On Outlines and Other Unicorns

I’ve been consistently running into problems with big battle scenes; in part, I think, because picturing a lot of objects moving through space is one of the things my brain absolutely hates. The only way I’ve gotten through them is by gritting my teeth and making rough outlines of “and then what happens”. Which in turn tend to get broken down into finer outlines of “and then x, then y, Z interferes…” and so on, as I try to hack at each part. It is tedious as heck, but it seems to work.

Still, tedious. So I thought I’d pick up a book on outlining – specifically, Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland. Just to see if there were better ways to do it.

I can’t give a full review on the book right now; I’ve only read about through page 88. But I’ve run into a spot that tromps on my bunnies’ toes, and they are scowling, so I thought I’d share my efforts to pin down exactly why.

In short, part of what Weiland states as “fact” is that the whole book should be about conflict and frustrating your characters to the very end. Anything else is “shallow escapism.”

…As Tolkien put it, the only people who have problems with escapism are jailors.

But I actually have two other points that make me say this must not be so. One is pure psych research. You’ve probably heard the story: people researching what makes horror movies effective make people watch horrible bit after horrible bit, and record their reactions. And the researchers found that past a certain point of horror, the viewers just started laughing. It wasn’t real anymore.

The only way to make horror movies effective, in short, is to give the characters – and the viewers – a break from constant horror. Quiet pauses. Even moments of happiness. Without those to contrast with, unending horror just makes your brain check out.

And IMHO, unending stress works the same way. If your character doesn’t get a few “wins” in the story, even of the “yes! I managed to scrabble my way up the impossible cliff, breathe, wipe off the blood…. Oh. Zombies. Yay.”

Without that pause, that win, your character is going to take to drink or shoot themselves. And that’s a lousy story.

My second reason has to do with something I read on another blog years ago – “two square inches of sunlight”. The gist of it was that fanfiction has something in common with the best novels; a writer can take a moment from painting the whole world to examine something small, maybe even mundane, and make it something the reader can dig into and soak up, warm and happy and wonderful.

We’ve got enough horror and conflict in the world; just check out the evening news. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy – or wanting to see characters happy.

So as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to take this writer’s advice with a bushel of salt. Because characters deserve some during-the-story wins. And so do the readers. Reading is life – and who wants your life to be an unending series of conflicts until the last scene? Meh. Boring.

Now, back to the undead hordes attacking the Halloween betrothal party….

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24 thoughts on “On Outlines and Other Unicorns

  1. …the Halloween betrothal party…who immediately whip out the machetes they have been hiding as part of their pirate costumes…

    Having no conflict is boring to read. But unending angst is just as boring and a lot more depressing. I like the way you pace your stories (at least the ones I’ve read) as a series of bigger and bigger obstacles. I also like the pauses between because I get to know (and care for) the characters through the banter and the obvious affection they hold for each other. Hard to do that if the story is just one big fight. Just my two cents…

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  2. Your brain might hate fighting scenes but they always come out clear and easy to understand ( especially in embers where all the bending and weapons came out in play.) and while I truly enjoy them my favorite parts of your stories tend to be the quiet moments. Zack hiding Cloud among chocobos, Karou brushing pieces of ceiling out of Kenshin’s hair, Obi-wan talking to Battousai, and Zuko commenting on Toph’s insane bed hair after the siege are just the one’s that come to mind first. I think that readers need to calm down from action just as much as the actual characters do.

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  3. In one sense, I can get where the idea that the whole book is about a specific conflict comes from. I typically view stories this way myself as I’m a “big-picture” thinker. However, that one big conflict is made out of all the little conflicts that happen over the course of the story and between those smaller conflicts is usually a lot of “normal life”. Otherwise… well, there’s reasons I’ve never been able to take the MCU and Star Wars Prequels all that seriously and one of the big reasons is that I have no clue what the canon characters do when they aren’t fighting Hydra/the Sith. There’s no emotional point for me to want the conflict to stop because I don’t know how the characters will react to non-conflict. But anyway, I tend to simplify all those smaller conflicts down in my head into the “main” conflict. Oftentimes, weather I like a story or not will come down to if me and the author both had the same big conflict solved at the end of the story.

