Monthly Archives: May 2014

On Writing: Writing Without an Outline

Writing Without An Outline

Deciding what works for you

Often, the first rule writers are told is: Make an outline. Outlines usually involve chapter headings, and plot points, properly listed under the appropriate chapter heading. Many successful writers wouldn’t dream of beginning to write their books without making an outline first.

Personally, when it comes to making an outline before I start writing an actual book, I like what Jack Hodgins, multiple- award-winning author and master teacher, says. He believes outlines tend to deter a writer from wandering down trails that might:

•lead to a discovery that completely alters the story’s direction

•uncover an unexpected twist

•bring a dim character to life

•or reveal a breathtaking transformation the writer didn’t know existed until s/he stumbled on it.

Steven James—author of two dozen non-fiction books and nine novels—doesn’t like outlines at all. In an article titled Go Organic (March/April 2013 issue, Writer’s Digest), he says he likes Stephen King’s analogy that storytellers are like diggers uncovering fossils. James carries the analogy further with: To plot out a story is to decide beforehand what kind of dinosaur it is. …Here’s the problem with writing an outline: you’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur left to uncover.

But staring at a blank page and beginning a book without an outline to follow can be daunting. How then to start?

Getting Started

In my previous blog: What Every Good Story Needs, I included the rules that combine to make good writing.

 With the rules in mind, ask yourself:

•What is truly at the heart of your story.

– focus all of your attention at the heart…and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to  happen to drive the story forward.

•Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. (Steven James, Go Organic, Writer’s Digest, March/April 2013)


For me, it helps to remember that the actual events in my novels are drivers that help move the story forward, but they aren’t the story.

•How the characters experience those events—the choices they make and the tools they use to deal with the things that happen

•Why they do what they do

•And what they discover as they do it—that is the story.

 Tricks to get going again

•Re-read the previous two chapters out loud, and see where the characters might want to go next -Let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening.

•Flip to a blank page, write any scene that jumps into your head

-If nothing is altered, you do not have a scene.

•Use setbacks

-If your characters solve something without a setback, you do not have a story.

•Answer an unanswered question, or resolve an unresolved problem

•Ask: What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story, then give it to them.

Writing without an outline might lead you places where you spend some time before you decide you need to leave. Sometimes you come away with something special gleaned for the piece you’re working on now. Sometimes not. But if what you learned doesn’t work for this piece, maybe it will for the next.


On Writing – The Dreaded Synopsis

Tell most aspiring novelists they must synopsize their masterpiece, and they run screaming into the hills.    Dee-Ann Latona LeBlanc, Writing a Synopsis from the Ground Up

The synopsis is your sales pitch—worth the time it takes to construct and polish until it’s right. Think of it as a jacket blurb. Many jacket blurbs are actually written from a synopsis.

What is a synopsis? Essentially, a synopsis tells a reader the central story of the book, and introduces the central character(s).

How long should a synopsis be? • one sentence • one paragraph • one page (250 words) • expanded version

As a general rule, publishers who request a synopsis with submissions prefer shorter versions, unless they specifically ask for longer versions.

So, how does a writer determine what to tell a reader about their book in a single sentence, or paragraph, or page?

1. Start by re-reading your novel, pen in hand

•write a paragraph for each chapter -what happened here, and to whom?

-Notice: the running theme, symbolism you didn’t know you’d woven into the story

The result is a fairly dry outline of the novel. Now, it’s time to distill and up the interest quotient.

II. Ask: •who is the central character

•if there are more than one, what qualities describe them as a group—are they all doomed, are they all searching for something, is there something all must overcome

•what is the main driving force (goal) for your main character(s)

•what are the costs of obtaining the goal—consider internal costs to the main character(s), and external costs to the community, world, etc.

•what is the overall theme

While some believe there are only six or seven plots and everything is a variation on those, others think there are many more.

