Last week I attended an online writing class on story beginnings with the awesome Les Edgerton, organized by StoneHouse University, a very successful indie publisher and training center for writers created by Aaron Patterson and K.C. Neal. It was great fun and very instructive, full of straightforward tips, great examples, and interesting tales from Les’s considerable writing life experience.
One of Les’s eye-opening books on writing is Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. It’s by far one of the best writing advice books I’ve read, and I’ve read truckloads of them since I started to take my writing seriously. You’ll get so much good stuff out of this book that you won’t get anywhere else, and you’ll understand beginnings and story structure much better, so you can harpoon your readers right from the start and keep them.
If you haven’t gotten your hands on Hooked yet, you should go grab it right now — or stay on this blog and read on! There’s a great prize in it for you, I promise.
One of the many useful things I’ve learned from Les last week was how to write
A novel outline in just 5 sentences!
That’s right, a whole freaking outline! Not a pitch or cover blurb, those are meant to entice the reader, not steer the writer. And not a tweet either, those are meant for
constant selfpromotion funny links and thoughtful conversations. A true, functioning novel outline—in just five sentences. Think I’m crazy? Okay, I probably am but that’s not the point here. *moving on*
The point of an outline is to ground the writer during the long process of writing a novel. It has to be clear and easy to follow, much like the yellow brick road. It’s not supposed to be an extensive collection of notes that takes more time to read than the actual book, nor is it a synopsis or a summary. It’s a life-line, red thread, a backbone of the story. And because every story is essentially about trouble, the outline must describe the spine of that trouble.
So what’s each sentence about?
They are about the main plot points of the story, from inciting incident to resolution. And, as Les puts it, these statements about the plot must be akin to endings, not beginnings.
This is quite different from writing a query or pitch, where you try to instill curiosity and draw people in, make them want more and leave them hanging with their mouths watering. The outline mustn’t do any of that. It’s not a sales tool, it’s a writing tool. What it must do is offer you a set of milestones you can write toward, so you can remember where you’re going and are able to tell when you’ve got there.
Here’s what the five-sentence outline (and subsequently, a tight novel) is made of:
1. The inciting incident
2. The story arc (built on the three major turning points of the story)
3. The resolution
Sounds familiar and doesn’t mean much, am I right? Well, here are some examples of five sentence outlines applied to stories you already know, so you can see what it feels like to get a hold of the bare plot essentials of a story familiar to you (like the one you’re writing). Remember, this kind of outline is not a sales pitch but a guideline for the writer.
Morpheus awakens Neo to reality. Neo meets the Oracle and learns he’s not The One. Morpheus is captured by agent Smith. Neo saves Morpheus and earns Trinity’s love. Neo becomes The One.
How about this:
Lucy enters Narnia through a wardrobe. Edmund falls prey to the Witch. Lucy & co meet Aslan who saves Edmund’s life. They join an army and fight the Witch. Aslan kills the Witch and passes his reign over to the kids.
And another one:
Elliot finds E.T. and becomes his friend. Together they build a machine to contact E.T.’s parents. The government kidnaps E.T. and kills him. Elliot’s love brings E.T. back to life. Elliot rescues E.T. and reunites him with his parents.
Maximus escapes the execution ordered by Emperor Commodus. His family is murdered and Maximus is enslaved. He wins the love of the masses as a gladiator. Maximus challenges Commodus in the arena. Maximus kills him and becomes Emperor.
Of course the full plots of these stories are more complex than that, but down at the bottom, underneath all the nifty action scenes and the dramatic moments, their backbones can be expressed—and followed—with the help of a simple, five statement outline.
Writing a novel is not a linear task, and it’s downright intimidating. However artistic it may sound to pants it, the truth is that you run a much higher risk of meandering, and leaving behind a field of plot holes and five-liners (characters that only live for five lines), and many more little, cummulative disasters, if you venture into novel-land without a roadmap. You can finish the thing alright, that’s not the problem, but you probably have to rewrite it more than once, edit the hell out of it and cry unicorn blood on the manuscript until it sparkles like Edward’s spray-on sixpack by the time it’s sorta, kinda finished.
A clean outline might save you months of agony.
And it’s not hard to write at all! Just jot down the main points of your story’s plot, starting with the inciting incident and ending with the resolution. Leave out everything that’s not absolutamente critical to the story’s plot.
My definition of totally mothereffing critical? If you were to leave it out or change it, you’d have a different story altogether.
Also cut out all the worldbuilding. All of it. You’re writing this outline to clarify the plot to yourself first and foremost. Also, Les advises to use only characters as subjects in each sentence, and use strong verbs without modifiers. You can also use direct objects in each sentence, but stay clear of describing them.
Here’s the five sentence outline for my WIP, “The Deep Link”, book number one in a sci-fi series.
Taryn becomes mentally linked to an alien warlord. She agrees to help liberate a colony world. She inadvertently starts a civil war. Taryn and the alien fuse. They save the colony but become codependent.
Got your novel’s outline down to five crispy clear sentences? Then post it in the comments below, and don’t worry about spoilers and such, because what really makes a story unique is the how not the what. So post away, and then Les and I will pick a winner, who will receive a copy of Hooked straight from yours truly. The deadline is Friday July 6th, 8 pm MDT.
All you have to do is
- Write an outline of your kickass plot in just 5 sentences,
- Share the outline with us in the comments by July 6th,
- Get rewarded!
Simple as that.
Until then, have a great Independence Day everyone! Grab a hot dog, get wasted, get loved, and throw some firecrackers around! Go crazy!
*note to self: must visit the States sometime soon*