I will take the means analysis and start from there. I don't know that it matters which one you start with but it's the one I felt like doing for this example. So, what skills or knowledge do I need to give this humble servant that will allow him the ability to kill his King? Since I will have this servant battling with a sword (rather than magic, which is just as possible if you like) I will have the following scenes (but I'm not limited to these scenes):

* Gaining a desire to learn the sword
* A mentor figure willing to train him with the sword
* Several practice sessions with the sword (another mini story arc demonstrating increased skill)

Optional scenes include:

* A situation where his (or someone else's) life is in danger and he uses the sword "for real" for the first time
* An event where he is tested against others (a tournament of some sort)

You could certainly branch from these scenes. Now, if I were to work on the the motive analysis I have a branch from there already with this mentor. Perhaps this mentor is the one who stirs up the trouble and encourages the servant to go against his king. Therefore, I have some additional scenes I can add.

* The mentor discusses some truths about the King's true nature (these truths can be fact or not)
* The servant requests to be trained or the mentor approaches the servant

Optional scenes include:

* The servant learns some things about his or her mentor (this could create some inner and outer conflicts)

Moving onto the opportunity analysis I can again branch off and have the mentor provide some access to the king as below:

* The mentor informs the servant that a "castle job" is now available
* The servant's first day on his new job (now has access to the castle)

If you want to add some point of view scenes for the mentor you have some additional scenes to add:

* The mentor talks with the king about a new servant he would like to bring into the castle
* The mentor talks with his "contacts" and they discuss plans to kill the king

I have only scratched the surface on this example story. I only worked on this for an hour or so, but have an interesting start already. What I have done so far on my own novel is to take the final scene and try to determine what scenes I need to have it be plausible. Then after that I will analyze each of those scenes to determine what I need to make those work. I will do this all the way back to the beginning.

By starting at the end of the story I can work my way back to the beginning and build a plausible ending. Whether this will work or not I do not know. I have already gained several scenes through this method that I feel will help the overall story. In addition, using this method allows me to analyze the story and add only scenes that specifically add to the plot. As I developed this example, I came up with an unexpected point of view character: the mentor. That also has added some potentially important scenes.

After I have my list of scenes I can then determine whether I have enough for a full novel. If not, rather than adding "fluff scenes" I can make it more difficult for my character to accomplish his goals (e.g. make the character a stable hand that lives and works in a different city under the King's rule). Once I have a good number of scenes I may try the Snowflake Method to organize all of this together. That may add some additional scenes depending upon the order in which the scenes best fit.

I'm still experimenting with this technique but I hope that it can help develop more interesting middles and make my endings more plausible to the reader.

Feel free to add your opinions.

--William

EDIT 1: Basic sentence clean up; no new content added.

[This message has been edited by WBSchmidt (edited August 30, 2009).]


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MrsBrown
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William,
Thank you for this thorough explanation of your new approach. I don't have anything to add; it looks like it has merit. It's appealing because one is forced to think in terms of what drives the plot forward. I may try this very soon.

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Kitti
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Sounds like a great technique to me. I'm not an outliner myself, but I've come to appreciate that the author really needs to know where he's going from square one, even if the reader doesn't. Otherwise you end up with Tom Bombadil...

The one thing I noticed about the way you did your example, though, is that your character seems focused as an arrow towards his eventual destination. Don't know if it'll come off that way to the reader, but a lot of the sub-plot-iness that you can do in novels (aka, what makes novels so much fun :-) ) isn't coming across in the outline.

I'd imagine that could be mitigated by making each of your scenes do double-duty: have some more immediate focus/conflict/motivation for the earlier scenes, especially, which set up skills, motivations, opportunities that only later become obviously focused on killing the king. You've already started to hint that direction in your examples of learning the sword.

Anyway, cool outlining technique. Thanks for sharing!


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WBSchmidt
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Kitti wrote:

quote:
The one thing I noticed about the way you did your example, though, is that your character seems focused as an arrow towards his eventual destination. Don't know if it'll come off that way to the reader, but a lot of the sub-plot-iness that you can do in novels (aka, what makes novels so much fun :-) ) isn't coming across in the outline.

Since this was only an example I came up with (not my actual novel) I definitely see your point. However, even in the hour or so it took me to write this thread I did come up with a subplot that could be interesting: the mentor's story. That was totally by accident. I had not planned to write about another character's point of view when I started this example.

As I use this technique on my novel I will definitely keep subplots in mind. Some of the things that I will need to make my endings plausible will require certain subplots and the actions that take place in those story arcs.

This is a good point to bring out because if you do focus too much on the main character's story arc and forget about subplots your story could certainly feel too focused on the end goal. Thank you for bringing this up.


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Denem
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This is great, WB!! I have been struggling mightily with my novel and recently began to suspect it was because it lacked direction and devolopment.
I plan to use this technique to see if I can give it some of both.
I would image this approach would work for short stories as well, but obviously on a small scale.

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Meredith
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This might be very helpful in getting the last two books in the series that started with The Shaman's Curse plotted out. I know where I am at the end of the Ignored Prophecy and I know how the whole thing ends, but I haven't got too much nailed down in the middle. This could help.

I might even use it to work backward on Dreamer's Rose and see if it helps me figure out where I've gone wrong. When I'm ready to go back to Dreamer's Rose.

Thanks.


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WBSchmidt
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I'm glad that this may be of use. Let me know how this goes for you all. I'd be interested to know what works and what doesn't. I'm already adjusting something things with this based upon some comments already mentioned.

Thanks.


