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That Time I Wrote an Outline, Pt 1

The age old question: top load vs. front load washer. Toilet paper over or under. Knives pointing up in the dishwasher or down. Pantser or planner.

Top load (you can throw in the socks you forgot), over (obviously), we got a dishwasher with a fancy drawer rack thing, and... I used to never plan. I'd get an idea and start writing.

Probably the most revelatory piece of writing advice I ever read was: everyone outlines, but some folks just call their outline their first draft. Real galaxy brain moment on that one as I sat there and picked apart what that meant. It made perfect sense: even for completed stories, my first drafts served as more of a sketch of what might happen, rather than a finished product of what definitely does happen in this story. It led me to going back again and again, changing story lines, adjusting settings, refining characters - all the work of the second, third, fourth, etc drafts, but with so many stops and starts along the way it felt like I was running in place like the knight from Monty Python, arriving at the end by more magic and chance than technique and skill.

So I decided to level up, reading craft books, trying and trying on different stories to get the shape of them right, reading novels and watching movies and studying how these writers put the pieces of their stories together, and just generally struggling - or, as we say in this house: riding the struggle bus.


Everything I'm about to talk about for story structure, outlining a novel, creating characters, organizing beats, subverting tropes, combining genres, is from John Truby. Most of it is in this book, though quite a bit is from his online classes too, especially the romance and comedy courses. A note: I have thoughts about pieces of the romance course but that's another topic and it doesn't change the overall benefit of what's contained in it, even though it does make my face go like this: 🥴

No, this blog post isn't sponsored by Truby, but yes we are Truby fans around these parts. If you're reading this post with thoughts on your own writing, I recommend grabbing this book to give some context to what I'm going to talk about... and also because every writer should read it.

What's the secret sauce in this here book? Truby is among the few craft writers who takes authors (or, to be fair, more specifically screenwriters but whatever, I'm making this about me) through the process of developing a premise into a plot into a story. A lot of craft books are based on retroactively imposing a structure onto a story (ahem, three acts, ahem) with a hat-tip to the creative steps taken to get there. Truby starts at the beginning, where we all start: an idea, a scene we can't get out of our heads, a line of dialogue, a character we already love, and from there shows you how to expand on that.

There are also great lessons on genre to be found and his assertions that the best stories combine genres. Now, of course, Romance Land has quite a bit of ~discourse~ about genre expectations (HEA/HFN or bust!) but for Truby the conversation centers around using beats from, say, comedy to bolster the beats found in romance, or bringing in a sprinkle of action/adventure or myth or detective stories to flesh things out.

When I read this, I realized the way in which really embracing comedy writing as a form could help me construct my novels. Fundamentally, my books are grounded in the genre of romance and all associated beats, but during that middle part of a book where I'm left wondering what the heck is supposed to happen, hinging the story on the way comedy works helped me put language to what I was already tending to do by instinct.

And at the end of the day, what is an outline other than putting words to these ideas we have in our head, ordering them, and making explicit those instinctive insights we have as writers?

So armed with a very heavily annotated copy of Truby's book, I set forth to make an outline structure I could follow as I set up my romance novels.

Spoiler alert: it didn't really work (oops) but I did learn some really helpful things.

In Scrivener, I used the label feature and keywords to set up a list of beats and where they appear in the story. You can see those below on the right. To the left where it says untiled document is where I can type in what occurs in the story there, either a couple words depicting a scene, or some dialogue, or an actual draft of a chapter.

A screenshot of an outline in scrivener, with 'untitled document' in the left column, 'initial chapters' in the second to the left column with red labels, and on the far left a list of story beats: beginning equilibrium, ghost, cycle of fear of love, weakness and need, inability to love, gaze/meeting/physical desire, desire (aka plot spine as desire acts against opponent)(a tangible goal that is clear when it's achieved), Opponent (character who creates the plot by interfering with the desire, Ally/Allies

Truby tells us that in the planning stage of the novel, when you've got all those big, bright ideas that crowd into your head, to jot them all down in whatever order they come to you. Then, take that list and put it in the sequence these scenes will follow in the story. You might not end up using all of them, plenty will shift and change, and there will be giant holes, but it gives you the first shape of your narrative.

I'd start arranging those ideas into this format, identifying the beat this initial, excited spark of a scene landed in. Above are the beats found most commonly in the beginning of a romance novel. Below are the ones that can move around a bit and whose order is more mutable.

