Deb: Outlining – How Good Ideas Get Undone

How do I know what I
think until I see what I say?
~E.M. Forster
I rarely outline, not at first anyhow. But like most
writers, I do a lot of thinking about structure, and especially about what I
call the reveal.
Admittedly, outlines are great for seeing what you’ve got to
work with and for playing around with organization. But they also wheel us back
to the artifices of academia that work against fresh, lively prose.
The outline’s partner in crime is the five-paragraph essay. Both
set up habits that please teachers but stifle interest. Find a topic, chop it
up in the most obvious way, knit it back together with a thesis statement and a
bunch of handy transitions, reiterate, reiterate, reiterate, and then wrap it all
up. You may thank Artistotle for the snores of your readers.
This training is all wrong. We’re not building a case in a
courtroom. We’re aiming for art, insight, and enjoyment. But if logic’s not the
best way to arrive at surprise and delight, a hodgepodge doesn’t satisfy
Rewind to Aristotle, more helpful with his three acts.
Beginning, middle, end; set-up, complication, climax/resolution. Screenwriters
can tell you how long each should be, and how the action shifts. The more we
read, the more good movies we watch, the more we develop an intuitive sense
these three acts, so as we’re playing around with ideas for a story or a
narrative essay or a book, we start to envision scenes in which the action
builds from the set-up and complications toward a climax and resolution.
Though we’d like to think the process is entirely organic,
at some level order does get imposed. The question turns to when and what kind
of order. First thoughts aren’t always best thoughts, and that’s the problem
with a lot of traditional outlining, which carves a topic into logical parts
and arranges them in the most logical and expected manner.
Pulitzer-prize winning author Jon Franklin says there are
three levels of story: the academic, polished level; the outline level that
deals with conceptual relationships between characters; and the structural
level, made up of major focuses that zoom in on emotional turning points.
Transitions aren’t used to connect dots, but to move the reader from scene to
The first focus Franklin
calls the complicating focus. It’s where your reader is hooked, where character
begins to unfold, where the nature of the dilemma is made clear. The second
focus, in three or more parts, is the developmental focus, where complications
are explored. Each of these has its own beginning, middle, and end. The first
can carry a flashback. At the end of the third comes a moment of insight, a
plot point in screenwriter lingo. A resolving focus comes at the end.
S.C. Gwynne’s bestseller Empire of the Summer Moon, a finalist for the Pulitzer, is a great example of Franklin’s
principles on the page. The subtitle reveals the scope of this nonfiction book:
Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of
the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.
in the traditional way, it would follow the life of Quanah Parker, starting
with his birth, tracking the rise of his influence, and ending with his death.
Gwynne begins instead with a complicating focus, hooking the
reader with on-the-ground accounts of fierce Comanche battles. Hints of
Quanah’s character through the captivating (literally) story of his mother, a
white woman taken by the Comanches. The over-arching dilemma is clear: the
Comanches rise up as warriors among the Plains Indian tribes, and they won’t go
down without a fight. Every complication has its own beginning, middle, and
end: the introduction of the horse onto the American plains, the botched Indian
policies of the U.S.
government, the in-fighting among tribes. Each focus weaves into the others,
and the very, very end of the book satisfies the reader’s anticipation of how
they’ll ultimately come together.
Even at the paragraph level, Gwynne is a master of rocking
the traditional order. Look at where he puts the traditional topic sentence in
this excerpt, which comes at the end of a long paragraph about the blunders of
Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, deemed the “Anti-Custer” by Gwynne:
Large concentrations
of soldiers with long supply trains were a signal to simply disappear, which
was usually easy enough. It was the reason so many
U.S. troops spent so much time marching and
riding about, looking for and not finding Indians. Not finding Indians had been
the principal activity of the
U.S. cavalry for years in the West. Mackenzie’s
force was enormous by plains standards: It was the largest that had ever been
sent to pursue Indians.
“Not finding Indians had been the principal activity of the U.S.
cavalry for years in the West.” A less writer would have killed the reveal by
moving this great one-liner to the top of the paragraph where we expect the
topic sentence, and thereby deflating its effect by half.
Withholding is a huge part of good writing. So is shaking up
the traditional order.
Try This: Shake up the order of your work in progress. Think
like a camera, zooming and in and out of complications. Work the stories within
your story. Strategize your reveals. As Seth Kantner says, you need to always
carry your reader, but don’t overuse transitions to impose logic; instead, use
them sparingly, to move the reader from scene to scene.
Check This Out: Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story promises –
and delivers on – craft secrets of dramatic non-fiction by a two-time Pulitzer
Prize winner. It opens new ways to think about structure for writers of
fiction, too.
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