7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. [wo]man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

 20 Plots: Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993.

1. Quest 2. Adventure 3. Pursuit 4. Rescue 5. Escape 6. Revenge 7. The Riddle 8. Rivalry  9. Underdog 10. Temptation  11. Metamorphosis                12. Transformation  13. Maturation  14. Love  15. Forbidden Love 16. Sacrifice  17. Discovery 18. Wretched Excess 19. Ascension  20. Descension [not a word].

In the list of 20 plots, there are variations on the same theme (quest/adventure; transformation/maturation) and some are simply opposites (ascension/descension). So it might be helpful to think of a reduced number when you’re trying to discover your central theme. Is yours a story of redemption, love (loss of love), coming of age (maturation), revenge, or escape?

III. Write several single sentences that capture the essence of the answers you’ve given above.

IV. Expand the sentence you like best to a paragraph.


•telling details of the main character — the boy/girl is a homeless waif

•why does the main character need to proceed — if s/he can back out, there will not be enough tension to sustain the novel. If there’s more than one issue, concentrate on the main issue.

•if there is more than one main character, what fate ultimately binds them together

•what is the climax (turning point) of the piece

•what transformation takes place (lesson learned, etc.) This might be identical to the theme, or it might differ in a subtle way.

V. Expand to a page.


•what does each central character want?

– feeds back into theme, but if there are multiple characters each might be addressing a different facet. Take care to weave these together.

•what are the drivers for each character?

•what personal issues hold each character back?

•what is the central character’s defining moment—the moment they must face down what’s holding them back and press forward against all odds. What realization must they have, or decision must they make?

*Don’t involve subplots.

*Don’t leave out the ending.

*Use the same way to refer to characters throughout: if you introduce a character as Dr. Evans, don’t use ‘Jerry’ next time and ‘the doctor’ the next.

*It’s also advisable to identify which character(s) is the point of view character by typing (POV) beside their name the first time you introduce them.          Marg Gilks, How to Write a Synopsis

**Note: Synopses are always written in the present tense.


Living With Alzheimer’s — Like Living With a Child?

“It’s like living with a child.” It’s a common perception when discussion centers around living with someone with Alzheimer’s, and a statement I’ve heard often.

Not really.

Children challenge parents to find ways to communicate with them that will encourage them to develop life skills, to advise them against things that will harm them, and to explore. We try to teach them to be aware of their surroundings, to honor the sensibilities of others, to follow the order of law that governs our society and to question those things that do not fit with a just society. In other words, we try to raise self-confident, skilled, empathic, honorable, engaged citizens. It’s a tall order and it takes every skill parents possess, plus the skills of the dozens of other ‘teachers’ children will be influenced by during their growing up years.

The key here is that, unless they are developmentally challenged, children develop on a continuum. They start out requiring total care and supervision. But as they grow, they learn. They get better at things, they become more independent. They learn to think for themselves. And the circle of those who influence their growth and learning widens as they grow.

Some might think Alzheimer’s works in reverse. That as the patient’s brain slowly dies (Alzheimer’s is Brain Failure) they revert back to a child-like state of requiring supervision, and then a baby-like state of requiring total care and supervision. But Alzheimer’s patients are neither small children, or babies. They are adults, who have lived fully developed lives. They have opinions, and their own ways of doing things. They cannot be solaced by being picked up and carried, or made laugh by blowing a raspberry on their bellies.

If one instructs a child on how to do something, eventually they will be able to perform that task without help. They may even get better at doing a task than the adult who is teaching them is. They store knowledge and can retrieve it when they need it. They learn how to figure things out, how to plan, how to imagine possibilities and work toward a result by taking those possibilities into account.

Eventually, Alzheimer’s patients lose all of that. Eventually, they will not be able to retrieve the vast knowledge they’ve stored because, like a fire that wipes out a lifetime’s belongings, the storage rooms are destroyed. Worse than losing the stored knowledge is that, unlike lost belongings, it cannot be replaced, because the Alzheimer’s patient won’t be able to figure things out, plan or imagine possibilities. So no matter how carefully one tries to explain a task to them, or how many times the instructions are repeated, they will not be able to ‘relearn’ how to perform that task. And that’s the main way an adult Alzheimer’s patient is different from a child.

