That Time I Wrote an Outline, Pt 2


One reason the three-act structure doesn't work for me as a process to create a story is the fact that a story is, at its heart, about a person who changes slowly over a series of events, rather than discrete 'lightbulb' moments that fall in a neatly spaced trajectory. As Truby points out (and see the previous post for how much I love his craft book and me waxing poetic about it), a better way to conceptualize change is a banana going from green to yellow to brown. A bit of yellow starts to show up on the green, but when is the moment that it's really not green any more and fully yellow? And brown spots appear but can we pinpoint the change from 'a few spots' to 'wow that's a lot of spots' to 'um, I don't think I want to eat that, should we make banana bread?'. There are demarkations of a banana that is not green and is yellow, but in watching the transition therein, can we really break it down into discrete stages? And if we do, why three? Is it just because green, yellow, and brown are clearly different colors? What if we had language for a more nuanced greenish-yellow or a yellow-with-sixteen-spots-of-brown, would we then see five stages?

Books can be split like fractals in this same way. When we hold a finished book and plot it out, it's easy to say 'this is the midpoint' and 'here's the inciting incident' and 'here's where the third act begins', but in terms of the process of creating that finished book, I think Truby's advice of conceiving of a story as a banana (or is the character the banana? are we all bananas?) is a much more useful tool.


So, based on this, I took the outline from the previous blog post and created a narrative around it. This is really for an 'enemies to lovers' romance and would need to be changed for a different trope, but overall, it's a good look at what I've been using to outline my more recent stories.


This version of this outline is a huge step forward because it follows the 'but... therefore...' model from South Park writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Want a two minute video clip that will change your writing? Look them up, you won't regret it. With this model in hand, instead of the bullet-pointed nature of my previous outline, this forces me to think about interconnections in the plot of the story even as the two characters are going through their romance beats. It also more smoothly integrates 'obstacles' (previously named 'comedic nightmares' though they function the same way) with the growing feelings between our two people.


Is this outline working? So far, yes. Is this the final iteration of my drafting process? I'm entirely sure it isn't but if each step forward cuts down on the amount of time I sit staring blankly while trying to get my brain to work, I'll take it.


Is anyone interested in seeing actual examples of my outlines? I go through an entire multi-stage process of 'a list of ideas' to a more comprehensive idea of the plot, to an actual near complete story outline, and from there each individual chapter. Spoilers, I guess, for upcoming books? But also kind of cool if you're into the behind the scenes of writing. Email me if you want to see something of the sort, since I probably won't just post them online for all to read in their messy, typo laden glory.

 

The Outline: Mostly Enemies to Lovers But It Doesn't Have to Be


In the beginning is a Person, and that Person thinks that their life is ok. They are either HAPPY and feeling grand about things or they are IN A PICKLE and trying to already solve some problems, but whatever they're feeling, they're living life in their status quo - and this includes their romantic life, too.


In this beginning, they RUN INTO THEIR LOVE INTEREST, ideally in the first sequence of events in the first chapter, because we love a book where our characters meet right off the bat. Circumstances around our Person’s eventual Goal, in its nascent stage, makes it so they bump into Person 2 - it's an accident and an unfortunate one at that. They are Not Thrilled by this - Person 2 is an ex, an enemy, the hottie they feel weird around, or a stranger who they find medium annoying. No matter though and our Person brushes it off because they won't be seeing this person again and they can ignore this one meeting.


At this point, in these early stages of the story, our Person's friends/families/ally give them a hard time and articulate their Ghost, or the Cycle of Fear of Love that keeps them out of a relationship - they don't date longer than 3 months, they don't date at all, they fall in love after 5 minutes and get burned - and this mirrors the Weakness of this character - they're a perfectionist, they're a pessimist, they're an optimist, they're unrealistic, they're too realistic, they work too hard, they don't take themselves seriously. Our Person brushes this off too because everything is fine and/or they are trying to solve their pickle and this information is hugely unimportant right now.


