How I outline.

April 21, 2010

(I am going to try to write some posts about writing. We’ll see how it goes. Also these may be total snorefests! Because almost nothing is as dull as writers droning on about writing. However, I promise not to use the phrase “the craft”. Because it creeps me out.)

So – this is about outlining. Some people do it, some people don’t. I can write a short story or an essay without outlining (or maybe it’s short enough that the outline can just live in your brain and you can feel your way through it) but I can’t write long things without outlines.

I kinda-sorta use a version of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet*.

Obviously, I start with a basic idea: “A guy gets asked to transport a locked trunk to a secret location, but then something goes wrong! Also there are monsters.”

Okay, so I have a number of turning points I need to know in order for that idea to become a story, and for that story to work. So I fill those in:

Opening scene: this is usually where I figure you find out about your main character, or your backstory, or both. Like I might meet my main character, a guy who works in a surf shop.

Setup: this is where you find out about the rules of the world you’re in.

Inciting incident/page 10 or 15: this is the part where somebody asks your hero to go across town to pick up a locked trunk.

Debate: now there’s a bit where your hero is either thinking it over, or has agreed to go across town to pick up the locked trunk, but hasn’t really bought into it completely yet.

Hero buys in/act break: this is often a moment where you physically move from the old world to the new world – or if it’s not physical (sometimes you were already in the new world at around page 15) it’s emotional, it’s the part where the hero stops being on the fence and goes “OH MY GOD I OPENED THE TRUNK AND A MONSTER POPPED OUT AND NOW THE MONSTER IS CHASING US, LET’S GO!”

Some stuff happens: (I will come back to this.)

Midpoint: the midpoint is often a hard moment to break for me. Sometimes the midpoint is what I think of as the “okay, now it’s personal!” moment – like you THOUGHT your hero had bought into the quest at the first act break, but now you realize that this is the moment where he can’t turn back, he can only go forward, his emotional or physical life depends on it. Or sometimes the midpoint involves another change of location, almost like an additional act break.

Some stuff happens: (I will come back to this as well.)

Everything is terrible/Low point: the monster has driven our hero into a dead-end cave under a mountain of burning tires at the dump. Our hero gives up and waits to die.

Hero decides to Do Something About It/act break: BUT WAIT! He realizes that he knows how to turn tires into eco-friendly sandals for hippies, and all he needs is a knife… but the knife is buried in the monster’s tail!

Climax: Something something something, our hero gets the knife back, fights the monster to a standstill, and agrees to go into the eco-friendly sandal business with him.

Final scenes: The monster and our hero live the life of Riley on a tropical beach and receive some kind of recycling award. Fade out!

So after I do that, I have these big giant holes in the second act. I fill in those holes with a combination of:

*brainstorming with anyone who will listen
*watching movies like the one I’m trying to write and seeing how that writer solved the problem

But eventually, you have a comprehensive outline, and then you can write. I used to start writing before I had the holes in the second act filled in, but THAT WAY LIES MADNESS. So I don’t do that anymore. For myself, if I get stuck, it’s basically always because I have either effed up the internal logic of the story (“But wait, WHY would the monster live in a trunk?!?”) or because I just don’t know what happens between pages 30-55.

So. For what it’s worth, that’s how I tackle outlining. The outlining is the hardest part of writing, for me. The actual writing is not so bad. If I really know the beats of the story, the writing kind of progresses without much terribleness – the outlining part is the part where I say things like “This is a terrible idea! I AM A TERRIBLE WRITER! I AM GOING TO MOVE TO COSTA RICA.”

*Blake, may he rest in peace, was a super nice guy who I got to know a tiny bit because my friend worked for him. I am pretty skeptical of books that claim to be able to teach people How To Write A Screenplay That Will Sell For Millions, but I feel like Blake’s books are different: he’s a guy who was clear on the fact that mainstream Hollywood movies are kind of like sonnets or something, in that they follow specific forms. And if you can internalize those forms, writing a movie is easier (not necessarily easy). So. That’s my two-penny endorsement.


