I’m In Outline Hell!

My son takes after my caffeine habits

My son takes after my caffeine habits

I can’t outline. I give up. I have note cards and paper scraps everywhere: in my desk, on the baby changing table, on the back of book covers and stuffed between my couch cushions. I take these scraps and type them up and save them in nicer looking word documents where they die in my random desktop folders that I have astutely named, “writing”.

Talking about outlining is like talking about defecating: nobody wants to hear about it, but it’s unfortunately essential.

I have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End, and in my blissful ignorance and blind zeal, I figured I was done and the book would flow from my fingers like the perfectly formed goddess that sprung from the head of Zeus. But, characters have a life of their own, and I’m controlling. I’m not a gardener, I’m a brick-layer (dammit, Jim). Things are going to change during the writing process, so I adjusted my outline for these changes and I’m still not satisfied.

This 3-Act structure by Ian McCaig helped me a great deal, because it takes away the fun and makes the author own her characters and quit being a baby:

Act 1.

in the first few pages, the audience needs to know the answers to these questions:

~Who is the story about?

~What does he/she WANT?

~What are the obstacles?

Thinking of Star Wars: it’s a story about a boy who wants to save a princess from the Evil Empire.

So the next question is:

~What’s the plan?

Star Wars: Luke meets a Obi Wan who has the plan to go to Alderaan. BUT… the boy balks. the plan is outside his comfort zone.


~A bridge must be burned.

A point of no return. This can be a conscious choice or created from external pressures. In Star Wars, Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by the empire. There is nothing left for him on Tatooine. He sets off with Obi Wan and his Plan.

Act 2.

Now “The Plan” is in action. Fun stuff, exciting stuff, happening stuff…. but, basically filler stuff.  Ian called this part of the story “smoke and mirrors“.  Entertaining (and important), but mostly prepping for the climax in Act 3. However, to keep the story going through all this filler stuff, there needs to be:

~ A “Flip” about halfway through act 2.

Something that alters the progress of the plan. Obi Wan dies. It doesn’t stop the plan, but requires special dealing with.

And you keep going…


Act 3.

~The highest high of the story.

Everything seems to be coming together the way it should. You THINK you are safe. Luke has saved the princess and successfully brought her to the rebel base.


Immediately following the highest high, comes:

~The lowest low.

There was a tracking device on the spaceship. Now EVERYONE is gonna die.

This was the point which Ian drove home: all the smoke and mirrors from act 2, all the filler stuff, the exciting stuff, was really only leading up to this moment. The lowest low, where we learn the whole point of the story. Where our hero has to come face to face with a decision:

~The choice between what our hero WANTS, and what our hero NEEDS.

Luke wants to save the princess. But what he needs, is to become a Jedi. (Which choice launches the next two movies in the trilogy).

It’s not super detailed, but it got me out the door. Now I just need to burn everything I’ve built to the ground and hope that all the work I did becomes useful some other time.

Further help:

Pixar Story Ideas

6 Steps for Writing a Book Synopsis 

A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had

One thought on “I’m In Outline Hell!

  1. Pingback: Outlining Is a Myth Nobody Does It Fight Me | Becky DeVendra

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