Co-Writing

Co-writing—there are numerous of ways to co-write a story. Some people co-write by swapping chapters while others take turned of one person writing one page and the other person writes the next page, or maybe both writers have a their own main characters and write from their POV’s. I cannot list all the different ways you can co-write because I simply don’t know all of them. However, in this post, I’m going to focus on the co-writing style I have found works best for me and is extremely easy for anyone to do, and this style is Roleplaying Co-Writing.

With Roleplaying Co-Writing, each author gets a set of characters—usually one main character for each writer, and then choose the supporting characters. While it is possible to share a character, it’s simply easier and less stressful if one writer to have possession of the character rather than being concerned with the other writer writing the character wrong.

Once the characters have been spread out evenly between the two writers, you then put the characters in a scenario, and each writer writes the dialogue and action of their own character. This is where the fun begins. Although you know what must happen in the scene, you don’t know how it happens, but you let the characters be themselves while you slowly steer them in the direction of the purpose of the scene. What exactly is exchanged and occurs in these scenes are completely unpredictable, and sometimes it can change the entire course of the story, but that is where the fun lies. Here’s an example I co-wrote with Nan Sampson Bach. She wrote Juan’s character while I wrote Julianne. The bold are hers. The italics are mine (Note: this is the actual raw version of this scene prior to smoothing out the two styles of writing with any editing):

<~>~<~>~<~>

When he stood, he leaned heavily on her, but Julianne didn’t mind. She just looked up at him concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Estoy bien. Sólo necesito un poco de agua.” He shook his head, tried again. Was he slurring his words or was the spinning room now affecting his ears? “I meant to say, I am fine. I just need a little water, that is all.” He tried to push away from her but stumbled and went down on his knees. “Maldición!” God help him, it had never been this bad before. He needed his Gate. He needed to tap into the energy there. He sensed Julianne next to him, trying to help him up and his face burned with shame. He pushed at her feebly, but he had no strength left. “Leave me, Dona. Por favor. You do not need to see this.”

But Julianne insisted. “What is wrong? What do you need? Tell me!” Her heart raced with sudden fear because she sensed this wasn’t simply exhaustion.

His vision was graying. “I need the Gate. I need to make a sacrifice to the Gate. For the energy.” He tried to focus on her face, tried to smile. “I have used it too much, spent too much. It is like a drug, Dona Julianne. It takes its toll.” He shook his head. “You should go. Fetch your Mage Prince. He must know what I know of The First. If I am unable to do this thing, then he must.”

Sasha’s words spun round in his head as he collapsed onto the floor. “The more you use it, the more you need it, Juan-Carlos. And the more you need it, the more it sucks the life out of you.” And then the crafty Macedonian laughed.

Julianne realized he needed power. She had forgotten the magic of the Gate had sustained him, and she sat back briefly before thinning her lips and coming to a decision. “You need power. Does it have to be from the Gate?”

She was speaking, but he was having trouble understanding the words. If only she would speak in Spanish. Damn the English – how had they managed to take over the world?

Julianne decided not to wait for an answer. She was the creator of this realm, and in that way, she was the most powerful person present. Taking a deep breath, Julianne turned him over, so he was lying on his back. She hesitated but then bent over and kissed him.

However, it wasn’t a simple kiss. As soon as their lips touched, Julianne reached onto his mind and the close connection they had, and she poured as much power into him as she could. She sensed his strength returning.

After a moment, she finally pulled back and winced, bringing a hand to her head. “Ow—why didn’t anyone ever say those fairytale kisses leave people with headaches?”

It took him a moment to process what had happened. “What… what did you do?” He assessed himself, found his energy had returned, almost at full force. It was not the same sort of juiced up buzz he used to get from a sacrifice to the Gate, but he felt refreshed and the weakness and exhaustion that had plagued him for months was gone.

<~>~<~>~<~>

As you can see, this style is almost as if co-writing paragraph-by-paragraph, but it’s not quite. Sometimes one writer will write multiple paragraphs to show different thoughts and actions of their characters.

