The Page 45 Problem & How to Write Story Outlines

Thursday, August 21st 2014

Ok, you've got a cool idea for story.

You start writing.

You end up with a mass of details; descriptions, dialogue, characters, and so on. As the details accumulate, your story develops its own torturous internal logic. Sure, the logic serves the details you have accumulated. But apart from that, its directionless. The actual story has gone missing. Or, perhaps, there was never really a story to begin with ... just a cool idea.

By about page 30-45, you forget what the whole point of the story was. Even the characters in the story start wandering around aimlessly. "So," they say, "... what next?" Some sections serve no purpose at all. As for the middle section or the ending ... well, they'll come Iater, right? You keep adding new things in the hope that they will get the story going again.

But no. The story grinds to a halt. Inspiration fades. You're left with a cool idea, a premise and a load of extraneous details :-).

What Writing Should Feel Like

Think about a good movie you've seen. Or perhaps a book you've enjoyed. How did it make you feel?

Often I would find myself asking, excitedly, "what next?" or "aha! That makes sense!" But I never started thinking "oh, fuckin' hell, hurry up! or "Gah! I've seen this already!". Instead, just before I started to get bored, something changed to renew my interest.

The story had momentum.

You should get the same feeling of momentum when you're writing a story. If you don't, it's likely you will run out of inspiration at around page 45 :-).

If this happens to you, you may need to plan your story. Here's one way of doing planning stories that I've been experimenting with.

First: Action Not Details

I don't mean action as in blowing things up and running around with guns (although that might be important later on!).

I mean you always need to know - broadly - what's going to happen next and where you're going to end up in the end.

Obvious, right?

But here's a simple test.

I meet you at a party.

"I've got this great story," you say.

"Cool." I lower my shades. "Can you tell me the entire story in four sentences?"

Can you respond quickly and with certainty? Or do you start talking about characters, settings, the premise, and so on?

"Yeah, yeah," I might rudely interrupt. "But what's the ... story?"

Where is the story going? Not the premise. Not the theme. Not the setting. Not descriptions of the world. Not funny bits of dialogue. Not cool scenes. Not thrilling chases. Not references to other stories. Where's the momentum?

Instead, describe your story without all those details.

Remove all the characters, most of the world, the setting, and so on. Just tell me about the action.

Summarise

Sum up the essential action in four sentences. Each sentence has a purpose:

  • How the story starts;
  • How things change;
  • What the characters do in response to the change,
  • How the story is resolved.

I'll show you what I mean ...

A group of mercenaries go on a routine rescue mission. They're attacked, some die, the survivors realise they're being hunted by something that isn't human. They try to fight back but most of them are killed. The hero defeats what turns out to be an alien trophy hunter in an epic battle of hunter vs hunter.

The sentences keep the details to a minimum. They concentrate on the action. Each sentence details what happens next; with each sentence something changes about the story - either the world, the characters or both.

  1. A group of mercenaries go on a routine rescue mission.
  2. They're attacked, some die, the survivors realise they are being hunted by something that isn't human.
  3. They try to fight back but most of them are killed.
  4. The hero defeats what turns out to be an alien trophy hunter in an epic battle of hunter vs hunter.

The next step is to expand on each of these sentences.

Sidenote About Sub-plots

The more observant of you might ask: "What about sub-plots?"

If you like you can create four sentences for your subplots, too. You may even find one of them is actually your main story!

Remember that a subplot is a whole story of its own, the fact that it intersects with your main story notwithstanding. So you'll need to outline it in its entirety too: from the four sentences down.

So sub-plots are handled as parallel stories. They're planned separately. (You'll note how they intersect with the main story later on.

Expand

For each sentence in your summary, write four more short paragraphs.

But before you start ...

Stick to the Story!

Only write action that is part of the action implied in the sentence you are expanding upon.

Take a "group of mercenaries go on a routine rescue mission" for example. As you write your paragraphs, can you ask the question:

Is this paragraph part of to "a group of mercenaries go on a routine rescue mission"?

... and answer: "yes"?

(If not, re-write the paragraph, whilst asking the question: "how can I relate this paragraph to "a group of mercenaries go on a routine rescue mission"?)

That simple rule stops you getting lost.

(Remember: you're still writing action. No extra colour, no character detail.)

The Set Up.

A group of mercenaries go on a routine rescue mission.

