I stumbled on a tweet where Ilona Andrews (one of my favorite writers) tries to do a quick lesson on outlining. She uses Little Red Riding Hood and puts her own spins on it. Pretty fun!
I was wondering if for a future blog post on writing or writing tricks, if you could describe your story outlining process a little? And/or post a small example of your typical outline? Even just a short blurb would be really awesome.
I’m a very visual person, and I struggle with ADHD (diagnosed as an adult… boy it explains a lot), especially in terms of attention and organization. (What is this foreign concept of “organization”?) Outlines for essays have always been helpful, but I just can’t wrap my head around how that may look like for a story. I’ve tried Googling some examples, but I mostly come up with things like “fill in the blank” character profile sheets. Approaches I’ve tried to make end up being tooooo detailed… and then the story gets strangled to death. I’ve even tried looking in ADHD forums for ideas and tips.
There’s probably stuff out there, but I’ve been too dense to find it. I have so many story ideas that I’ve written paragraph idea sketches so I don’t forget them, but every time I try to sit down and write one of them, I get “lost” and can’t find my way around my own story. I know editing is where you refine your plot, but I’m hoping to somehow figure out a nice basic road map to reference to get through the rough draft.
I will continue to try looking for things out in the ether, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask you since I love your stories so much and love how you bring your pieces together. It would be pretty cool to see a small example of your outline style.
Let’s take a stab at this. We’re going to outline a retelling of Red Riding Hood. Any similarities to any future or past retellings are coincidental. There are only so many way you can spin this old story and many people have done it, so I claim no rights to this cliche synopsis and release it into public domain.
We’re going to do this in three stages.
Imagine a five year old, one of your relatives, children, siblings, etc. You need to tell the story of Red Riding Hood to him and do it so he or she don’t get bored.
Red Riding Hood was a very nice girl, who lived on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. Red Riding Hood liked to wear a red cape her Grandma gave her for her birthday. Her grandmother lived by herself in the woods.
Five year old: Why did Grandma live in the woods by herself?
This is a valid question, so let’s think up of a reason.
Her grandmother was a powerful witch and she had to live in the woods, because that where she gathered the best herbs.
At this point let’s circle back to the first paragraph.
Red Riding Hood is a very nice girl, who lives on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. Red Riding Hood likes to wear a red cape her Grandma gave her for her birthday. Her grandmother told Red Riding Hood that if she were ever in trouble, the red cloak would protect her. Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother lives by herself in the woods, because she was a powerful witch and that’s where she gathers herbs to brew her magical potions.
One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asks Red Riding Hood to deliver a basket of
bread rolls cookiesbottles of imported nightshade to Grandma. Red Riding Hood puts on her cloak and goes to the woods.
In the Red Riding Hood’s village also lives a very nice boy, whose name was Ranulf. Ranulf is a hunter and he is really good at hunting, because Ranulf is a werewolf. He keeps his magic a secret, because people get scared of werewolves and Ranulf doesn’t want to scare anyone. For awhile now, Ranulf has been finding disturbing signs in the woods, animals who were hacked to pieces.
Need to up the stakes here.
Also, two girls had disappeared from the village. They went into the woods and didn’t come back. Some people said it was some deadly beast who tore them apart. Someone like a big scary wolf.
Back to the front paragraph.
Red Riding Hood is a very nice girl, who lives on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. The forest is a dangerous place. Two girls from their village had gone into the woods and never came back, but Red Riding Hood isn’t scared of the woods. She loves wandering under the big old trees and goes there often, which is why her grandmother, a powerful witch who made the woods her home, gave her a red cloak for her birthday and told her that it would protect her in time of danger.
One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asks Red Riding Hood to deliver some bottles of imported nightshade to Grandma. Red Riding Hood puts on her cloak and goes to the woods.
In the Red Riding Hood’s village also lives a very nice boy, whose name was Ranulf. Ranulf is a hunter and he is really good at hunting, because Ranulf is a werewolf. He keeps his magic a secret, because people get scared of werewolves and Ranulf didn’t want to scare anyone. Even so, people don’t like Ranulf. There was just something odd about him that makes them worry. So Ranulf keeps mostly to himself and doesn’t talk to smart and funny girls like Red Riding Hood.
For awhile now, Ranulf has been finding disturbing signs in the woods, animals who were hacked to pieces. Then, the girls disappeared. Ranulf knows that something terrible is in the woods, and when he sees Red Riding Hood leave by herself, he decides to follow her. But because he isn’t well liked, he turns into a wolf, so he can follow her undetected.
Red Riding Hood notices the big bad scary wolf and tries to lose him.