The deterioration of a patient’s abilities is often very hard for a caregiver to understand, and to accept.

I sometimes find myself repeating instructions to Bill over and over with increasing volume. It might be instructions regarding a task he was able to do just last month, or even two days ago. Meantime, my frustration (and his) has risen, and along with the frustration the harmful ‘juices’ that fuel things like acid indigestion and stress. So I need to keep reminding myself, it’s not his fault. He has no control over what’s happening to him. And to accept that things have changed again. But I also need to take care of myself.

Caregivers need to understand frustration is part of the package, and there will be times we lose patience with the whole thing. We need to allow ourselves to vent and to cry. But we need to find ways to do this that don’t hurt the person we’re caring for, or us. In the midst of a developing stressful situation, taking deep breaths when the volume is rising, stepping away to collect my thoughts, are things that help me.

Later, it’s important that if I find myself feeling resentful, overly frustrated, or depressed, I take time to assess how things have changed, and how I can deal with the changes. Maybe I need to hire someone to do something I can’t, or don’t want to, do myself. Maybe I need to find new ways for Bill and I to have a good time and relieve some of the boredom or sense of restriction that can easily set in. Maybe I need to find a way to have more time for myself. And when I run out of ideas, maybe I need to talk to someone else, who might have a fresh perspective on how I can make things work.

On Writing-What Every Good Story Needs

I belong to a writers’ group where the pros and cons of beginning one’s book by creating an outline has been discussed a lot. Recently, I was asked to write a guest blog on writing without using an outline for The Scribes: Comprehensive Writing Services for Non-Fiction. That turned into two blogs. The first, What Every Good Story Needs, is the first of a series on writing I’ll post here.

What Every Good Story Needs

How Stories Announce Themselves

…For most writers, whatever the exercise that precedes the story, there comes the moment when the initiating impulse—whether it be character, or events, or ideas—has triggered a fluttering throb of excitement…that will not subside—increases rather—until the story has been lived through, written through, dreamed through to its end. At least some of that excitement comes from the urgent desire to see what manner of creature this thing will insist on becoming. (Jack Hodgins, A Passion for Narrative)

If you are reading this, I’ll assume you have a story that is pressing you to write it. You likely have folders of relevant research, ideas for the story, and character sketches for each main character. All of these can be added to as the writing takes shape and the story develops.

Multiple-award-winning author, Jack Hodgins, says: there is no beginning, end, or proper sequence for the act of writing fiction. If you are writing a non-fiction narrative (memoir, biography, autobiography), this is also true.

That said, to bring a story fully to life, there are rules a writer needs to follow. Whether one writes fiction or non-fiction narratives, the rules are essentially the same, and if the aim is to create a work that engages readers from beginning to end, a writer needs to know them.

Every good story includes the following key elements:

•Setting—Setting offers colour; atmosphere; can contribute to action, affecting character; can become a major character itself; can be a metaphor; time—the passage of time

Stare at your setting until you discover what it has to offer you. (Hodgins, A Passion For Narrative)

•Believable Characters—Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. (William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life)

To be believable, characters must act in contextually believable ways. All the time.

•Conflict •Tension—conflict brings tension. Stories build through escalating tension. …Tension comes from unmet desire. (James, Go Organic, Writers’ Digest, March/April 2013)

What do your characters want, what stands in their way, what are they doing to get it?

Escalating tensions equals rising stakes. Keeping the stakes rising is what keeps the reader involved.

When the conflict ceases, the story ends.

•Causality—everything that happens must be caused by the thing that precedes it.

•Downturn—a moment when everything seems lost.

•Climax—an encounter that turns things around.

•Transformation—either of a character or a situation, or both. It’s irreversible. There is no going back.

•Conclusion—must be a direct result of all that has gone before, and in retrospect could not be other than it is.

The next blog will be the one I started out to write: Writing Without an Outline. It’s a subject that’s often debated by writers of all stripes.