  1. A group of American mercenaries are reunited with an ex-colleague and he leads them on the routine rescue mission.

  2. They discover some dead soldiers, they recognise as American. The dead soldiers were caught in a panicked, frenzied fire-fight and have been hideously mutilated.

  3. They sneak up on and attack an enemy base, looking for hostages to rescue.

  4. They discover the mission was not what the ex-colleague said it was. He has deceived them. The situation is more dangerous than the mercenaries thought it would be.

1 Set Up

A group of American mercenaries are reunited with an ex-colleague and he leads them on the routine rescue mission.

The "set up"; it shows you what the usual, humdrum world of the characters is like - in this case routine rescue mission.

You see the characters going through their normal business. It could be quite unusual and fantastical - but it is nothing unusual for the characters.

2 Presage

They discover some dead soldiers, they recognise as American. The dead soldiers were caught in a panicked, frenzied fire-fight and have been hideously mutilated.

This section should make the reader ask questions.

  • It should presage change.
  • There should be a clear emotion surrounding that presage.

In this case, the reader asks: who mutilated the bodies, why were the other Americans there, etc. The emotion is "danger!".

In out case, we lets the reader feel that the routine rescue mission may be turning into something else.

Making the reader sense a big change in the offing presages adventure.

3 The Characters Move Through the Unchanged World

They sneak up on and attack an enemy base, looking for hostages to rescue.

Here we get back into the set up, in a way. This gives you chance to further describe the world and the characters' place in it. The characters are in their element, dealing with things they are used to.

In this case the mercenaries carry out the routine rescue mission.

4 Something changes.

The world and/or the characters change for the first time.

In this case, the mercenaries realise have been lied to. The mission is not a routine rescue mission at all. The world is a more dangerous place.

  • The emotion from 2, Presage re-emerges. In this case the emotion is "danger!";
  • This is the emotion behind the transition from one type of action to another; from routine rescue mission - to escape!.

Name the Types of Action

Go back through your paragraphs, name what sort of action is going on. E.g. "routine rescue mission", "hunter becomes the hunted", "escape", etc.

The more elemental (don't be afraid to be cliched) these names are the better.

Naming the action and noting it as you go along is a brain-dead way of:

  • making sure you stick to a certain type of action;
  • making clear transitions between different types of action, such as from routine rescue mission to escape!;
  • helps you work out what characters should be doing;
  • if you note the names of the action as you go along it makes you think about the way the action changes and, importantly for momentum, when.

If you annotate your paragraphs with the type of action you end up with:

A group of mercenaries go on a routine rescue mission.

  1. A group of American mercenaries are reunited with an ex-colleague and he leads them on the routine rescue mission. Routine rescue mission.

  2. They discover some dead soldiers, they recognise as American. The dead soldiers were caught in a panicked, frenzied fire-fight and have been hideously mutilated. Presage Hunter becomes the Hunted.

  3. They sneak up on and attack an enemy base, looking for hostages to rescue.

  4. They discover the mission was not what the ex-colleague said it was. He has deceived them. The situation is more dangerous than the mercenaries thought it would be. Routine rescue mission -> Escape!

The Routine rescue mission -> Escape! shows you are making the transition between Routine Rescue Mission and Escape.

End of the Known World: The Beginning of Adventure.

They're attacked, some die, the survivors realise they're being hunted by something that isn't human.

  1. They realise it's too dangerous to be evacuated directly, so they begin the longer trek toward the border and a safe evacuation zone. Escape!.

  2. Two mercenaries are killed. The alien is seen by a prisoner during one killing and one of the other mercenaries makes eye contact with the alien during the second killing. Escape! -> Hunter Becomes the Hunted.

  3. A prisoner reveals that she saw blood from the creature and that the creature is camouflaged like a chameleon. Hunter becomes the Hunted

  4. The leader of the mercenaries decides they need to make a stand, otherwise they won't escape. They set up a perimeter and lie in wait. "If it bleeds we can kill it," says the main character.

Again, note that everything is part of (even if tangentially) the realisation that the mercenaries are being hunted by that isn't human - everything relates to the sentence you are expanding upon.

1 The Shift

We complete the change from "routine rescue mission" to "escape!".

Uses the emotion established in Set Up, Something Changes (In this case: danger!) to start changing the characters' circumstances and/or attitudes.

2 & 3: Change!

