Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Story Skeletons

The weather, though much improved, continues to be over me, and so my quills continue to be more DayQuil than ink-dipped. When I'm writing stuff like that, I know I shouldn't be working on any of my real writing. So, instead, you get me here on the blog.

Today, a glimpse of the bones beneath Stuff of Legends. If you've read the comic, you've already seen a bit of it. No, not the characters or the backstory -- I mean the outline. Turned sideways, it was the background for the last series of strips, starting here.

I work a lot on outlines before I start to write. It's a fairly new development, after a lot of years of improv-writing that started strong and went nowhere, but I'm hooked on it now. I start with a one-paragraph outline -- who are the characters, what do they want, what gets in their way, what do they do to overcome it.

  • Eliott wants to have an adventure with Jordan, but Jordan is retired, so Eliott teams up with Jordan's old agent, Glister, to force an adventure on Jordan.
From there it expands. How can I give it an act-structure? What would be a really cool scene to write? Most importantly, how does it begin and end? I do this a few times, each one in a fresh text file or on a new, blank page, re-writing everything each time, until the outline is a page or two long. By this time, most of the characters have appeared, and the scenes I'm looking forward to writing -- there'll be a dragon, and side-track through a forest that involves goblins -- and I have a clear idea of where the story starts and what the individual and overall resolutions are. Some bits are still vague -- "Jordan nearly gets to fight the dragon, but it escapes" -- but even if I don't know exactly what happens, I still know there's a scene there I'll have to write. If a line of dialogue has jumped out at me, I bracket it and put it in -- Eliott meets Jordan ("I want to be just like you!").

The next phase is, again, an expansion, but this time I'm splitting my outline up into what I imagine will be chapter breaks. I'm frequently wrong, and the breaks dance like amoebae at a jazz club, but they're a good starting place. Each would-be chapter gets its own paragraph, with as much detail as I can assign to it. Some fill out because of the scenes I want to write, some balloon into being because I'm rushing too quickly from one scene to the next.

Once the chapters are established, I finally begin to write. Because everything is laid out in front of me, I usually pick a scene that sounds like fun and start from there; the first thing I wrote in Stuff of Legends was what is now Chapter 5, in Glister Starmacher's office. A now-cut introduction scene before Eliott appeared in Chapter 1 came soon after. The flesh grew onto the bones in bits and pieces, wherever caught my interest on a given day.

Having a solid structure provides me the freedom to write non-sequentially, and lets me imagine my novel as a sort of reverse-zombie. I wouldn't want it any other way.

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