But! SOMETHING IN THEIR LIFE CHANGES RIGHT THEN (they learn some information like a job loss/opportunity, a new place to move, a friend who is up to some shenanigans) and it creates a Problem for them. Through this, in order to fix this new Problem, their Goal becomes clearer. This is a physical, literal manifestation of something our Person believes will fix their life: a new job, a new place to live, a reunion with someone, an achievement they've earned, finishing something they've worked on forever. The reader can point to a page in the book where this is achieved (or not achieved), so it's incredibly tangible, even if it represents something bigger. The most important thing is that if you ask a reader 'what is our Person's goal?' they will have a definite, clear answer.


BUT...


In order to achieve their Goal, It Means Being Stuck Working With Person 2, who is uniquely suited (reference to Truby, not my own words) to making their life miserable and is in a position that continually foils our Person getting closer to their goal.


Our Person promises themselves that being stuck with Person 2 won't be as bad as they imagine and it's not! It's worse! Person 2 is everything they don't like: they're stuck up, they're too silly, they can't take a joke, they can't stop making jokes, they're mean, they're rude, they've wronged our Person in the past, and even their face is stupid (it's not, it's cute, but that just makes everything more awful). To make matters worse, cue nightmare 1, when the worst thing our hero can imagine faces them and they're embarassed, not only by this thing but because Person 2 is there to witness it.


Our Person can give up... but they want their Goal. So they recommit, maybe with the help of their Ally/friend/etc or maybe through a self-pep talk in which they promise themselves that Person 2 and this Goal won't get them down.


However, in the face of this recommitment, AN OBSTACLE APPEARS ON THE HORIZON, making the path towards the Goal harder and making more time required with Person 2. Everyone is displeased, except for the reader. Our Person is sure they can do this without Person 2, circumventing their help or just muscling through, however they cannot and this results in a Joust in which Person 2 and Person 1 butt heads. In this, our Person is not embarassed like the previous scenario, but instead arguing with Person 2 because they're justifiably frustrated with their lot in life, and Person 2 is frustrated as well.


Through this Joust, or in spite of it, our Person learns that Person 2 has a goal of their own (if they didn't know this already). Everyone is upset and cranky, but the fallout of this argument is that our two People agree that they really, truly do need each other in order to achieve their own goals, and they resolve to work better together. An alternative to this would be: following the Joust and revelation of Person 2’s goal, there is some empathy from our Person towards Person 2, in which perhaps they don’t have to work together on a project, but Person 2 becomes more humanized and our Person feels compassion towards them and might even offer advice, a pep-talk, or a small bit of help.


Their ability to work well together is tested by lo, THE NEXT OBSTACLE LOOMING ON THE HORIZON. Whatever proximity they were stuck in, they are suddenly More Stuck than before in order to overcome this next obstacle. There is only a single bed. They must be in a car together. They get lost together. They get pulled into work after hours, their friends conspire to make them spend time together, and they have to wear their 'get along shirt'. Whatever the forced proximity is, they do their very best to get along, but there is friction, bickering, and sexual tension in the way. Our Person is very annoyed by everything, but especially the sexual tension and probably also the fact that Person 2 says something funny that makes them laugh.


Because of this forced proximity, our person learns something more about Person 2 that again humanizes them, makes them seem soft, hits the core of our person's own feelings, and paints our Person 2 in a kind light, such as they love dogs, they're good with kids, they tip well, they help someone change a tire - whatever it is, it is in sharp contrast to the presumed judgements our Person already assumed about them. This is also a Nice Thing that's probably acted upon someone else in their social circle/sphere of the story, not on our Person. Regardless, Our Person is distressed by this information because it impedes their ability to be annoyed with Person 2 and tries to minimize it, ignore it, pretend it's just a fluke, but it's cracked the veneer of their assumptions. This information could also help explain why Person 2 wants their own goal and why it's important to them or to someone else in their life.