What did we use to write back and forth? Some people use Google Docs, but my preferred means are Facebook Messenger or email, and then I copy and paste what we’ve written into a document. It’s simple, consistent, and readily available.

So this is the basic idea of Roleplaying Co-Writing, but there is a lot of work that must be put into it in order for it to work. You can’t just randomly start co-writing with someone and expect a full-fledged story to emerge…okay, so you can actually do that, and a story will begin to form, but there comes a time where you need to pause and communicate with each other where the story should go. Here are a few things you need to know prior to actually co-writing with someone:

  1. Do you two have similar writing styles?
  2. What are the areas where you are weak but they are strong and vica versa? (are they better at writing fight scenes than you? Are you better at describing a medieval setting than them? Etc.)
  3. Are you both confident in your writing abilities and willing to improvise at a moment’s notice? (if one person is unwilling to allow their character to make a mistake or get hurt, it will be difficult to co-write with such a person.)
  4. Can you communicate well with your co-writer?
  5. Can you be completely honest with them? (if the two main characters are supposed to fall in love, but you feel your co-writer’s MMC is too wooden, your FMC won’t fall for him. So either change the story or delve into the wooden character to uncover unspeakable depths. The two co-writers must be completely honest and willing to work with each other, untangle any complications for the success of the story.)
  6. Determine and agree on goals for the story (Are you writing just for fun or to explore a different genre of writing? Are you hoping to publish the story one day?)

Now, before you begin writing, it is highly recommended the two of you outline the story. It could be a rough outline or a very detailed outline—whatever you want, but the point of this is agreeing on the events and direction of the story. If you can’t agree on that, you will spend a lot of time arguing and not writing. One of you may be more prone to outlining, so let that person pull together the actual outline, but brainstorm it together!

Remember, the outline is only a guide. If you follow it perfectly, fantastic, but rarely does writing ever go exactly how we planned, so you need to improvise and work with what is handed to you. ALWAYS COMMUNICATE. If a story is moving off track from the outline, communicate with the co-writer, bring it to their attention, discuss if you should stay on the outline or not, and if you opt not to stay on the outline, explore the possibilities of the future of this new direction. Once you’ve written an outline, this does not mean you’re locked into it. Stories have minds of their own and will unfold exactly how they want to or else they will give you Writer’s Block.

Now, one thing you should know prior to committing to co-writing using this style is that it is very addictive. You can literally write all day—and still get other stuff done although you might get irritated when there’s an interruption in your life that prevents you from reading what your co-writer sent to you. I co-write a lot on my phone. I go about my day, doing my usual work, then play fetch with my dog, wash the dishes, cook a meal or bake cookies, and converse with people, but then my phone chimes with a reply, and I look at the message, type a reply, and send it, and then I resume whatever work I was doing. It is incredibly fun—too much fun sometimes that it can actually become stressful because all you want to do is write! A solution? Set aside a time of day (an hour or two) when your co-writer and you will write. That way writing won’t get in the way of your real life, and your real life won’t get in the way of your writing.

Does this mean you can’t work on the story throughout the day until that set time? No. If there is a scene approaching where the only characters involved are characters you write, that is called a solo scene, and you may write it whenever you want. It’s good to write it ahead of time, so when the story finally gets to that point, your co-writer isn’t waiting around for you to write that scene. Rather, you can just send it to them once you’ve reached that point, and the two of you can progress to the next scene which you must write together.

So, this is merely one way co-writing. It is incredibly fun. To quote Nan Sampson Bach, whom I’ve been co-writing with recently: Co-writing is an absolute blast. You get a terrific feedback loop, that keeps the energy and interest high, and the level of spontaneity makes the writing feel real. It’s highly addictive.” So if you’re interesting in co-writing and just aren’t sure how to approach it, I highly recommend the Roleplaying Co-Writing style. Once you get a hang of it, you’ll have a blast. Hope you the best!

When to Step OFF the Outline

I wrote an outline for my story, but I’m stuck. I have Writer’s Block. The characters aren’t agreeing with me. What do I do?” Let’s discuss this.