These 'nightmare' sequences are from comedy stories, where you brainstorm what would be the absolute worst thing to happen to your character - not in a horror/thriller sort of way (for me at least), but an oh God, oh fuck, whyyyyyy type of occurrence that raises the character's level of frustration and increases the tension between them and their love interest. Examples are: Ned already survived this baseball game with Abbot so wtf does Chris mean about them kissing?! Or arriving at a hotel and oh dear there's only one room. Romance authors do this all the time, and often this is referred to as 'upping the stakes' but I think it's a lot clearer to really name what's happening here because it tends to spark more ideas when I'm trying to think of something. Rather than 'upping stakes', I'm actively making my character's day worse and they have to deal with this comedic 'nightmare' that makes both the author and the reader giggle. It's also clear from this wording of 'nightmare' that this occurs as something external that happens to the characters from the world around them. The best is when they've inadvertently done something to bring this occurrence about, not knowing at the time that the cascading effects of an earlier decision are going to result in them needing to book a hotel room last minute and of course there's only one room with one bed left.

The other beats in here are the first kiss (or maybe more accurately: first physical intimacy whether that's a kiss or something more sexual), the joust where our duo goes at each other, the dance where they have to work together and show how perfect they are for each other, and occasionally the outside suitor, if I decide to go that direction. For more info about these, check out Truby's 'romance' class, he really explains these nicely and I want to focus this post on talking about what I do with these beats, rather than his definitions.

Next comes the beats that occur around the middle of the story, either before or after the above beats depending on how the structure works for the given plot.

Now, part of why this method of outlining didn't work for me is that when I came up with this, I was putting the 'whoops I fell for you' beat more towards the end of the book when it really belongs here in the middle, setting up the second half of the book to have the duo supremely annoyed and horrified by how much they are into each other. That realization came too late in all my drafts, though I floundered through to getting it in the right-ish area in my books through a process of trial and error and existential ennui that took far, far too long.

Part of this is putting language to the fact that romance novels have more than one revelation, but they work differently than the revelation beat does in other genres. I was thinking of 'revelation' as the moment your character learns something new about the main villain, which helps them then fight the monster/bad guy/ whatever. Instead, it's more helpful to think of the main character's revelation in terms of their changing feelings about their love interest. For enemies to lovers that goes something like: I hate them, they're cute but I still hate them, ack they're funny they made me laugh but I still hate them, oh no they're adorable with children and kittens but I still hate them and I have to remember that, oh shit I don't hate this thing about them but I'm very sure I hate all the other parts, omg oops it's really only that one small thing I hate about them the rest of them is fine, maybe the rest of them is better than fine, ok ok ok maybe I never hated that thing maybe that was a problem with me the whole time, and finally: fuck it, I love them and that previously irritating thing about them is actually so endearing I just want to kiss their face all over. In this sequence, I was putting the last two steps very, very late in the story when in fact! They need to come earlier because the end of the story is really the characters getting over their last personal barriers to being in a relationship. They learn the other person is stunningly perfect (though they resist this knowledge, bury it, hide from it, whatever) during the middle of the novel and do their own personal, self work towards the end.

So, that said: when I first made this outline, I though that these 'ending chapter' beats had a lot more to do with their love interest than the main character themselves, but alas, I was wrong. Which is why: we get the breakup scene. The hero goes and gets vulnerable with their boo, only for their unresolved personal issues to come between them and the book gets sad for a bit.

But! Because it's so sad and this love of theirs is so perfect, our hero finally gets their head out of their butt and makes the changes they need to. Part of this is the 'allll by myselllffff' beat, named after the lament my dog sings when he's alone for more than three seconds (true fact: he's sitting next to me as I type this in nearly full body contact and he's thriving). Another part is the 'talk with ally' when their best friend yells at them to stop being so dumb, and then their personal revelation when they realize they're living their life wrong and Need To Change.

And in the end, my favorite part of the book (minus all my other favorite parts): the new equilibrium. This is a mirror of the beginning of the book, and I often use the exact same setting or a similar sequence of events as we show the new couple living their best life. It's fluffy, it's sweet, it's cute as can be, and it's entirely perfect.

What's not perfect? The fact that despite this meticulous outline, this method really didn't work that well for me! Rude. It was too disjointed, too bullet-pointy, and never really helped me get in the flow of a story that moves smoothly from one beat to the next, so I redid the entire thing, which you can read about in part 2 of this post.

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