Husband Guy is doing another Army course (ladies! if you meet a gentleman and he’s all “Well, you know, I’m in the service…” – you must immediately internalize the fact that that actually means “Hey, are you interested in spending a lot of time in hotels out by the airport? BECAUSE I CAN MAKE THAT HAPPEN, SUGARPANTS.”), so I am currently living in a very nice hotel in the technology-park wastelands around Our Nation’s Capital.

The areas near airports are always mostly technology parks, which is weird. And it’s also weird that these areas are basically a sustainably-minded person’s worst nightmare. They have nothing to recommend them! They aren’t even suburbs! It’s like if you were a person who really liked the idea of suburbs – who really liked the idea of sprawling, inefficient development, of anonymity, of being far from everything, of there “being no there there” but decided to TURN IT UP TO ELEVEN.

I complained about this on Facebook, and my friend Skye, who spends a lot of time in these places for work, said that she always thinks of them as a preview of the zombie apocalypse. This is totally true! The other night we walked over to a nearby 7-11 to acquire ice cream, and on the way back I kept looking over my shoulder.

Also, yesterday I was out for a walk in the wastelands and there were these two cars parked in the middle of nowhere (next to some old mattresses) and I thought “Probably some anti-gay senators out cruising” but then some guys in Really Intense Paintball Outfits came out of the woods: thigh holsters, CamelBaks, scary helmets.

There was this weird, awkward moment where we all stared at each other and I felt mildly threatened and they felt like big dorks. And then, to make it MORE socially awkward, I nodded and said “Good evening.” while trying to make clear that I was TOTALLY TAKING MENTAL NOTE OF THEIR LICENSE PLATE NUMBERS and then ran away, in case they weren’t actually paintball players but instead, you know… assassins.



Another weird thing about this technology park in particular, because of where it’s located, is that it’s full of bland buildings with ambiguous names like COMPUTER RATCHETING DIVISION HEADQUARTERS except they have armed guards and everybody going in has military haircuts and DOD stickers on their cars… so you pretty much know what’s going on in there.

Which is kind of pleasing, because of how often in life I will see a business with a really boring name like “REGIONAL TECHTRONIC” and excitedly think to myself: “That is obviously a CIA front operation!”* So this is sort of delightful to me, to be around what are probably actual CIA front operations.

But also really disappointing, because these buildings have parking lots full of mini-vans and stuff, so either they are THE BEST COVER EVER or they are the CIA front operations for, you know, “TOILET PAPER PROCUREMENT: AFRICOM”**. So dull, so disappointing.


And finally, another weird thing about these technology park type places in general is that you’re basically in a food dead zone. Hungry? Well, there’s that 7-11 up the street. Or a Wendy’s.

Oh, you want groceries? What are you, some kind of SOCIALIST?

A few days ago, we drove over to the nearest grocery store. It was about five miles. The grocery store was simultaneously so terrible (wilted broccoli, dented tomatoes) and so expensive (dented tomatoes at seven dollars a pound) that I would have declined to go back EVEN IF we hadn’t also been panhandled by another customer while in the checkout line and if there hadn’t been a huge family feud happening in the parking lot immediately next to our car. But we were and there was, so the next time I needed milk, I looked up our options on The Goog and we headed over to the only other grocery option within 10 miles: a Super WalMart.

Now – I am a person from the Pacific Northwest and from Europe and from Los Angeles, and there are no WalMarts in any of those places. In fact, I had been in a WalMart only one time previously, several months ago when I needed new contacts and all the eye doctors on our health plan were like “I can see you in three months!”

And yes, this whole thing I am about to complain about is very STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE, which I have some awkwardness about: I am the kind of person who listens to NPR and loves Neko Case and drives an old Volvo, but I am embarrassed about it, thank you.

Anyway – WalMart, have only been there once previously, kind of concerned about The WalMart Experience, YOU GET WHERE I AM GOING WITH THIS.

So we go to this Super WalMart. I was pretty ambivalent about it, but then I kept thinking “But remember all those jolly TV ads where moms go shopping at WalMart and the apples are really lovely and also everything is bathed in warm, comforting light?!? Maybe it’ll be like that!”

It was not like that.

