How to use the concept of “what if” to block out a storyline.
Now that I’ve trashed the concept of creating a tight/concise outline for your story/novel before you begin working, let me introduce you to a different type of “outlining” technique. I believe this system will give you a little more creative elbowroom and help you create successful and compelling stories.
All stories/narratives start with an idea, a character or two, and a problem.
Begin to map out the “what if” of the story. Take some notes on a piece of scrap paper. If you don’t keep a pile of scrap paper on your desk for story doodling, rummage through your trash bin and find something worthy of your first ideas.
After you make some notes, begin writing. Grab a character and throw him or her into the “what if” of the story. See if the character feels right for the situation. Revisit the “what if.” Maybe choose another character if the first one didn’t feel right. If you hit it right the first time, give that character some friends and a few enemies. Throw a curve ball or two into the story line.
Grab another bit of scrap paper and scratch out a potential story arc based on what you’ve started writing. The key word here is potential.
Do not make a detailed outline. Limit your work on the scrap paper to ideas. Give your characters some room to breathe, to rebel or to come out shooting.
Every time you sit down to write, the first thing you should ask yourself is: “What are my characters doing now? What’s their motivation? What if…”
Stop after ten pages and see what you have. Revisit that last piece of scrap paper. How’s your story arc now? What are your characters thinking? Who is beginning to feel like the main character? What does the main character want? Why? What is he or she going to do about it?
Take some time with these questions and your characters. How is your story arc changing? Get some more scrap paper and make some more notes.
Move forward. Stop to assess what you’ve written every ten pages or so, making notes on bits and scraps of paper about your characters as your story develops.
You should not be finalizing the story line at this point, so much as you should be discovering the relationships the characters have to one another and how these relationships shape what might happen in the next ten pages.
I like working in ten page chunks. I’m pretty sure I can push just about any story forward for ten pages. At the end of the ten, I gather my nerve and read through what I’ve done with the intention of getting rid of anything weak, clichéd, or unrevealing of the characters’ motivations. Most of the time, I edit out about half of what I’ve put down.
Think of editing those ten pages as like unraveling a couple rows of knitting in order to pick up a dropped stitch to make it right before you move forward again. If you knit too far, i.e., 20 or 50 pages, and you realize you need to unravel a couple of days, or weeks, worth of work, you might try to convince yourself that you can live with the dropped stitch. Stories, however, are a lot like sweaters. More often than not, that dropped stitch is going to be right in front where everyone will see it. It will drive you crazy. Better to edit 10 pages than 50.
As you write and edit, keep making notes on scraps of paper and asking yourself not only what your characters will do today, but also what they might do if something unexpected happens.
At about page 100, you should have quite a squirrel’s nest of paper scraps and ideas. It’s now time to clean off your desk and get rid of some of those earlier ideas. Reread what you’ve written and grab another piece of scrap paper to flesh out your story arc based not only on what has happened, but what might happen “if.”
If things are going well by page 100, and the story is coming alive, I stop and make a time line, grabbing a fresh piece of paper…one I intend to keep. This is not the type of time line that details the story, but rather a time line that helps me keep the various characters and their relationships clear in my head.
Using the timeline, I give all of the characters birthdays; by doing so, I know how old the characters are in relation to each other as they move through the story. If I feel like I need to develop the characters more fully in order to keep writing, I figure out where and when they went to school and how well they did. Along the side of the time line I make a list of what I know about my characters and what I don’t know, and also what I need know about them, particularly what motivates them.
Sometimes I get a second sheet of clean paper and begin to make one of those bubble diagrams showing how various characters are connected and why.
Once I finish writing a story, I set it aside for a few days then come back to read it from start to finish, making notes on scraps of paper along the way about what works, what doesn’t, what’s unnecessary and what’s missing. When I start the rewrite, I try to do so with an open mind, looking for places that could surprise, always hoping to find pieces I’ve missed that will make the story come alive.
If I want to, I can make that outline when it’s all done (but I never have).