(If you were writing without a plan and just a cool idea, you might be getting lost and losing momentum at this point.)

The world has truly changed.

The adventure has begun.

Remember how we presaged a change in the type of action in Set Up, Presage?

Now we make the change we presaged.

We segue from Escape! into Hunter becomes the hunted.

"Hunter becomes the Hunted" is the main type of action of this story. So this is a big deal!

We also answer some questions. In Set Up, part 2, we had the reader asking some questions: "what is the danger? who killed the mercs and mutilated them?" Now we answer those questions. The answer in this case: the alien!

(Of course we may have intimated this before, but now the main characters know something more too.)

4 A Problem to Solve

The characters are now in a changed world.

They have a problem to solve as a result.

The Struggle.

How to Think About the Struggle

Write down a list of obstacles the characters will encounter.

Split your list roughly into three.

Now think about how these obstacles will effect your characters. Importantly, the characters will fail to overcome them or otherwise struggle to deal with them.

Write Your Paragraphs

They try to fight back, most of the mercenaries are killed, and the

hero is left to face the alien.

  1. They lay traps for their enemy and catch the him. But it escapes.

  2. In the pursuit, two more mercenaries are killed; the one who made eye contact with the alien and the the ex-colleague of the hero. Another mercenary is killed who decides to face his enemy with just a blade. Another is killed when the main party is attacked. The hero tells the prisoner to flee.

  3. All is lost. The hero escapes the alien by leaping over a waterfall, but the alien pursues him. The hero sees the uncamouflaged body of the alien for the first time. Defeat. All is Lost.

  4. Ther hero realises his enemy can't see him - mud conceals the hero from the alien's vision. The alien moves on and the hero falls unconscious. Hunter becomes the Hunted -> Hunter v Hunter.

The First Third of the Obstacles

  1. They lay traps for their enemy and catch the him. But it escapes.

Just grab the first two obstacles. Have the characters fail in some way to overcome them or get what they want.

The Second Third of the Obstacles

  1. In the pursuit, two more mercenaries are killed; the one who made eye contact with the alien and the the ex-colleague of the hero. Another mercenary is killed who decides to face his enemy with just a blade. Another is killed when the main party is attacked. The hero tells the prisoner to flee.

Grab the second two obstacles. Use them to write some more action that leads to ...

The Last Set of Obstacles & the Emotional Shift

  1. All is lost. The hero escapes the alien by leaping over a waterfall, but the alien pursues him. The hero sees the uncamouflaged body of the alien for the first time. Defeat. All is Lost.

Use your last group of obstacles, except for the last one, to illustrate how things are out of control as far as the main character comncerned. This leads to a new emotion.

In this case it's a moment of high action and the emotion is defeat - the classic all is lost scenario. You need an emotional shift like this in 3.

The Beginning of the End :-)

  1. The hero realises his enemy can't see him - mud conceals the hero from the alien's vision. The alien moves on and the hero falls unconscious. Hunter becomes the Hunted -> Hunter v Hunter.

This should be the part of the story when the character's understanding of the world changes. In this story the mud makes the main character realise he can at least hide from the the alien. All is not lost! Again, you need an emotional shift like this in 4. It should contrast with the one in 3.

The type of action starts to change from Hunter becomes the Hunted" to "Hunter vs Hunter".

By now we have renewed momentum (and extra understanding of the world) that will lead into ...

The End

Create list of obstacles that are similar to the obstacles faced in The Struggle. Link them together.

Split the list into four, one list for each paragraph.

But this time, remember that the type of action has changed and the main character has changed.

The final obstacle should resolve the story.

Remember, our character has a series of obstacles to face. But unlike during The Struggle, this time the main character can overcome those obstacles thanks to a new understanding of things.

This changes the nature of the action.

In our case, we should illustrate how we've segued from Hunter becomes the Hunted into Hunter v Hunter.

The hero defeats what turns out to be an alien trophy hunter in an epic battle of hunter vs hunter.

  1. Now it's the hero's turn. He makes a bow and arrow and lays traps for the alien. They are now hunting each other - hunter versus hunter. Hunter vs Hunter.

  2. His trap doesn't succeed, but the second attack by the hero works and he injures the alien properly for the first time.

  3. A series of fights ensure, culminating in an epic battle where the face the of alien is revealed.

  4. The alien is killed, but not before is blows up its ship and the evidence of its existence. The hero escapes and is rescued by a chopper.

