Writing an Action Outline

Outlines Make it Easier to Track Complex Events

An action outline is a point by point outline of the events that you intend to have happen in your story. The action outline serves as a roadmap for your plot. It demonstrates to you how your plot will be driven forward. It helps you to think about how an action taken in chapter two might result in an event in chapter ten, due to the sequence of events it causes.

The beauty of an action outline is that it allows you to look at the complexities of the different things happening in your novel. How the choice not to return a phone call early on may result in a lawsuit or a suicide attempt as the story continues. These action-based relationships are what are generally lost when you write without an outline.

Cause and Effect Drive a Plot Forward

When writing an action outline, think in terms of cause and effect. While, in everyday life, not every mistake or missed opportunity matters in a given day, in a novel these things must matter. If the choice to go to a party rather than visit a sick friend has no consequence further down the line, then it probably doesn’t belong in the novel. Life may sometimes feel random, but in the end, a story needs to feel like an evolution. An illogical event might happen early on, but as the story progresses it must have a logical impact on all the people concerned.

Some consequences may be less startling than others. A character may not suffer external consequences to an action, but may pay an emotional price that results in them making a different decision later on. The decision not to visit a sick friend on Tuesday weighs on the character until Thursday, then the character finally does go, just in time to run into someone the character didn’t want to see or find out that they missed out on something they would have wanted to be present for.

If you map out those possibilities from the beginning, you will not only understand what drives your plot forward, but it gives a shape to what you write so that everything feels logical within the framework of your story, no matter how different your world might be from reality.

Sample Action Outline

This outline shows two different chapters in a novel, demonstrating that actions from an earlier part of the novel often result in consequences later on. This is a very bare-bones outline to demonstrate the process. You might want to be far more detailed about the actions that occur.

Chapter 3

  1. Lisa comes home to find Sam’s father Roy parked in front of their house.
  2. Roy demands to see Sam. He is clearly drunk and angry.
  3. Roy grabs Lisa, holding her helpless. He threatens her life.
  4. Jeremy arrives from next door and bashes Roy on the head with a baseball bat. Knocking him out.
  5. Jeremy tells Lisa he will take care of things
  6. Jeremy shoves an unconscious Roy into the passenger seat of his own car.
  7. Jeremy takes Roy’s keys, gets in on the drivers side and drives off.

Chapter 8

  1. Lisa tells Sam that his father has been in the Hospital for several days.
  2. Sam confronts Lisa about her keeping the information from him.
  3. Sam and Lisa break up.
  4. Sam goes to Union Hospital to see his father.

Are Your Characters Well Spoken, or is it Just You?

How Articulate Are Your Characters?

Most writers are articulate. Because they work with the written word on a daily or near daily basis, and because they have a love of language, most writers express themselves well. Just because a writer is articulate, however, doesn’t mean that a character should be articulate. Adjusting your language to suit a character, especially in dialog, is vital to creating a realistic depiction of that character and vital for differentiating that character from others in the story.

Words Reflect Background

When most people think about writing realistic dialog, they think about things such as regional accents and vocal patterns. Those things are important, but it is just as important to adjust your dialog to the specific background of the characters. For example, people know that there is a Boston accent, but most people don’t realize that the Boston accent varies greatly according to where in the city that person lives and what their economic and educational background is. Not everyone from Boston sounds the same. A well-educated Boston lawyer is not going to sound like a poorly educated bartender at a local dive.

Don’t Distract the Reader

Another mistake people make in tailoring dialog is to go too far into an accent and ignore such things as speech rhythms or word choices. J.K. Rowling, for example, uses very exaggerated accents. In the early books, before the story got particularly dark, the exaggerated accents seemed to work reasonably well considering the stories were fantasy and the intended audience was mostly children. By the final books, however, when the story was very dark and the intended audience was much wider, the exaggerated accents seemed much more unsuitable and distracting.

Unique, Not Extreme

The key with dialog, especially with accents, is to make each person’s style differentiated enough that they sound unique and identifiable, but not so extreme that people are paying more attention to the words being said than they are to the intent of the statement. Try to think of what is distinctive about the way each person speaks, and why their word choices make sense for them.

