Holly Lisle's Workshop
Issue #1: 01/01/01
Beyond the Basics Creating the Professional Plot Outline
2001, By Holly Lisle
the general story arc
you start already knowing the beginning and the ending of your story,
you're ahead of the game. If you don't, though, all is not lost. In this
workshop we're going to develop a complete novel or short story plot,
starting with a basic idea and finishing with a complete outline you can
use to write your story or, in the case of a novel, to pitch the story to
an agent or publisher.
let's get started.
a couple of interesting facts. It's tougher to come up with ideas for
short stories than it is to come up with novel ideas. Novels are much less
dependent on a single central idea. Next, although breaking into either
market is tough, you'll actually have an easier time selling a first novel
than a first short story in a professional market. Finally, novels pay
those points in mind, then, let's develop a suitable idea for a story.
can develop an idea from any of a number of directions. Start with a
character, or a theme, or worldbuilding, or an idea that you got from
researching. For this workshop, I'll use an idea developed from
worldbuilding AND character development.
like my character Cadence Drake, so I'll use her as the main character in
this workshop. From her previous book, I know that she is a finder of lost
things primarily hired by corporations who can afford her high fees, that
she lost her best friend in a firefight, that she has a really cool
experimental prototype spaceship for which she does not have legal
paperwork, and, though this may or may not be relevant for this book, she
has injected herself with a serum that is toxic to the recombinantly-created
vampires who have developed a powerful cabal in her universe.
rehashing this abbreviated biography has given me some clues to the story
I want to write next. And some things I don't want to write, as well.
don't want to follow up on the vampire thread in this second story; I
developed a huge universe for Cady, and I don't want to get bogged down in
that one tiny facet of it and have the books stereotyped as vampire books.
I do want to follow up on the death of Badger, Cady's long-time best
friend and sometime lover, who was killed in a firefight. And I have
discovered a device to get me into the story, as well.
doesn't have legal papers for her ship, the Corrigan's Blood, which she
acquired when one of her employers tried to kill her in lieu of paying
her. The employer ended up dead instead, and Cadence helped herself to his
ship. I see the entry point to this story being the fact that if Cady is
going to keep this ship - and she IS going to keep this ship - she has to
acquire some good fake papers for it. And fast.
from the following tiny bit of background:
have my opening set-up. Cadence is going to go looking for a place to get
quality fake papers, and because the rightful owner of the ship is dead
under suspicious, even dreadful, circumstances, she has to get the papers
from someone not inclined to ask questions. This suggests moving into a
dangerous situation, and I think she'll meet a dangerous but interesting
character - one who is willing to give her the papers she wants in
exchange for the barter of her services. He'll give her time-limited
interim papers, and in exchange she'll find something important of his
that has gone missing.
worry about what that is later. For now, I have a solid opening for this
new novel that accomplishes the following essential tasks:
for you to do the same. With any combination of character development,
worldbuilding, theme, and/or research, put together a story opener that
meets those three goals. If you're a community
member, you can work this out on the exercise
board, where you can get feedback. If you're not a member, you can join
here. Or develop this on paper at home.
your opener now? Good. Let's move on to your ending.
your first reaction is, "What am I going to do with an ending when I
have only the foggiest idea of my beginning, and none whatsoever of my
middle?" don't worry. You aren't going to do a completely
written-out chapter. All you're going to do is figure out a basic landing
pad for your story.
my case, I'll make the following decisions:
- next part of your workshop. Go back to your original entry and figure
out in general terms how you want the story to end. Try to answer the
have your beginning and your ending. Now we need to add some middle, throw
in some neat twists and turns, and give you something so great to work on
that you'll be excited about sitting down to work on your book every day.
we're going to build some candybar scenes to move you from first word in
your story to last.
mentioned candy-bar scenes before. They're my analogy for scenes you
can't resist writing - your big set piece scenes. In these scenes, your
characters will fight battles, save lives or take them, fall into or out
of love, meet their enemies in unexpected places, chase or be chased.
don't need to work these out in any great detail. A line or two to give
you something to shoot for is all you need. Even order doesn't matter at
this point - that will come as you start fleshing your story out.
example, I know in this story that I'm starting to tell now, I want the
so on . . .
scene I jot down spurs ideas for more scenes. As I run with this, I'll put
together enough main scenes to peg into my novel, and then start creating
transitional scenes to move me from on "candybar scene" to the
many is enough? Depends on what you want to write. There's no set number
for any project, but you need at least three scenes for all but the
shortest short stories, and at least one big scene per chapter for novels.