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johnbrown
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William,

I think yours are all good questions. In fact, what you've written up above is something that eluded me for quite some time: the whole cause-effect-motive thing. And it's one of the critical things I use when writing my stories now. What you're writing about is the plot part of story.

For me I've found THE KEY to figuring out plot is figuring out the problem. You get a good problem, you've got a story that generates scenes. Once I know the problem (the danger/threat/lack or mystery), then I can move forward or backwards (because sometimes I get a cool point down the plot road but don't have the stuff inbetween where I am now with the characters and that distant point).

I teach this in my 3 Things You Must Know To Write Killer Stories workshop. There's more here: http://johndbrown.com/2008/12/plot-basics/

And the diagram to go with it here: http://johndbrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/2009-the-story-cycle-handout.pdf

You will also want to read the first half of DWIGHT V. SWAIN'S TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. It's the best book I've come across on these things. It's one of the top three books I've ever come across on writing stories. Period.

You might also want to watch the videos of Ken Follett's THE ART OF SUSPENSE here: http://www.ken-follett.com/taos/index.html

Notice what he says about what makes a good, novel-length story idea.

[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited August 30, 2009).]


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WBSchmidt
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johnbrown wrote:
quote:
You will also want to read the first half of DWIGHT V. SWAIN'S TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. It's the best book I've come across on these things. It's one of the top three books I've ever come across on writing stories. Period.

Yes, I am familiar with the book. I don't own it yet but I have it on my "wishlist." Thank you.

Something that I believe is from that book is the concept of Scenes and Sequels. I learned of that fairly recently. I've only used that technique for the most recent chapter in my book but I found it helped with pacing, which was something foreign to me when I first started writing so long ago.

The whole cause and effect issue is something I'm experimenting with now, hence this topic. I'm hoping that this technique I'm experimenting with (or some future variation) will help me fine tune my skills in this regard.

I'll check the videos you mentioned. Thanks for those. They will certainly help. On that note, the link is broken because it looks like you have a period in the URL.


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johnbrown
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Link fixed.
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WBSchmidt
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As I used this technique over the last few days I tried to add scenes in the approximate order I anticipated for the final version of the outline. However, for me at least, it became difficult to keep track of the story arcs that I felt the final scene required. So, I decided on another approach.

What I came up with this morning was to organize the scenes by story arcs. I'm hoping this will help me better keep track of each sequence of events for the book. Later, when I feel I have all the scenes required for all story arcs I can then put them in the order I feel works best for the book.

Another thing I will do is write a blurb about specific scenes including certain details I feel are important to include when I write the scene later.

Taking the example I used above here is how I would organize the scenes and story arcs for this example novel.

=====

Scene: Servant kills his king
Needs:
Story Arc: Servant learns the sword
Story Arc: Servant now hates his king
Story Arc: Mentor's path to hatred of the king

Story Arc: Servant loves then hates his king
Scenes:
* Servant loves his king
* Servant learns truths about his king
* Servant believes his king is evil
* Servant feels that the king must die

Scene: Servant learns truths about his king
The servant's mentor talks to him about some of the evil things their king has done. At first the servant cannot believe his king is capable of these things. The mentor goes into further details of what events the king was responsible for which casts doubt with the servant.

Story Arc: Start another story arc here with related scenes listed below (perhaps chronicling the mentor's motives)

=====

I'm still starting with the final scene and working my way backwards. However, by breaking the final scene by story arcs and then by scenes may help in keeping track of specific plots and subplots the story will need. This way, if I come up with a scene that will help make a story arc more plausible it will be much easier to find related scenes instead of trying to place it chronologically.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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What strikes me about this story idea is that it could also come at the beginning of a story. I find myself a little more interested in what happens to the humble servant AFTER he kills the king. So you have the potential for a sequel to plan as well.
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Robert Nowall
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When I outline a story, generally I just work on the plot, and work on character development as the story gets written. (Then again, things usually get added to the plot along the way.)
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WBSchmidt
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury wrote:

quote:
What strikes me about this story idea is that it could also come at the beginning of a story. I find myself a little more interested in what happens to the humble servant AFTER he kills the king. So you have the potential for a sequel to plan as well.

Agreed. This example is not developed enough to be a real novel project (at this point). However, you bring up a good point. Using this technique it could be discovered that story does not end with the "final scene" as planned. In such a case you may end up with a sequel or a longer book.


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WBSchmidt
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Now that I have used this technique for a while I have found that it can be difficult to focus goals. It is easy to go on a tangent and add scenes for multiple story arcs at a time (motivation, means, opportunity). Perhaps it's just me.

What I will try for a while is to work on one story arc at a time for a character. Once I have completed the story arc from the end all the way to the beginning I will move on to the next. In that way I hope to use each story arc as a goal.

I already have ideas on a "phase two" step for this technique once all of these story arcs have been completed for each PoV character. When I have my outline complete I will start working on that "phase two" step.


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lbdavid98
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One tool I find very useful is Microsoft Excel. I used to fill notebooks with outlines, trying to leave blanks for notes and fill-ins... Then I graduated to a wall and post-its (easier to re-arrange)... But in the last few years I -really- like Microsoft excel. When outlining a story I use a number of 'fields' like:

'Scene #' 'Event' 'Description' 'Characters' 'Subplot' 'Notes'

Then I can use the autofilter function to filter everything except a certain character or subplot and watch its development. If I annotate everything just right I can see if there's some obvious gaps between a characters development and his actions. It's a very useful tool to bring to your outlining process.


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Architectus
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The outlining technique I use is in my sig.
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