    As far as outlining itself goes, I typically have in mind where the outline is going (Point Z) and where the outline starts (Point A). And in between I have a few things I know need to happen. After that I tend to work backwards and forwards between Points Z and A while making sure all the events that need to happen happen. I’m the kind of person who knows what and why the characters are doing what they do throughout the whole story, but I’m a bit fuzzy on how they end up doing what they do until I actually write it.

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    1. *Points at MCU/SW bit about how do they exist outside of fighting.* That. Exactly. One of the things I love about the Rebels cartoons is it’s more slice-of-life. Sure, they’re against the Empire. They also need to scrape by and get paid enough to live on, as well as keep the Ghost repaired.

      And yep, that’s my general approach as well. “Here’s where I want the story to start. Here’s where things are wrapped up. This is who I want for main characters, and this is the shape of the world around them.” Then I tend to fuel up on caffeine and let the characters tear off on their way wreaking havoc.

      Because… well, outlines may be good for people who want them. But to me, stories should be driven by 1) characters and 2) the laws of physics as they work in your universe. (Which may include magic.)

      If, say, a meteorite strikes the earth, what’s the interesting part? The megatonnage and destruction? For some people that is the thing. For me it’s, “Okay, character X is in the situation. How do they react? Because Y will do something completely different!”

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  4. Agreeing with what you have to say about unending stress and plot twists with no breaks for breath, humour or anything in between really messes with the impact a story has on the reader. Personally, I’ve always felt that humour interspersing tension always makes horror, terror or action more vivid when it occurs. Heck, even wry humour or gallows humour would do the trick. Just something to give your audience a break (read: misled their poor trusting hearts) before things get properly pear-shaped.

    That said, I totally get why action sequences would frustrate a writer. More than too many things happening at once, my greatest roadblock is the fear that the scene looks too contrived, or unrealistic.

    PS: I’ve always loved your action sequences, fanfiction or otherwise. I mean, the action sequences in Embers were both stunning and mind-boggling. Not to mention the last few chapters of A Net of Dawn and Bones – I’m not exaggerating when I say I ignored food and human interaction because I couldn’t put the book down. 😀

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    1. …I’ve been guilty of ignoring people myself when a book is really enthralling, so thank you for the complement! 🙂

      And yes. Even gallows humor or snark can be enough of a break in the middle of a gory mess – which is, BTW, why people who deal with gory messes in real life (cops, paramedics, doctors, etc.) often have a ghoulish sense of humor.

      Which means putting in humor to a horror situation makes it more realistic, not less. Because that’s what people do!

      *Thoughtful nod* One thing that helps with making sure action scenes come off as plausible? Good beta readers. Someone you can trust to read the work without ripping your poor tender heart to shreds, and just say, “Waaaaait a minute, this doesn’t make sense.”

      Another thing that helps (though I suck at it, too) is taking a piece of scrap paper and “blocking” a fight, to use movie parlance. X starts here; Y starts over there. Note objects/other characters/ hidden monsters in the surroundings. Do one exchange of blows. Pause your writing right there, and figure out 1) if that seems physically plausible, and 2) okay, given that, what’s the new situation the characters are dealing with? Because at the very least, your hero is probably more tired now – and at worst, you’ve got a near-death experience and there’d better be a Big Damn Heroes moment coming…. 😉

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  5. Hmm… I typically put down a book and don’t return if it’s nothing but a downhill slide of failures. Even if I’m sure there’s a happy ending and I’m only half way through, I’ll stop.
    I like to have an ebb and flow to the mood or else outcomes to conflicts become too predictable. Reading a happy point lets me know there’s a disaster coming up, and the good memories/scenes will provide a contrast (better yet a bracketing contrast).