There are times when the story and the characters simply won’t do what you’ve asked them to. They kick and scream and bite, and you sit back in your chair with arms folded glaring at the computer screen. It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s supposed to be easier than this. After all, you are their author! Why won’t they listen to you?

One very important thing about writing you must remember: when writing a story, you are writing their story—not yours. They’ve gone through it, experienced it, and they know what they’re talking about. You are simply a vehicle for their story to be told to the world. “But they don’t exist! How can they be in such control when they’re just figments of my imagination?” I don’t have the answer to that. I simply know that as writers, we are not in control of the story.

You may get a fantastic idea for a story and carefully outline it. You sit down and begin writing. It’s going well—no problems. Then suddenly you ask a character to do something, and the character crosses her arms, steps back, and glares. Now you’re at crossroads. On one hand, the outline requires the character to do or say a specific thing, but on the other hand the character absolutely refuses. Without the character cooperating, the scene won’t unfold as planned, and there will be a ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. When you talk with the character, she insists you, “That’s not me! I wouldn’t do something like that.”

You sighed and try to reason with her, “But that’s what you told me you were going to do when we wrote the outline!”

She doesn’t back down. “Well, you just didn’t know me well enough back then. Now you know me better, and you should know I wouldn’t do that. Don’t make me.”

Then what am I supposed to do? If you don’t demand to know Blackadder’s real identity after seeing him fight like that, that changes everything! I mean, you’re not going to have a reason to meet with Remus once you get into the city, and I honestly don’t know when Blackadder will ever tell you who he really is, and you know how important that is for the story!”

The character smiles—a knowing smile that makes you feel small. “Just trust me—trust us. The story will work out just fine.”

Now you have a choice. You can throw caution to the wind and trust the character, or you can insist to stick to the outline and force the character to do something out of character. Here’s something to consider when you’re faced with this decision: have you ever tried to make someone do something they didn’t want to do? How smoothly did that end? He was probably glaring at you for the rest of the evening and wouldn’t forgive you for a week. That’s bad. That’s inconvenient, but it’s worse when it’s a character in your head. You can’t just walk out of the room and leave him to cool off. The character is with you every step of the way, talking behind your back, playing your conscience, and just being a pest. Not only that but he also picks fights with other characters in the cast. When one character is thoroughly unhappy, no one is happy

Say you force a character to act out of character and you finish the story. Then what? What you then face is the daunting task of revising that story to prep it for publication, and after such a struggle to write the story, how much are you really going to look forward to diving back into it and fighting some more? You will most likely shelf the book or stick it in a drawer hoping it will sort itself out while you get on to another project, but you know deep in the back of your mind that you will probably never touch that story again. If you do, you’ll start from scrap and redo it completely.

All that time, all those words wasted—simply because you wanted to have your own way and didn’t trust the characters.

So you see, when you’ve outlined a story, but the characters want to change something, it is always in your best interest to go along with them. This is when a detour from the outline is acceptable. They have a way of coming back to the outline and getting back on track. If they don’t bring the story back to the outline, in the end you will be grateful because the story turned out better than you could have imagined. Not only that, but you will be eager to go back and start the revision process which will then lead to publication.

You may plan your story to the smallest of details, but then the story may want to get off track. This can be discouraging especially if you spent a lot of time and energy working on that outline, but life is like that, isn’t it? You can plan out your goals and dreams, and plot out every detail along the way, but then life throws you a curveball, and you have to dodge or get hit. Take it in a stride. Remember, writing is—after all—a reflection of life.

When NOT to Use an Outline

So, why should anyone not use an outline? Because it’s fun. Admit it. The recklessness of getting in the car one day and just driving without any plans or any idea where you’re going is appealing. Some mysterious stranger stops by and says, “Hey, I’m going on this quest. I could use your help,” and you’d jump for the chance of an adventure. You don’t know where you’re going or who you’ll encounter or how it will all unfold, and that’s what makes the journey all the more exciting. And when the story falls flat on its face, you might be able to step back and point at your characters, “It wasn’t my fault! They made me do it!”