A 125,000 word novel can have thirty or forty chapters (or more) with two
or three scenes in each. I use ten pages as my scene-length estimate, and
either twenty or thirty pages as my chapter-length estimate, and work from
back to your previous entry and click Edit, and sketch in between
three and sixty one-line scene ideas. I suggest coming up with more than
you think you're going to need, because if my experience doing this is any
guide, some of your first ideas will be unusably bad.
twists and surprises
you've finished jotting down your initial scene ideas, it's time to fix
the fixably bad, and add some surprises to the already good. I'll give you
a couple of demos. Take the following entry from my previous list of
well - it's been done, hasn't it? What can I do with a dogfight in space
that years of Star Wars movies, Battlestar Galactica TV shows, and space
opera novels haven't done?
find a unique twist to my dogfight, I'm going to look at my worldbuilding.
When you discover that you have a potential cliché under development,
don't panic and rip the scene from the book. Not without seeing if you can
move beyond the cliché, anyway. Dig deeper - look at your worldbuilding,
your character development, or your research to bring something to the
story that wasn't there before.
the case of the dogfight, I'm going to focus on the hyperspatial
capabilities of the Corrigan's Blood as developed in the first book
and in my background. The CB has a Trans-Fold Navigational unit (more
popularly called an origami drive) on board that, with the help of other
drives in other realities, folds hyperspace into a neat decahedron around
the ship. The ship can then move in any of ten directions, but only some
of those ten (and away from heavily traveled routes, sometimes none) have
ever been mapped. Unlike ships which have a normal TFN drive, the Corrigan's
Blood has no governor to prevent it taking uncharted routes. This has
potential - if, for example, I give the enemy that Cadence ends up
dogfighting an equally capable ship, the two could take evasive maneuvers
through hyperspace, and through successive maneuvers could become so
completely lost in unknown and uncharted space that in order for either to
survive, both must agree to a truce and collaborate. I kind of like that.
Now in order to make it work, I'll need to figure out who the enemy is,
why he attacked, how much damage each did to the other's ship, and what
measures each had to take to arrive at a truce.
these details and this approach, my dogfight will not be just another
for you to take a turn at adding twists and surprises to your plot. Choose
one of the most overused of your ideas. Use background, character
development, research, or your story's theme - or any combination of these
- to make your cliché into something extraordinary.
your own, use this same scrutiny to challenge the direction and content of
each scene - not just the clichéd ones, but the fairly solid ones and the
ones that really sing to you. Don't accept your first vision for any scene
as the way it must be.
can't overemphasize the importance of this. I think the comment about my
work that I receive most often from readers, critics and editors is,
"I thought I knew where you were going with that scene/ chapter/
novel, but you completely surprised me. I think it's significant that the
element of surprise was the thing about my first novel that Josepha
Sherman, the editor who pulled it out of the slush pile, emphasized over
and over again in discussing with me why she had decided to recommend the
book to the publisher. If I have one "trade secret," one
technique that I developed on my own that has helped me sell not just the
first book but the twenty-plus novels that followed it, that's it. I'm
willing to take a second look at clichés and figure out how to turn them
into something new, which is a great way to lull readers into a false
sense of security.
everything add up
is the process I use for developing novels. The outline that I get the
first time through is subject to revision, cutting, rearranging, and
midcourse correction. It's a working document - a tool - and as such it is
never really finished. It is a reflection of where the novel is, and where
I think it is going, and I usually abandon it completely three-quarters of
the way through my book. But it's always there when I need to rethink
It will be there for you, too. A good plot outline can be any dedicated writer's best friend.
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