First, there was the guy wearing the t-shirt advertising a strip club. And this wasn’t some kind of hipster, sex-positive feminist strip club or anything. It was a lady in thigh-high boots and a pole and a name that was like MISS BOOBY BOOB’S FULLY NUDE BOOB BUFFET. Also the guy was shopping with his twelve-year-old daughter. YOU GUYS.

Second, there were the cops at the entrance. You know how sometimes at stores you have to show your receipt to an employee before they’ll let you leave? This store had somehow gotten actual on-duty cops with guns and badges and shirts that said POLICE to do this. So you have to assume that this is a store where people try to shoplift terrible cheap made in China shorts and then get caught and then get violent because they got caught, SO violent that the store asked the police to come help out and the police agreed. Also the cops looked like a super lame, downmarket version of Herc and Carver from The Wire, which doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but I feel I should mention it.

Third, the grocery was both depressing and RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE.

Husband Guy and I started in the produce section. We stared at the terrible (wilted, MOLDY) vegetables and the ridiculous prices (five-dollar kale). We looked around furtively.

This must be the organic section.

I know you’re not from here, but I don’t think WalMart has an organic section.

It has to be the organic section! Look at how small and hideous this four-dollar cabbage is.

(tapping away on his Droid)

What are you doing?

Looking up historic broccoli-pricing trends. Maybe there’s been a plague and we missed it?

Man, it was so depressing. Between the guy with the stripper shirt, the armed police at the entrance, the ridiculous prices, the terrible selection, the many people yelling at their children, blah blah blah…

Maybe it was just this particular WalMart and other WalMarts do indeed have the nice apples and the attractive lighting, but I was completely bummed out afterward.

ALSO, I DID NOT FEEL LIKE I GOT ANY RIDICULOUSLY GOOD DEALS, which is the only thing that would have made the terribleness worth it. So now I am completely perplexed by the popularity of WalMart in general! While we were checking out, this family in front of us was buying four hundred dollars worth of clothing for their kindergarten-aged daughter. Do you know how much crappy clothing you can apparently buy with four hundred dollars at WalMart? Their stack was several feet high. And the weird thing is that of course a kindergartner grows too fast to get four hundred bucks worth of use out of that many clothes.

I feel like, somehow, this is maybe WalMart’s business model. You sell cheap shit at prices that are actually not that great, and maybe you put all your stores in areas where people have no other options, so they come in and do this orgy of consuming? Like, maybe you TELL them “OMG! Our prices on glittery pink shorts for kindergartners are CRAZY!!!” and they don’t see any other shorts for sale, so they just assume you must be telling the truth? seems to think that the official slogan is “Save money. Live better.” but unless this particular WalMart was a crazy aberration, I just don’t see how that could be true.

PS, I feel like this makes me sound like a snooty person – I totally am not, I am as cheap as the next person and feel resentful whenever I’m in a Whole Foods. I’m just amazed that WalMart seems to be both EXPENSIVE and CRAPPY, when basic economic theory would seem to dictate that there can be only one.

Anyway. WalMart! So weird and not what I expected – kind of like how I am always mildly obsessed with going to chain restaurants, because they seem mysterious and fascinating to me, but then on the rare occasion when I actually go, I’m like “This Outback steak is expensive and actually not very good, and why do they bring me a piece of bread with a knife jammed in it? This is terrible.”

The next time we needed milk, I made Husband Guy take us over to the local Army base, where we shopped at the commissary, paying totally reasonable prices for nice vegetables and cheese and dark chocolate, thus restoring my faith in American capitalism.

Go Army!

*I can’t be the only person who does this.
**Wouldn’t it be totally weird to work in covert intelligence, but to actually be the guy who orders toilet paper and mops and stuff? You probably couldn’t tell anyone what you did for a living (“I’m in plastics.”) but it wouldn’t be for a cool, dangerous reason. So you’d always feel kind of lame and embarrassed, because you’d know that other people were assuming awesome stuff like “Wow, I bet that guy jumps out of helicopters on the regular and whatnot!” but really you sit in a cubicle and argue with suppliers about discounts on paper towels.