Storytelling for Authors: Refining An Outline

I talked about making an outline last week in this post, but… now what? I have never, not even once, created a perfect outline on the first try. Which means that there is always a step where you refine an existing creative outline. Let’s look at the outline I made last week:

1. Character A and character B have a disastrous first date
a) Character A is late
b) it’s loud and they can barely hear each other
c) both of their phones keep ringing
d) Character B spills their drink on Character A

* Transition: perspectives from both, both leave and go home to their dogs, lamenting about bad first dates

2. Character A and Character B dogs get off leash at the dog park
a) both chase after their dogs
b) both are yelling in vain
c) Character A is in work clothes and they get covered in mud
d) Character B spilled coffee down the front of their shirt
e) the leashes get tangled

* Transition: both catch up to their dogs, not immediately understanding that they know each other from the terrible date

3. Character A and Character B meet at a dog park
a) both rescue their dogs from being tangled up in each other’s leashes
b) go to apologize, recognition
c) embarrassed about their second impression
d) Character B jokes that at least they spilled their drink on themselves this time

* Transition: both leave, wonder what had gotten into their dogs, figure that it’s best the first date didn’t go well since they’re obviously chaos magnets whenever they meet

4. Character A’s dog runs away/gets lost
a) door is left open, dog wanders outside
b) Character A distraught, goes for a drive to try finding the dog
c) Character A doesn’t find the dog and goes home to make lost dog posters

* Transition: Character A makes a plan to go to the dog park the next day with the flyers, figures it’s a familiar place for the dog and so chances are it’s where the dog will end up going

5. Character A puts up lost dog posters at the dog park
a) showing flyers around to other dog owners
b) stapling posters to trees/hanging on boards
c) Character A meets Character B at the dog park again

* Transition: Character B takes in the lost dog posters and Character A’s general distress, offers to help in the search once the posters are all up

6. Character B helps Character A look for their lost dog
a) start their search at the dog park and work their way back to Character A’s home
b) Character B’s dog tags along
c) no luck, back at Character A’s place
d) both exchange phone numbers
e) Character B offers to take Character A on a non-date (grabbing coffee mid-search)
f) set up plan to keep looking the next day after lunch (second real date)

* Transition: part ways, both looking forward to the date despite the circumstances that drove them back together, meet up the next day both on time

7. Character A and B try to have a second date that is less disastrous than the first
a) quiet sandwich shop vs. crowded restaurant
b) now that they’re able to talk, they realize they actually have more in common than just their dogs
c) Character A is subdued but Character B tries to get them to relax
d) Character B thanks Character A for giving them the chance for a date do-over

* Transition: the next day, Character B decides to go for a walk to the dog park and will check the lost dog posters to make sure none of them have fallen down

8. Character B finds Character A’s lost dog
a) Character B out with their dog, dog takes off
b) Character B chases after dog, finds their dog with Character A’s dog
c) gets Character A’s dog on a spare leash
d) Character B texts Character A and says they’re on their way over with both dogs

* Transition: Character B reaches Character A’s home with both dogs, Character A answers the door

9. Character B reunites Character A with their dog
a) Character A thrilled to have dog back
b) Character A hugs Character B = accidental romantic moment
c) both make plans for a third real date (“third time’s the charm”)

Make Broad Stroke Classifications

This outline is a great start (if I do say so myself) but now it’s time to identify what is driving the story in broad strokes. For example, this outline is for a romance story. Identifying that genre means that I’ll approach writing the exposition and characters in a different way than if this was a horror story. Keeping the romance genre in mind, I already have a general feel for what this story will be like to write and what kind of impression I want to make on my readers.

To niche down, this is not a meet-cute story. There are disasters, from the first date to the dog park fiasco, which means that my characters will be interacting in a specific way. They certainly won’t be smitten, and so I need to focus on different dynamics like embarrassment and disbelief that they could have such rotten luck. There can be attraction, it is a romance story, but it has to be approached as being in spite of circumstances rather than stemming from them.

Take Writing Notes

Once I’ve identified a few elements and dynamics of the story, I can start making small notes for myself to remind me that these things need to happen in order to make the story work in context. The existing outline contains what happens, while the notes should explain how and why they happen. For example, in the scene where my characters meet at the dog park, they’re grappling with tangled leashes and muddy clothes and then they finally have the realization that they know each other. To make sure I don’t forget this, I would add my notes in parentheses: (frustration, yelling at the dogs, mortification, self-conscious, I can’t believe this is happening). That way, when I start writing, I have a list of things that I can slip into the exchange including descriptions, dialogue, dialogue tags (like the difference between “muttered” and “snapped”), and inner monologues.

Refining outlines this way makes the writing process so much easier because you’re doing all of the mental legwork ahead of time. With a refined and expanded outline, all you have to do when you finally sit down to write is string your notes together into a chronology. It’s much easier said than done, but my advice is to give it a try with just a short story first. It will give you a sense of what effort needs to be made and when, and the more you write the more you can tweak the process to fit your writing style.

Your Turn!

This is the style I’m currently using, and it took a lot of trial and error to get here. But one of the cool things about writing is that you’re constantly learning and trying new things, and there will never be a ‘right’ way to do things. There’s just the act of creation, which can be messy and take a bunch of tries to finally find a place to land. But, despite all of its mess and all the drafts it will take to have a final work, it’s worth it (promise).

What do you think? Will you give this approach a try? Is your approach completely different? What should I name my characters (and/or their dogs) if I ever actually write this story? Let me know in the comments!


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