That’s what it’s like writing without an outline. Is it wrong? No. Remember, a lot of writers will switch between being a plotter (one who uses outlines) and a pansters (one who doesn’t use outlines). I am one such writer. I prefer to outline my historical fiction mainly because of all the dates, events, and actual historical figures encountered in those books, so an outline is useful. However, being stuck to the rules get mundane at times, and I want nothing more than to break free and just write—for fun.

However, there is one thing you should keep in mind when considering not using an outline when you write. Writing without an outline is best when you don’t have a deadline. Now, it’s not impossible to have a deadline but write without an outline, yet deadlines demand principled writing, and they don’t give room for the exploration of random scenes which may or may not be in the story or for Writer’s Block.

Writing without an outline puts the writer very in tune to the story and the characters. The author constantly has his finger on the pulse of the story, listening for any signal from the characters of changing the course of the story. This also gives the WRITER a chance to be surprised by the story. A protagonist character may do an action that shocks both you and the antagonist. Someone else you thought was dead may suddenly appear in the story with a longwinded explanation as to how he really didn’t die. Two characters you thought for sure would end up together happen to be third cousins twice removed, which makes for complications.

As you can see, there isn’t a shortage of surprises you can experience when writing without an outline. It makes you go, “AHHH!” then “That’s awesome!” then “Bahahaahahaha” then “Wait—no!! Now what am I going to do?” It’s commonly said if the author is shocked or cries, the reader will then be shocked or cry. This is part of the addiction to writing without an outline.

So, if you’re tired from writing with everything mapped out, and if you don’t have a deadline to meet but just want to explore the writing world and characters, writing without an outline may be what you need. If you haven’t written for a while, but every time you sit down to write, you find yourself discouraged because you think you need to do all that planning and prep work (world building, character questionnaires, etc.) stop for a second. You might give yourself Writer’s Block just thinking like that. It might be that you need to write and step away from the norm and expected and just try writing without an outline.

You may find this isn’t for you—doesn’t work for you, and that doesn’t make it wrong. Everyone has their preferences, and it varies from person to person. What works for you may not work for someone else, and that is very important to recognize.

However, sometimes in the middle of writing a story that you’ve outline, you find the story isn’t going that direction, so what do you do? Is it possible for you to both have an outline and not have an outline for the same story? We’ll discuss that in next week’s post, and then we’ll finally move on from the topic of outlines!

When TO Use an Outline

To use an outline or not to use an outline? Which should it be? All your life you’ve heard both arguments but no real direction, so you can’t decide. Let’s discuss two terms you may hear: plotters and pansters.

Plotters: writers who outline, structure, and plot out their story before writing the actual story.

Pansters: writers who have an overarching idea for the story, a general idea where it’s going and how to get there, but they don’t outline it.

Is one way right and the other way wrong? No. Truth be told, a lot of writers switch between the two. For instance, normally I consider myself a ‘plotter’, but with the book I am currently writing, I’m a panster, but before we discuss being a panster and not outlining, let’s explore reasons why outlines are valuable to a writer.

Outlines are like the roadmap to your stories. If you are serious about publishing work, and you don’t want to get Writer’s Block, consider using an outline. Here are some uses it achieves:

1) You get familiar with the story and characters before writing the actual story.

2) It shows you what your story has the potential to look like.

3) It helps you establish goals.

4) It’s a guideline when you don’t feel motivated to write but know you have to.

5) It also helps so you don’t forget the story if you can’t write it right away.

When you write an outline before writing the story, you get familiar with the characters. They get into your head and start conversing with you. The more familiar you are with the characters, the easier you can determine whether or not you want to spend the next several months and years breathing life into them and then chasing them all over the globe. You might have a cool idea for a character, but no story to attach to them. Using an outline helps you explore possibilities for that character and see if the story develops on its own. If it doesn’t, then you’ve saved yourself some time because where the outline ends is where you would have hit Writer’s Block.

An outline draws you a picture of what your story may look like. I say ‘may’ because sometimes the characters become so real they don’t stick to the outline. This is all right because the outline is a guide to help you until the characters take over. It’s like looking at a picture or watching a video of someone you’ve never met. You get an idea of what they look like and how they act, but it isn’t until you actually meet them that you can determine if your assessment of them was accurate or not.