So, annoyed by all of this, OUR PERSON GOES TO COMPLAIN TO THEIR ALLY. The ally is like... dude, c'mon, what's so bad about the fact that Person 2 saved a dog from a busy highway? Climbed a tree to rescue a kitten? Gave a little kid an extra scoop of ice cream? Why are you complaining about this? What does it matter? And our Person is like oh, that's right, it doesn't matter at all, I don't know what I was thinking and I don't know why I was even so upset, I'm just stressed about reaching my Goal and Person 2 is in my way. But no, wait, is Person 2 actually helping? Our Person is getting confused and probably also turned on.


So our Person goes to Person 2 and is like... hey, I judged you wrong before, I still think your face is stupid, but I didn't need to be a dick about it, and Person 2 is just like... why are you like this (and why do I have to like you?!). This leads to Vulnerability on both parts, in which our Person is being less of a dick and more sorry, and Person 2 is opening up a bit. There might be a scene in here where they realize they like the same things: music, food, hobbies, they share a favorite spot in a park, they both love armadillos, whatever it is, they have this small thing to bond over. They also share their cycles of fear, information about their families, their friends, why they want this goal, and how hard things are for them. There's some amount of consoling each other, fist bumping that they're both in this together, a team cheer, and maybe they even dip their toes into having fun together for the first time, some laughing, some joking, some glimpse of what a future could be in a really small way and OOPS WE KISSED OH NO WE'RE IN BED AAAAHHH!!


But it didn't mean anything and it was a mistake and it's not going to happen again and it was just a bad idea and our Person gets out of bed/pulls away from the kiss/ gets dressed and goes about their business as they squash down all unwanted feelings, including: dreamily remembering every moment, thinking about Person 2 and how amazing they are, and especially how much they've come to rely on them!


Our People now HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO GET AWAY FROM EACH OTHER, but it feels not great because our Person is suddenly pining over Person 2 and ugh, why do I have to want to be with them?


YET ANOTHER OBSTACLE EMERGES, this time potentially in the form of a Person - someone who can poke at our Person's weakness, make them feel bad about themself, remind them of their own weakness, the embarrassment they previously felt in front of Person 2, etc. This might also be a rival for Person 2. Yet, Person 2 defends our Person/helps them/stands up for them, makes this entire thing very bearable and holy moly, our Person is so grateful for their support.


From this, THEY TACKLE THE NEXT OBSTACLE TOGETHER IN A DANCE BEAT. Only these two are made for each other, nobody else. They work together, finishing each other's sentences, reading the other's mind, stepping in and saving the day together through their perfection as a couple. They are both slightly surprised how well they work together. And vaguely uncomfortable but also there's some butterflies in the tummy surrounding it and uhhh yeah, it's nothing? Right, it's nothing but also... that was kinda cool, maybe at the end of all of this they'll end up being friends? Why not, Person 2 isn't nearly as awful as our Person assumed and it's been kinda fun to hang out together, which wow, is definitely a surprise and a revelation, not expecting that, not at all.


From here, THEY JUST CHILL. There is no real reason they have to be stuck together at this point. They just enjoy each other's company and that's medium uncomfortable and easier to ignore, but also it's Fact. They're aware the other could make an excuse to leave and are vaguely surprised when they don't. They talk about their lives, their families, their goals, what they want... and what's going to maybe happen after they achieve their goals, beginning to imagine a future where they aren't working on this scheme together.


OUR PERSON PHYSICALLY LETS PERSON 2 INTO THEIR SPACE: apartment, dinner or hangout with the family, they meet the ally in a simple setting, less charged than if they met before. Our Person is relaxed, enjoying showing Person 2 around, seeing how nicely they fit in this space. This is not something they every would have imagined before, because didn't they dislike Person 2? But the lovely qualities they first showed earlier in the book make them a natural with someone our Person cares about: a kid, a pet, a parent, a friend. It's really charming and gives them feelings. They might even bang again at this point, just for the fun of doing it. An ally/someone close to our Person points out how good they are together and that they're a cute couple, to which our Person becomes uncomfortable but doesn't necessarily disagree.