Some Things to Consider

  • Is the character concise or long winded?
  • Does the character use words they don’t fully understand?
  • Does the character have influence from different regions (such as a person from Texas now living in California or vice-versa)?
  • Is the character used to public speaking?
  • Does the character have any particular patterns or phrases that stand out?
  • Is their something about the character’s role (Boss, employee, teacher, parent) that makes a difference in the way that character speaks in different situations?

Building Better Novels Through Conflict

Are your conflicts important and interesting?

It is no secret that conflict drives stories. The conflict may be clear and specific (a meteor is going to destroy the planet!) or understated and perhaps not even overtly discussed (Ed feels like a failure). Whatever the case, conflict is at the core of any story. Something should be or absolutely needs to be resolved, and dealing with that conflict is what the story is about. Because of the central conflict, a number of smaller conflicts emerge. Here are some central points to consider when approaching conflict in a story:

Why does it matter?

What about the conflict in the story makes it important, both to the characters and to the reader? When the meteor is approaching earth, there’s a pretty good reason to try to resolve the conflict. Death is on the line. A planet in peril is a major conflict.. But most story conflicts aren’t quite that easily identified with. For example, if you write about a forty-year old man who is committed to losing fifty pounds and running in a marathon, you have to come up with a reason why it is important to the man. Perhaps he has started to feel as if his life is routine and that he running out of time to accomplish something. That is the conflict. You also have to come up with a reason and why it is important to the reader. Should they like this guy? Do they think accomplishing the goal will be meaningful to him?

What can be gained or lost?

When you start out with a simple desire, such as the marathon, there has to be consequences and rewards. There are obvious benefits to the man getting in shape and running in the marathon. There is a sense of accomplishment to be had, and there are clear health benefits. There should also be consequences both for success and for failure. Clearly there is an emotional cost to failure. Not managing to accomplish this goal could mean that the man feels more like a failure than when he started on the journey. He may also risk physical injury. There is also the genuine risk that accomplishing his goal may not be as satisfying or life-changing as the man initially thought it would be.

What are the smaller conflicts that result from the central conflict?

When you have an overall conflict, such as self esteem issues and a lack of interest in life, which a person is trying to solve (by running in a marathon) there are going to be other conflicts that occur as a result of the central conflict. For example, the man’s wife might be overweight and resent the fact that he is trying to improve. She may be indignant or she may even try to sabotage his attempts by bringing home sugary or fatty foods or trying to find other ways to occupy his time. There may also be conflicts at work because the man isn’t working the overtime hours that he used to. There are also the aches and pains of running as well as the temptations of abandoning his goal in favor of an easier life.

How will the conflict be resolved?

The resolution of a central conflict can make or break a novel. There is, of course, the possibility of defeat. Not every conflict gets resolved favorably, even if the expected outcome arrives. We’ve already discussed the idea of consequences for victory as well. The man may complete the marathon but lose his wife or his job, for example. The resolution must matter to the reader. If the reader has stuck around for 50,000 words, only to meet up with a resolution that either doesn’t make sense or doesn’t feel earned, the reader is going to be upset. If the conflict matters, than the resolution must feel logical and earned.

How Good is Your Bad Guy?

The Hero is Defined by the Villain

The NBC show Heroes has a lot of problems. It never quite lives up to its potential for a number of reasons. There is one thing I love about the show though. I love Sylar. Sylar is the bad guy. Occasionally you get the feeling that he would like to be a good guy, but deep down he is bad. His essential flaw is that he craves power. Specifically, he craves the superpowers of the other characters and he has a longing to take them, by force, generally leaving the other characters dead or at least deeply changed. Despite that, there is a certain glee to Sylar. He enjoys what he does, and he can readily explain why he does what he does. He’s also funny, and that always helps. I know many people absolutely hate Sylar. That’s fine too. Whatever the case, people care about the guy. People pay attention when he is on the screen.