Points 3 (it helps you establish goals) and 4 (it’s a guideline when you don’t feel motivated to write but know you have to) work together. You establish goals such as writing one scene a day or getting to a certain point in your story by the end of the week. Some days you won’t want to write—might have a fever or simply no will to write—and having an outline keeps you on track. It shows you, “If you just write this scene right now, you’ll be able to finish on time. If you wait until later, the scene will still be there. It won’t write itself, but you would have lost that time.” So you plow through it, and while you’re pushing through Writer’s Block, you overcome it and rediscover something enjoyable about your writing.

Outlines are useful if you have an overly active imagination and hundreds of characters just clambering for attention, but you can only write one (or two or three if you’re very dedicated) story at a time. However, you know from much personal experience the dreaded human habit we all have of forgetting. If you’re in the middle of a huge writing project and suddenly you get a fantastic idea for another story, if you don’t write it down, you will forget it. It’s better to pause the project, outline the other story, and then return to the original project. This accomplishes two things. First, it helps you remember the details of the story, and secondly, it gives the story time to develop and for you to decide whether or not you really want to invest time and energy to write it. Sometimes you may never write the story you outlined, but it’s reassuring to know if you ever find yourself without anything to write, all you need to do is look back in the file of Outlines and pull out something you haven’t written yet.

Outlines are also very important when co-writing because otherwise, you may never finish the story. Not only that, but if you hit a snag in the story or find you really hate one character, you can backtrack and then change a response and resume writing. This happened to me once when I was co-writing with a friend. We had the entire story outlined. I had a character who was disturbed, complicated, compulsive, and simply annoying. I didn’t like my own character, and finally my friend texted me asking if we could kill the character. We were at 60,000 words (that’s over a hundred pages) in the story. However, this character was very important, so a death wasn’t that simple. We decided to find the one point in the story that turned her character into who she became—it was a simple author fault because we forced her to act out of character, so she was pitching a fit the rest of the way. Finding that turning point, we went from 60,000 words back to 27,000 words and rewrote the entire story—but we stayed on the outline and completed the story. As an ironic note on that story, by the time we reached the same scene where we stopped in order to backtrack, we were already back at 60,000 words. In other words, out backtrack experience may have cost us some time, but it did not cost us words.

Word of Caution: There is a danger of outlining TOO much. You may be the kind of person who must know every little detail of every character, every scene, and everything, and that’s okay. However, stories are organic. This means they grow and morph as they will—whether or not you want it to. You may try to put them in a box and force them to stay there, but the story may fight you—often manifesting as Writer’s Block. Previously, I discussed Static Authors and Interactive Authors, and if you insist on sticking to an outline regardless of the will of the story, you may find yourself veering more toward being a Static Author. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if you find yourself always struggling to write and tired when it comes to putting words on paper, you might want to consider the fact you need to step off your outline and trust the story. You might be surprised. The story could very well lead you right back to the outline and end up exactly where you had planned for it to go—just not how you had planned it. Or it could end up in an entirely different than what you plotted out, but to be honest, when that happens, it’s usually better than anything you could have ever planned.

Is an outlined a fixed object?” No. Consider it more like the skeletal structure newborn. The bones of a baby are not solid like an adult, but as the child grows, the bones strengthen and calcify. The entire skeleton is there. If you look at an x-ray of a baby, you’ll see the skeleton of a human being. It’s different because it’s immature, but it is still human, and the baby will develop her unique features and personality given time. Outlines are similar in the fact that they are the immature skeleton of the untested story. As you, the author, gets more familiar with the characters, settings, and conflicts, the story’s personality begins to take shape.

I will go into more detail of stepping off the outline, but next week we will first discuss reasons not to use an outline. For some people, outlining just doesn’t work for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

See you then!

Timeline Outline

When writing historical fiction work, it’s important to have an outline—a timeline to be more precise. This allows you to keep track of actual dates and events without having to dig through piles of books. This is also useful when you have a specific, complex story possibly with multiple sub-stories.