    As to fight scenes… Honestly, I love them to bits. I can dive in and out of details, throw in sensations instead of that-karate-chop-name, jump from panting breath to glinting sun on skin to shattering rock. Fight POVs are so… versatile. They can be cool and collected, reeling off techniques and counter measures, or it can be a spastic momentary mess of impressions and impacts.
    However… I may be having so much fun with them because I’ve never attempted to organize them into a strategic well thought out maneuver. The most I really expect out of myself is to keep track of where the fighters are physically in relation to environment and other groups.

    That all aside, I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comment. Embers is a fantastic example of a great action scenes. The first one to pop to mind is the friggin TRAIN. But I’ve never had any reaction to your fight scenes other than glee. Your writing really shows that you’ve put thought into it and it’s so appreciated when you note down your source materials (AKA, farmers vs nomads).

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    1. One-on-one fight scenes can definitely be great fun. 🙂 Or even one-on-many, when it’s someone like Kenshin… who’s usually actually doing one-on-one in a blindingly quick succession of chained sequences, which has an interest all its own. It’s when you get multiple on multiple fights that things get really dicey… and I have a big one of those in Count Taka, and several in Princess Rama. Ouch.

      *G* Embers took over 3 years to write. So I’m glad the action came off well.

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  6. One thing I have always, always both loved and admired about your writing is the humour and the pacing thereof. After all, what is joy without sorrow to contrast it, and sorrow without joy? Just a line of never-changing emotion. That is Not Fun.

    Plus, cheers for escapism! Often that’s what people want from stories!

    Yeah, I agree with everyone here (save the writer of that book you were reading). A sine wave of conflict and bits of happiness always makes a more interesting, better read than a sloping line. And characterization time – yes! Let’s get to know the characters, or we won’t give two figs for what happens to them by the end!

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    1. I think the author may have some useful tips on how to outline, but I’m going to go on record and say so far “Wired for Story” is much, much more helpful to a writer trying to make a story work. Because yes. Stories are not just impersonal spectacles. We need to care about the characters for it to be a good story.

      (Shyamalan, I’m looking at you. As is every other ATLA fan out there. Augh.)

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      1. (…Gah, I’m sorry for butting in, but yes, YES, Shyamalan what the hell was that movie. Perfect CG effects and constant action with no focus on characterisation and detailed world-explanation-in-lieu-of-building do not a good movie make. Especially not when every fan who’s actually familiar with the plot KNOWS that the source material is better in every way.)

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      2. I actually did some research, because Flat What.

        Apparently Shyamalan is on record as saying that a film is like a fireworks display – a visual spectacle the audience should just sit back and watch. Characters have nothing to do with anything. Story doesn’t matter.

        …Which explains a lot, sadly enough.

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    2. Again, sorry for butting in – I just had to say, escapism is entirely what I wanted from books when I was growing up. Nearly everyone I knew tried to make me focus on reading books that were about the pain, sorrow and beauty of the world. Which is all well and good, but how can you focus on any of it when there’s nothing the to emphasize any of those moments? A constant stream of pain isn’t a celebration of life, it’s monotony. At least when you’re reading about it.

      Uh, yeah. Escapism! Characterisation! World-Building! Agreed!

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      1. Oh dear. That… really does explain a lot about his movies, especially this one. It probably works when you’re making movies that don’t rely less on their characters and more on the spectacle, but ATLA was built on the strength of it’s characters and plot. I guess it’s just a case of a formula being forced onto the wrong set of elements. Pun entirely intended.

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  7. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses – or stuff that is doable but darned difficult. They come out great and that’s the important bit.

    I like balance in the stories – it’s dull to have too much of one or the other. And it’s probably easier to get away with no characterization and a paper-thin plot in a film because all the pretty pictures are there to distract you. The book only has its words.

    You have great words by the way. I often re-read you when I need a laugh.

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