Come up with at least two ways of figuring out how she is going to lose him. Possible variations: she wades down stream. She uses some magic to distract him. She falls into a pit and he passes her by. Something here.
Unknown to her, Red Riding Hood is being stalked by a woodsman whose name is Gary. Gary is a very sick person. He liked to kill small helpless animals and set things on fire when he was younger, but now he grew up into a big strong man and he is looking for bigger things he could kill and torture. From Gary’s point of view, things that come into his woods belong to him and he can hurt them however he wants. Ranulf smells Gary early on and decides that nothing good would come from the woodsman being there.
Woodsman Gary, Ranulf and Red Riding Hood slowly make their way through the woods. Gary keeps trying to get Red Riding Hood. All the while Red Riding Hood thinks the wolfs if her real problem…
The cape should turn her invisible.
Red Riding Hood notices the big bad scary wolf and tries to hide from him. Just about when he iss ready to discover her, her cape turns her invisible.
Have a big scary scene here with her holding her breath. Have her do some magic.
Unknown to her, Red Riding Hood is being stalked by a woodsman whose name is Gary. Gary is a very sick person. He liked to kill small helpless animals and set things on fire when he was younger, but now he grew up into a big strong man and he is looking for bigger things he could kill and torture. From Gary’s point of view, things that come into his woods belong to him and he can hurt them however he wants. Ranulf smells Gary early on and decides that nothing good would come from the woodsman being there and decides to put himself between Gary and Red Riding Hood.
Woodsman Gary, Ranulf and Red Riding Hood slowly make their way through the woods. Gary keeps trying to get Red Riding Hood. Ranulf keeps trying to keep Gary from getting Red Riding Hood. Red Riding keeps trying to get to the Grandma’s house safe and outwit both of them.
This is a perfectly fine thing to have in your synopsis. I don’t need to completely plot the story down to every detail. I already know that I will likely do a three act structure in this part where there are two encounters between my three characters, with the big finale being the final encounter. As I will write the story, I will discover how it will unfold and those details will allow me to come up with a better encounter than if I just write it now cold turkey. Don’t be afraid to let stuff percolate in your brain. Like Grandma’s potions, stories need time to brew.
Gary, who is an impatient and impulsive bad guy, decides to abandon his pursuit of Red Riding Hood and instead to head directly down to Grandma’s cottage and wait for Red Riding Hood there. He arrives to the cottage to find the old witch is out, so he breaks the door and goes inside. While inside, he finds a transforming potion and takes it, turning himself into Grandma.
Because why the heck not, right? Might as well push this as far as it can go.
Red Riding arrives to the cottage to find her Grandmother inside. But Ranulf, who followed her, smells Gary’s scent and realizes that grandmother was the woodsman in disguise. He attacks Gary to save Red Riding Hood. Not realizing that Ranulf is trying to save her, Red Riding Hood fights him off and locks him outside the house. Gary has been waiting for this moment for a long time. He wants to hurt her very much. He just keeps smiling and smiling, but Red Riding Hood’s grandmother wasn’t a the smiling type. She realizes something is wrong and when Gary attacks, she was ready.
Meanwhile, Ranulf finally finds the way inside the house. He breaks in just in time to help Red Riding Hood finish off Gary. Ranulf turns back into a human, and he and Red Riding Hood cleaned up the mess and waited for grandmother to come home together. Red Riding Hood always kind of thought that Ranulf was interesting but he was always off by himself, so now is their chance to finally get to know each other.
Now that I figured out the general layout of the story, the question is where to start.
I’m probably going to start with a scene where Red Riding Hood is in the woods, because I need to show her running around there not being scared of the scary woodland creatures. So perhaps something with a monster, of which she isn’t scared. As she turns to go home, she stumbles onto human remains, possibly one of two girls who disappeared. She might recognize the hair or an article of closing. As she turns to leave, she sees the big black wolf watching her from the shadows. Something about the wolf deeply freaks her out. She takes off for the house, where her mother asks her to visit her grandmother.
At the core, this is a story of two outcast weirdos finding each other, so getting them together in the first scene creates symmetry with the ending: they start together and they end together. The story comes full circle.
This is all I need to start. The general framework of the story and the general framework of the scene I am about to write. I don’t need anything else. I don’t need to think ahead on any details. Those will come as I write.
The woods stood still.
Red frowned. The woods were never still. They moved and shifted with life. Even in the darkest deepest corners, where sun barely broke through the dense canopy of leaves overhead, things with glowing eyes prowled, hunted, and cuddled their young. But here, in this shallow ravine, the woods stood still. Birds didn’t sing, squirrels didn’t scamper, and the woodpeckers had fallen silent. Nothing moved. The air felt dead…
There you go. Now you try to retell your own fairy tale for fun.