What is the difference between a normal outline and a timeline outline? The normal outline is vertical dealing mainly with the progression of the story, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene. The timeline outline, however, is horizontal, showing mainly the relationships between specific events and character in a specific range of time. You can also see, in a snapshot, other events that occurred at the same time but with different characters.

How do you create a timeline outline? Well, you can do it by hand, but you’ll need continuous printer paper because timelines can be very long due to their horizontal nature. Or you can use an Excel program. Or you can use an actual timeline program on your computer. I have done it by hand as well as with a timeline program. Unfortunately, I can’t show you what it looks like when done by hand because the computer can’t scan continuous printer paper. However, here is a screenshot of what it looks like on the computer—at least one part of it. This is from my historical fiction novels, The Last King of Legend series, research I did for Book 2, ‘In the Face of Trials’, so there are no spoilers unless you haven’t read the books—in which cause I can’t really help you, but this IS history, so technically it’s still not spoilers.

Timeline Outline
This is Aeon Timeline. If you did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or Camp NaNoWriMo, and if you won, you obtained a discount for this program for a limited period of time. It’s incredibly easy to use. Let’s break it down.

There are multiple timeline templates you can use for your story. This specific one is BC – AD because I have historical dates to use. When I am outlining my fantasy novel though, I tend to just use ‘Years Only,” create a year, and go from there.

At the top you see the months and years. It has the ability to go to specific days, but I didn’t use that too much since I didn’t know the exact dates most of the time. In the middle with the little red dots and red vertical lines, the dots are the date of the event with a brief description of the event beside the dot. The line then goes down and hits horizontal lines. Those horizontal lines are the lifetime of characters (in this case ‘King Baldwin IV, Princess Isabella, and Baldwin V).

Now, if you look along the blue line of King Baldwin IV’s life, you see blue circles–circles that are full and hollow. The full circles mean Baldwin participated in that specific event, and the number beside the circle is how old he was when it happened. You’d have to turn on ‘Toggle Age Display’ to get that to turn up, but it’s a marvelous tool to have. Now, the hollow circles are events of which Baldwin was present but merely observed. For instance, he only witnessed Sibylla’s marriage to William Longsword whereas he participated in the Battle of Montgisard.

There are two other symbols you will see along the characters timeline. First one is a star. You see this on Baldwin V’s timeline in that picture. That represents his birth. The next symbol you will see is a block, and that represents the character’s death. It’s very handy.

Now, here is a glimpse of the timeline outline from my fantasy universe. This isn’t just one story but rather three different stories happening at the same time, but they’re all in the same world. It was getting confusing in my head, so I made this timeline to understand what happened first, who was how old when what happened, and who was where when that happened.

Fantasy Timeline
As you can see, this is a little more complex and compacted. There are more characters and more events than what you see in that snapshot, but it gives you an idea of how something like this might turn out.

“But Kelly, I don’t have Aeon Timeline. What am I supposed to do then?” I am sure there are other programs available to you, but I haven’t researched them. Otherwise, you can mimic this idea on a spreadsheet or by hand on paper.

When I wrote my timeline by hand, I had two characters’ lifespans I wanted to record for sure–King Baldwin IV and Baldwin V. My historical fiction novels ‘The Last King of Legends’ is based on the life of King Baldwin IV, so I had his lifeline go the length of the paper, and below that, I made vertical columns–each column a specific year from 1161-1185 because that was the length of Baldwin IV’s life. Now, Baldwin V was born during Baldwin IV’s life, and because of his importance, I wanted to include his lifespan so I could calculate his age at specific times. I put his lifeline directly above Baldwin IV’s. It looked something like this. I made this as a spreadsheet, and I’m starting at year 1174 due to limitations of space here. Also I didn’t fill in ALL the details of the years. Otherwise that would be spoilers for the books!

Spreadsheet Timeline
Now, of course there could more space between each year (sometimes as wide as a small paragraph). In each column, I wrote the events that happened in that year, and so on and so forth. This way I could just glimpse at the timeline and see which year was the busiest or the slowest. I could also look at it quickly and remember I had to set up for this specific event.