The Villain Doesn’t Have to be Evil

Not all bad guys are quite as evil as Sylar. In some cases, they aren’t evil at all, they just have goals or intentions that run counter to the Hero. Watch a romantic comedy, and you will often see a good guy antagonist. For example Kevin is the ex-boyfriend of the Greg Focker’s fiance Pam. Kevin is as close to the perfect guy as you can imagine. He is kind and creative. He is handy with a hammer and he is never anything but nice. He is so perfect, in fact, that Stiller’s character feels immensely threatened by the guy and worries that he is going to lose his fiancé to him.

Antagonists Represent Obstacles

Antagonists come in many forms. They may be as evil and ruthless as Darth Vader or they may be as commonplace as an overbearing boss, a flirtatious ex-girlfriend or an annoying little sister. The main role of the antagonist is to provide obstacles for the protagonist. The antagonist’s needs and desires in some way interfere with the needs and desires of the protagonist. The boss makes the protagonist work late when he should be with his wife. The flirtatious ex-girlfriend makes the protagonist doubt his commitment to the wife. The annoying little sister asks exactly the wrong questions just when they can cause the most trouble.

Every Character has a Story

When you are writing your novel, keep in mind that the antagonists have their own goals, their own needs, and their own hopes and desires. You may not agree with their world view, but you should respect that it is important to them. The antagonists are, in their own minds, the protagonist of their own stories. Respect and understand their needs, and you will create antagonists that people want to read about.

Plotting by Elimination

Master the Possibilities

When you start a novel, the options are virtually limitless. A character can go in almost any direction. As the story progresses though, all of those options should fall away until the only option left is the conclusion. Think of your story as a tree. In the beginning, a tree is just a seed, and it can grow in many directions, both up and down. As you move along a tree though, you eliminate options. If you move up, you have left the roots behind. If you move past a branch, that branch is now behind you and can no longer be chosen. When you choose a branch, you eliminate everything but that branch. As you follow that branch along, you move by other branches until make another choice. At that point your choices are narrow. You are running out of branches until eventually you reach the end, where you have nowhere else to go but to embrace that final leaf or bud or whatever form your conclusion takes.

Decisions Define both Characters and Stories

The choices in a novel run along those same lines. Every word, every paragraph goes toward defining your characters, your plot and your themes. Each choice your characters make eliminates the other choices that could have been made. As each choice comes up, it further defines the character and it eliminates the choices that they could have made. The character might make dramatic changes as the story moves forward, but those changes must be the result of their earlier choices. Eventually, the character runs out of choices. They arrive at the ending knowing that it is now the only ending that remained possible.

As the Plot Progresses, Even the Same Decision is Different

Keep track of the choices that your characters make. In the beginning, your protagonist may be a high school graduate who must choose between college and work. If he chooses college, then he must choose a major. If he chooses a major, he has to choose from a specific set of classes. If he goes to the class he must take a seat. If he takes a seat between two people, he may choose to talk to one of them, none of them or both of them. If he talks to one of them, that person may turn out to be a friend or an enemy. If that person is a friend, they will go places together. If they spend too much time doing things other than classes, the student fails out of college.

At that point the student once again must choose, college or work, but he is not at the same point as he was in the beginning, even if he is making a similar choice. Getting back into college will be hard this time. He may have to choose a lesser school, foe example. If he goes to work it will be as a college dropout or perhaps as a part-time student who must hold a job as well. Either way, his choices revolve around college or work, because those are the branches of the tree that follows. If he fails at college again, the chances are very slim that he will have a third chance. Meanwhile, he has acquired a friend along the way, and that friend would not have appeared if he had made different choices.

Sometimes, Decisions are Made for You

Sometimes, in a novel, outside forces determine some of the branches. For example, his parents may have been paying for college, but then they lose a significant amount of money when the stock market crashes, and they can no longer afford to help him out. He must now make his choices based on the new situation. Be careful with outside forces though. It is usually better for a story if the characters’ own choices determine their fate as much as possible. The outside world may act to eliminate some options, but for the most part, rely on your characters to determine their paths; otherwise the conclusion will feel unearned.