In the middle of all of this joy, THEIR ACTIONS FACILITATE ACHIEVING THE FINAL STEP OF THE GOAL OR THE GOAL BECOMES OUT OF REACH but our Person realizes they don't want it anymore. But, that means there's no more of a reason for our People of them to be spending time together, which is a real bummer at this point, because it was fun and there were sexy times and now what does our Person do with themselves? They have this free time and life begins to go back to the previous status quo from the very beginning of the story, but without Person 2 in it, and it's kind of depressing.


But! They should be happy! They have this new job, this new apartment, this money, this thing, this goal they wanted! Or they no longer need their goal and have realized they don’t want it to begin with! They try to enjoy it! But they can't stop thinking about Person 2.


THEIR ALLY APPEARS FROM THE ETHER and asks them what's wrong (though ofc the ally Knows What's Wrong). Person realizes that maybe they didn't want the goal in the first place, or maybe that the goal was never going to make them Capital H Happy, and maybe it's time to finally face their Biggest Fear, the thing they could barely even think about doing before but now is one more obstacle to overcome and/or they're forced into it because of circumstances.


While facing this Giant Fear, they think of Person 2 and what they've learned from them and with them in mind, are able to stand their ground against this mentor figure/person from their past/boss/ landlord/ old friend/ new friend / whoever.


Through these thoughts of Person 2, OUR PERSON IS SUDDENLY VERY CLEAR THAT THEY NEED PERSON 2 IN THEIR LIFE but of course is scared because what if Person 2 doesn’t need/want them? So, they ORCHESTRATE A REASON TO BE BACK TOGETHER to get face time with Person 2. They don't have to be there, but they are, and maybe both of them could get out of this situation but neither try that hard to do so. There is flirting and catching up and talking about what their lives have been up to, and there is imagining Person 2 going about their life and our Person not being a part of it, and there's the idea of the future without Person 2 and no! That can't happen, they can't be apart! They'll be friends, if that's what they get, but if Person 2 wanted more than that... oh! They do! How excellent!


In some cases, there remains SOME PLOT TO BE WRAPPED UP which they do together. Mostly, they hold hands a lot and are grossly happy together. The final scenes of the book are them living in a new equilibrium where they’ve both changed as people and we somehow reflect the beginning of the book to truly illustrate how far our People have come.

 

And that's it! An recipe for a romance novel. Add a heaping cup of premise, gradually fold in two beautifully flawed characters, and bake for literal months as you careen between feeling like a literary genius and an absolute goof who needs to make better life choices.


This outline worked amazingly for drafting 'Light up the Lamp'. I'm hoping it works just as well for my next venture: yachting crew catches feelings and fish. That said, it won't fit other books in the pipeline, since if I do manage a sequel to The Place Between it of course won't be nearly as antagonistic between Ned and Abbot, and a 'friends to lovers' arc also wouldn't necessarily flow from this. I think that's really an entire other outline that lives in those two ideas: characters who don't drive each other nuts, but instead start the story as an already formed team and just need to grow from there.


There's also some structural flaws in this outline that I need to flesh out a bit more. In romance books, the love interest, aka Person 2, needs to be the biggest obstacle for our Person achieving their goal. I'm not sure that truly comes through as clearly as I need it to - or rather, maybe I need to create a different guide that takes me through setting up that goal, those obstacles, and how to tie that into the premise. I know those exist out there, but clearly I like to do my own thing, pulling bits of pieces into my process rather than just following a worksheet I've found online.


Which means, as ever: Onwards. I'll figure it out like I always do: drinking too much coffee, talking out loud to my cat, and making increasingly garbled notes until I manage to untangle the ideas in my brain into something useful.

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