Ever read a novel that starts out like a house on fire, has a middle that keeps you turning pages, but then falls off at the end like a herd of buffalo stampeding off a cliff?
Ever watch a movie that begins like a blockbuster and then falls flat with a clichéd ending that you've seen a hundred times in bad “B” movies?
I’m convinced this happens because the authors of these books and films did not use a well–planned outline when creating their stories—one that will ensure a chart-buster ending.
Imagine an archer randomly shooting an arrow into the air in hopes that it will somehow hit a bull's-eye somewhere. Outlining a story from beginning to end will guarantee that you will hit your target every time.
Not using an outline to write your story is like a doctor saying, “Oh, we won’t take X-rays, we’ll just start at the head and keep cutting until we find the problem.”
Writing a short story or a novel is tough enough without having to stop in the middle to wonder where you’re going to take the story next. For those who say that outlining is the death of spontaneity, or that it’s too restrictive, or a hindrance to creative flow, let me say that outlining is the total opposite. Outlining gives you the freedom to be super creative while writing because you no longer have to decide on where the story is going, or how you are going to get there—that job has already been done. With a properly-planned outline you can let your creative juices flow to develop strong rich characterization. Plot problems will no longer exist when you use outlines and you can use your genius to focus instead on description, dialogue, style and voice.
The secret to developing great outlines is to work with a formula that is best suited to your style of writing and personality. There are all types—some that are basic and others that go into great depth. There is even new software available that will practically do the outlining for you. Choose the formula that feels most comfortable.
Here are three steps that I developed that have guided my pen from beginning to end of a story, or should I say, vice versa?
- Understand that your story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and that they must be treated separately to start. (You’ll have time later on to make them work together.)
- Plan the end of your story first. Knowing where and how your story is going to wind up will keep the beginning and middle parts of your story in line. It will also ensure that a) you do not veer off your story line and b) it will give you a direct link to the causality you will need to focus on that will bring you around from start to finish.
- Use the Plunge Opening. This means that at the beginning of your story, or fairly close to the beginning, you should leap straight onto the major conflict that will affect your protagonist. Many writers wait too long to get to the juice of the story. Instead, they use precious time and paper to ‘set up’ the story. BORING!
So, now that you have the beginning and the end of your story, the middle will practically write itself.