4.1 Building Outwards

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October 8, 2014 by KWills

RoW80 update, week one:

  1. Reviews written – None. Oops…
  2. NaNo Prep tasks – mostly done, although some of them are late entries
  3. Update this blog – done. Writing right up to the deadline, but here it is…

As it’s the second Wednesday of the month, it’s time for some writing advice. This month is about “building outwards”, a technique I’ve been using unconsciously for ages, but only recently tried to put into words.

Most stories begin with an idea – a theme, a scene, even a single image. As you work on the story, you will change many things, but that initial spark will probably remain almost intact. This is one of the story cores. The other core is the climax of your story. These two cores may be very close, or miles apart, yet between them they form the heart and soul of your story.

I’m currently outlining Silver Tongue, the tale of Long John Silver. My two cores are actually quite far apart, as they form the bookends of John’s adventures in piracy. The spark idea was “How did he become a pirate?” coupled with speculation on how and when he lost his leg. The climax of his story is the moment that he decides to save Jim and fight against his fellow pirates. With these two points as my anchors, I can build a coherent arc for John’s actions, beliefs and behaviour. But even though my cores come towards the edges of my narrative, I’m still “building outwards” when I use them as anchors. I need to establish John’s early life, before he became a pirate, or even went to sea. I also need to show where he went after he disappeared from the Hispaniola, and how his decision changed him. Then comes the really difficult bit – bridging the gap between the two core moments. I need to make every point on the arc as smooth as possible; every change needs to feel at least plausible, preferably inevitable.

Timeline showing the two core moments of "Silver Tongue"

I’m outlining this novel using a mixture of the NaNo Prep calendar and a modified version of the Snowflake Method. I’ve also looked into the three-, four- and five-act structures, as well as “phases” and the “Three Acts, Nine Blocks, 27 Chapters” template. Building outwards isn’t a method of outlining as such, nor is it intended to take the place of any of these existing guides. Instead, it suggests a starting place within these structures, and that starting place isn’t necessarily the beginning (or the end) of the story.

I have to admit, I’m not an exclusive fan of any one method of outlining. Each story is different, and as such needs a slightly different approach. If you want to see vehement defenders in actions, search for “compare three four five act structure” (without the quotes), and watch as each advocate tears the other methods to pieces. Then make up your own mind.

I find it useful to run the first stage of a few different outlining methods on any new story. Once I’ve spent a couple of hours doing that, the best fit is usually obvious. By identifying the anchor points, I can usually make a broad-brush outline quite easily, then find the right structure to help me fill in the details.

Over to you guys – how do you get into a new story? Do you make it all up as you go, or do you plan in advance? Comments are open.

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One thought on “4.1 Building Outwards

  1. rakwriter says:

    I’m a Pantser. I tried the “3 Acts, 9 Blocks, 27 Chapters” format, but I spent so much time trying to pack everything into that format, it took away from my writing. I have to sit down and just let my brain explode onto the page, then go back and fine-tune it. NaNoWriMo is great for me, because it forces my internal editor to shut up.

    When I get an idea for a new story, it usually starts with one image in my head. From there, I just try to figure out what happened before that image, and what happened after. By the time I’m done, the original image isn’t a part of the story anymore.

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