Notice how everything is linked to the the Hunter v Hunter action.

Well Done!

You've got this far. You have a story summary!

Make a List of Types of Action, Main Emotions, Characters and Other Notable Elements

For your own story, review your summary. As you do, write down all the characters you find in the action. For instance, we have the hero, the mercenaries who were killed, the prisoner, and so on.

Write down all these characters.

Characters will reveal their personalities through the action.

  • what they want,
  • how they see the world,
  • how they think and feel,
  • what changes about them during the story (if anything).

Write down all the vital nouns and other elements, too.

Try and minimise the number of characters and elements you have. This is important.

More Structure: Mini-Stories

Now you have your story outline and a list of characters, etc.

Split each of the 16 sections into 3 parts. This should give you 48 parts.

Each trio of parts is the Beginning, Middle and End of a given section. Think of each section as a mini-story.

For instance ...

  1. A series of fights ensure, culminating in an epic battle where the face the of alien is revealed.

... would have a Beginning, Middle and End. It is a mini-story. It could, in some ways, stand on its own (assumed knowledge from previous sections notwithstanding).

Subplot Intersections

You can link where sub-plots intersect with your story at this point.

So a subplot might end and that ending might intersect with a the middle of a particular mini-story in your main plot for example.

If you're just starting out, avoid subplots if you can.

Now, Take a Moment to Work Out Your Aim

What format will your story take?

Let's say your aim is a 200 pages book. Think about how long each part will be.

200 / 48 = just over 4 pages per beginning, middle and end.

Or maybe its a 100 page screenplay.

100 / 48 = just over 2 pages per per beginning, middle and end.

Of course, the actual amount of text per part will vary somewhat between parts. But try not to make any part much bigger or smaller than any other part ... it will stuff up your pacing.

Outline Your Mini-Stories

Write out a summary of the beginning, middle and end of each section.

Make notes on location, time, setting, vital dialogue, and what happens. Keep everything short and simple. Dot-points will do.

Keep in mind your aim. Say you want to write a 200 page book. Can you get four pages of writing out of the notes you have for all mini-stories?

As you write your mini-story summaries you will be adding to your list of characters and elements. Again: remember to be very stingy about adding to that list.

Example of a Mini-Story Outline

Now we start to write down ideas and details. Always keep in mind that we want to keep that list of characters and elements as short as possible.

Section 1. The Set Up

  1. A group of American mercenaries are reunited with an ex-colleague and he leads them on the routine rescue mission.

Beginning - somewhere in a secret jungle base, day time.

DUTCH meets up with some high ranking office, PHILIPS, they discuss the plan to rescue some cabinet ministers.

  • Eighteen hours ago I was informed that one of our choppers, transporting three presidential cabinet members from this charming little country, was shot down. The pilots radioed from the ground that they were all alive. Their position was fixed by the transponder beacon onboard the chopper. Here.

PHILIPS reveals that DUTCH's old friend DILLON, now a bureaucrat, is going

on the mission with him.

DUTCH and DILLON shake hands and lock arms arms competitively. Dillon is not as strong as DUTCH.

  • You've been pushing too many Pencils, Dillon. Had enough?
  • No way, old buddy.
  • You never did know when to quit.

DUTCH says his team usually work alone. But PHILIPS insists.

  • I'm afraid those are your orders, Major. Once you reach your objective, Dillon will evaluate the situation and take charge.

DUTCH isn't happy about it.

Middle - in an attack chopper, night.

BLAIN, MAC, RAMIREZ, HAWKINS, BILLY

  • Make you a god-damned sexual tyrannosaurus, just like me.

There is some witty, vulgar banter between the mercenaries. Its clear

they don't like DILLON. BLAIN in particular. They have an

altercation.

End - jungle

The mercenaries rappel into the jungle.

Dawn breaks. Describe the jungle.

They make their way through the inhospitable jungle.

Do this sort of outline for every beginning, middle and end.

Add enough details to so that you will achieve your aim. No more.

Try not to add too many new characters, unless they serve the action. Make notes on descriptions to use, colour, etc.

Main Characters

As you expand the story, start writing down more stuff about your characters.

Plot the characters' relationships with each other and the main character (e.g. wife of, enemy of, stranger that meets main character in pub, old friend, etc). What do the minor characters reveal about the main character, how do they help the action along (aid the character, hinder the character, reveal aspects of the world, reveal aspects of the main character's personality, comic sidekick, part of a pivot, etc).