Does every story require a timeline outline? No. Must every author create a timeline for their stories? No. All of this is merely a suggestion for organization when writing something complex. And I have to admit, it is a lot of fun creating timelines (especially on the computer), so if you’re looking for another way to procrastinate while technically working on your story, there you have it. No, I’m not promoting procrastination–just always try to remember to procrastinate later.

For now, you have a fair idea of how timeline outlines might be beneficial to you. Now, with the next several posts, we will focus on the pros and cons of outlines–to use or not to use or just throw away the outline you had. That is what we will discuss.

Different Kinds of Outlines

Outlines–you’ve probably heard of them but keep getting mixed messages, “They’re great!” “They’re okay.” “I never use them.” “I never stick to the outline.” You don’t know what to think of them, so let’s break it down.

In school you learned the traditional outline for an essay:

I)

    A)

         a)

         b)

    B)

    C)

II)

And so forth.

In writing, there are several ways to do an outline. The first one is the Skeleton Outline, which is very similar to the essay outline—just without the ‘I)’ ‘A)’ and ‘a)’. Here is an example from a random, time travel story I wrote just for fun, and the character ‘Elf’ is not an elf but an ELF—Energy Life Form. He is pure energy with a wicked sense of humor and can ‘possess’ objects making them come alive as long as he’s inside them.

Late that night, the city sleeps (here we introduce the setting)

       Weston mutters in his sleep (important details of what happens)

       A breeze flutters the drapes

       Weston awakes to the horror of Elf, who threatens him

       Elf disappears, leaving a very disturbed Weston

Elf returns to Sindric and reports (new scene)

       Sindric is pleased (what happens in scene)

       Sindric turns back to Helen’s letter

You can recognize the essay format. This is the barest of all outlines. It introduces the scene, then lists the basic details of what happens in the scene. Usually no dialogue is listed unless it absolutely important.

The next form of outlines is the Block Outline. This one contains much more detail and differs greatly from the Skeleton Outline. Here’s an example using the same scene from above:

<~>~<~>~<~>

Later that night when all is sleeping, a draft disturbs the drapes in Weston’s room. He mumbles in his sleep something about stubborn horses and not enough to drink. Breeze comes into the room. Weston ignores it and tries to sleep, but then he suddenly senses the presence of something in the room. He quickly wakes and is startled by the glowing wraith of Elf. Weston tries to get away, but Elf flies into his face. He warns him about betraying countries, etc. When Elf is certain Weston is too scared for the night, only then does he vanish with a wicked laugh he picked up from a movie before everything went bad. Candles blow out. Terrified, Weston doesn’t know if it was a dream or not.

Still giggling at himself, Elf flies through the empty streets and slips into Sindric’s window. Sindric is waiting for him. Elf announces his success and declares he should do that more often; it was fun! Sindric is amused but returns to his conversation with Helen on the paper.

<~>~<~>~<~>

Each paragraph is a scene, and it contains as much detail as you want to remember. It can include specific dialogue if you have anything in mind. This form of outline is a great way to get all the details out of your head and not rely on your memory to remember them.

As you can see, these paragraphs are blocks, and the paragraphs can get long—sometimes taking up an entire page. No indentations at the beginning of them, and that is done purposely because you want a clear distinction between the outline and the story. These outlines can look as daunting, messed up, and overwhelming as you would like because no one else will ever see it.

This is also always written in third person present tense. When written this way, the voice is very telling and not showing. This form of outline can be so thorough, you may feel that you’ve invested all the energy required for the scene, but if you purposely have the voice telling, you know you’re not finished with the story yet. You need to convert it from telling to showing.

Here is the scene I wrote based on that outline:

<~>~<~>~<~>

Once everyone retired to their respective chambers, Weston crawled into bed unable to hinder the content smile on his face. Everything was falling into place. It would be perfect, and thus he drifted off to sleep with such ideal thoughts.

A night phantom breeze breathed into the room, twisting the drapes into a ghostly figure before slipping further into the room. Its touch ruffled the feathers on his blanket and stirred pages of open books.