Physical descriptions of characters. What they like/dislike. Jobs. Private life. Secrets. Whatever. Grab pictures of people to solidify them in your mind.

As the story takes shape, write a bio of each character in the first person. Research background, etc. Tape some dialogue with similar sorts of people, write it out to help you edit the dialogue into shape.

Use your summary to make sure your characters all play a role in the action. Remember: they are what they do. This will go some way to keep your characters distinct (they have different roles) and interesting (they have some effect on the story).

Keep doing all this in a cycle as you write the action below. When all the characters are feeling distinct, the action moves along at a good pace, and you can imagine everything in detail as if it's was a memory of real events - then you have your story ready :-)

Start Writing the First Draft

Now you're ready to do some writing!

Write the very End

In your outline, that means the last two mini-stories.

If you can't write the end you don't have a story. Yet. Keep writing your story summary until you do. Crap? Don't worry, it's gonna change by the time you've finished a few drafts.

Write the very beginning.

In your outline, that means the very first mini-story.

Before you write the first page write a summary of what happened to the character before the opening scene. The "back story".

That means, by the time you start writing your first proper text, you're leaping into the action straight away with a clear idea of the context. No floundering around looking for the start!

Start Writing the Rest

Now you really know where you're going.

Start writing.

Commit yourself to a schedule of words per day. Even if you're feeling uninspired, try and stick to your schedule.

If you can, make sure you have someone else who will be there to make sure you're doing your writing. "So - what have you written today?"

Draft 1

Just get stuck in. Try not to revisit or rewrite a mini-story until you've completed all the other mini-stories.

Then you can look back.

Once you've done that, go back and edit. Rearrange. Change the plot. Adjust your list of characters and elements, notes and so on. But make sure you start adjustments from your 4 sentences, then down to your paragraphs, then your notes and then your text.

Draft 2.

Write another draft.

Don't edit the last one. Throw it out.

This time, read the mini-stories you write out loud. To someone else if possible. If it's not reading well, record yourself telling someone the part of the story that you're struggling with. Write down what you say. Try using that as the text instead.

Draft 3

Another draft.

This time you can edit the last one.

This time thin out the dialogue. Short sentences if you can.

Make sure characters have their own cadences and rhythms where it makes sense.

Ask some people to read the dialogue out loud. Each person taking one or more characters. Ask them to say things their way if they want to. Record what they say.

Do another draft. Keep drafting until you're happy!

Some Useful Links

Quick Summary

4 Sentences.

  • How the story starts;
  • How things change;
  • What the characters do in response to the change,
  • How the story is resolved.

Expand on each sentence.

Four short paragraphs per sentence (2 sentences per para, ideally).

(Remember to annotate your paragraphs with the names of the types of action as you go.)

The Set Up

Set Up

Presage - note the emotion, what type of action is presaged, make the reader ask questions.

Characters Do the Usual

Something Changes

End of the Known: The Beginning of Adventure

The Shift

Change! - change the type of action to the one presaged in The Setup, Presage, use the emotion to do so. Answer the reader's questions.

A Problem to Solve

The Struggle

(Make a list of obstacles, split it into 3)

The First Third of the Obstacles

The Second Third of the Obstacles

The Last Set of Obstacles & the Emotional Shift - How are things out of control? What is the new emotion? leave the last obstacle for ...

The Beginning of the End - how has the main character (or the world) changed? What has the main character learned? What is the new emotion that results? (It should contrast with the emotion in The Last Set of Obstacles & the Emotional Shift).

The End

Create list of obstacles that are similar to the obstacles faced in The Struggle. Link them together.

Split the list into four. One paragraph per list.

But this time, remember that the type of action has changed and the main character has changed.

The final obstacle should resolve the story.

List the types of action, main emotions, characters and other notable elements.

Mini-Stories

Split each the sections into a beginning, middle and end.

These are "mini-stories". They should almost be complete in themselves - assumed knowledge from previous stories notwithstanding.

Subplots

Work out where they intersect with your mini-stories.

Work out your aim

(number of pages/words per beginning, middle and end - this is for pacing)

Outline your mini-stories

... as dotpoints, as you do so update your list of characters, etc. Try not to make this list too big. Make sure you have enough detail to get to your aim.

Do Drafts 1-3