Weston mumbled something in his sleep, “Stubborn horses…” He murmured some more, “Didn’t get enough to drink…” He then turned onto his side, tugging the blanket closer to his chin. A lurking thought latched onto his mind, but the knight dismissed it. He tried to slip back into a deeper sleep, but his trained body sensed what his mind had yet to comprehend.

Weston’s eyes shot open.

“Hello,” Elf’s glowing face greeted him.

“AH!” Weston leapt back as far as he could while lying flat on his bed.

A wicked grin claimed Elf’s face, revealing all his pointy teeth. The ELF flew into his face and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “Now listen here, buddy, and listen close. We all know you’re just a good-for-nothing stupid knight wanna-be, whose got less skill than a 4-year-old. We know your plans, and you will NEVER succeed. Do ya hear?” Elf demanded, bringing his bright glowing face centimeters away from Weston’s death pale features. “Well, do ya?”

Unable to form any coherent words, Weston stuttered and stumbled over his words, nodding fast. “Y-y-yes!”

“And if I even catch you even attempting to carry out your plan, I shall summon all great and evil spirits from the afterlife, and we will torment your mind so much, you will wish for death! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

“Y-y-yes!”

“Yes what?” Elf growled.

“Sir?” Weston’s voice cracked under the strain of the single word.

Elf smiled with evil smirk and backed off. “Very good,” he nodded still hovering in the air. “Remember that.” With that, he spun around ready to dart out of the window, but Weston stopped him.

“W-w-wait!” the knight gulped when the night terror turned back to him. Managing to find his voice and gather his courage, Weston asked, “W-what are you?”

The smile returned but this time cold and unforgiving. “Your worst nightmare.” Candles blew out with a gust of wind, and Elf flew away faster than an falcon with wicked laughter in his wake.

 

“BWHAHAHA! I always wanted to say that!” Elf exclaimed as he came to a landing on the windowsill of Sindric’s room where the Scriptor waited.

“Say what?” Sindric opened the window to allow the ELF in.

Adopting the same voice he used to scare Weston witless, Elf demonstrated, “I am your worst nightmare. BWHAHAHAHA!”

Sindric looked at him with furrowed brows. “Did you really laugh like that?”

“Well, of course!” Elf sounded offended. “You can’t possibly be a good bad guy without the evil villain laugh. BWHAHAHAHA!”

“I see,” the words crawled out of Sindric mouth before he decided not to bother trying to understand Elf’s strange perspective. He focused on the task at hand and folded his arms across his chest. “How did it go?” the Scriptor inquired of their mission.

“Perfectly smooth!” Elf slid his palms together to illuminate just how smooth he meant. “If he does anything after this, then he’s denser than a hardheaded rock!”

Sindric decided to let the comment slide. He turned to his desk, unfolding his arms as he approached. Papers spread across the surface in a loose order, but that did not concern Sindric. He sifted through the paperwork before singling out a specific paper. Holding it up, he scanned it over and smiled. His plan was in motion.

<~>~<~>~<~>

So you see, the scene is much more alive now that it was fleshed out. With the outlines, we merely had a body, but when you write the actual scene, you breath life into that body, and it takes on a life of its own.

Are outlines necessary? I mean, do I have to use one when I write a story?” Of course not. I both use and don’t used them. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I find when I don’t use an outline, I don’t finish the story about 80% of the time, but then there are times when I don’t have an outline, and the story just takes off, and all I can do is hang on for dear life.

“Do I have to use these forms of outlines?” No. If you have a style that works for you, do that. I’ve seen many writers stress out over outlining because they don’t know how to do it, so these ideas are merely examples of how it can be done. If it doesn’t work for you, find out why it doesn’t work, and tweak it to work for you if you intend to use an outline when writing. 

Note: When co-writing though, outlining is important, but we will go into more detail on that when we discuss co-writing.

Next week I will show you another form of outlines useful when writing historical fiction or any kind of writing that requires a lot of dates, and then we’ll get into more details of the pros and cons of outlines.