Storybuilder Inc. — Step 3: The Three-Part Outline

In the last step I talked about crash-testing your premise. How did that go? Feel free to share your working premise here. It will be interesting to look back on it when we get to the end of this series and see how much it’s changed.

Today, with Step Three, I will talk about germinating your premise – otherwise known as the three-part outline.

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End, Beginning, Middle

Your premise has three parts: who your character is, his or her conflict, and what’s going to happen as a result of it. Beginning, middle, end. But we’ll be reversing the order.

I like to think of your starting story as a seed. If you were a drop of water, you’d pass through the seed coat, then the endosperm, before finally reaching the embryo waiting inside. But germination begins when the embryo starts growing. The same thing happens with a story.

The Embryo: Germination begins at the end

A great story is an ending, with a beginning and middle that whisk the reader toward it. Your job now is to find the embryo of your seed. Think about your end, based on the premise you’ve carefully been developing. Here are my favorite three premises from last week – the ultra-safe ones that made it through our crash-tests:

Seed #1: “A depressed marathon runner discovers joy when an injury sees him in the care of the woman who was to blame for his family’s death.”

Embryo: Bob (the marathon runner) holds Cynthia’s (his nemesis) hand as she dies from cancer, and whispers the words he’s never dared: I forgive you.

Seed #2:  “When a bounty hunter bent on capturing the bad guys finds out he’s the bad guy everyone’s after, he chooses to forge a new identity and abandon his quest for justice.”

Embryo: Steve (the bounty hunter) shoots his best friend (Jim, a.k.a. “Patches”) when he discovers he’s a mole and their whole friendship was a lie. He decides to flee the country he’s been proud of his whole life, disgusted with its hypocrisy.

Seed #3: “An elderly woman discovers her lifelong dream to free her people against an insane king when she worms her way into his court and turns him into her play-thing.”

Embryo: Ren (the elderly woman, a seamstress) orders King Burt Left-hand to dance for her before every scheming noble and enjoys the satisfaction of finally being able to show that she holds the power. “Revolution is coming, starting with fairer taxes and equal rights for women,” she declares. “Anything she tells you, do,” her puppet lover says, not missing a beat.

Notice two things these germinated seeds have in common: (1) the end is vivid, tense, unique, and not obvious from the premise; and, (2) there are names and particulars. I will talk about dealing with the latter things (the sprouts) later, but the former is very important. When you are germinating your premise, take some time to create something quirky, powerful, and satisfying. Like your premise, you want to make sure it’s got the right edge.

The Seed Coat: a beginning for the ending

A powerful ending needs a robust beginning. Just as a seed’s coat is hard and the last likely thing the needed drop of water should be able to get through, you want to craft your beginning so that it’s a very unlikely path to your end.

Seed #1: “A depressed marathon runner discovers joy when an injury sees him in the care of the woman who was to blame for his family’s death.”

Embryo (end): Bob (the marathon runner) holds Cynthia’s (his nemesis) hand as she dies from her cancer and whispers the words he’s never dared: I forgive you.

Seed coat (beginning): Bob enjoys the satisfaction of seeing Cynthia collapse from exhaustion on the track and wonders how she bears her shame. “She deserves it,” he thinks, as he sprints on, remembering why he’s running: to honor the memory of his wife and children. And that bitch is the one who took them away.

Seed #2:  “When a bounty hunter bent on capturing the bad guys finds out he’s the bad guy everyone’s after, he chooses to forge a new identity and abandon his quest for justice.”

Embryo (end): Steve (the bounty hunter) shoots his best friend (Jim, a.k.a. “Patches”) when he discovers he’s a mole and their whole friendship was a lie. He decides to flee the country he’s been proud of his whole life, disgusted with its hypocrisy.

Seed coat (beginning): Steve catches a bad-guy after a high speed chase and smokes a cigar with his best friend, Jim, a pacifist, and adds another mark in his notebook – one sporting an American flag on the cover. “One day, we’ll catch them all, and make our country a better place,” he tells Jim.

Seed #3: “An elderly woman discovers her lifelong dream to free her people against an insane king when she worms her way into his court and turns him into her play-thing.”

Embryo (end): Ren (the elderly woman, a seamstress) orders Mad King Burt Left-hand to dance for her before every scheming noble and enjoys the satisfaction of finally being able to show that she holds the power. “Revolution is coming, starting with fairer taxes and equal rights for women,” she declares. “Anything she tells you, do,” her puppet lover says, not missing a beat.

Seed coat (beginning): Ren watches as a tax collector rapes one of her apprentices in an alleyway and knows there’s nothing she can do. It’s been like this all her life, compliments of Mad King Burt and his noble puppets who make the laws. She hates him, and wishes he will die more and more each day. Especially this one.

Notice the contrast! While you are crafting your beginnings, your goal is to creates an “as if” reaction. The more unlikely it is your ending will result from your beginning, the more dramatic your middle will be. In fact, you might modify your ending as a result, or even modify your premise – that’s fine. Tweaking is the name of the game, which is why we start small and build slowly.

The Endosperm: a big, fat middle that nourishes

The middle kills most writers. It’s the biggest part of your story, and often the most neglected. If your reader yawns partway through, they won’t get to the end – that wonderful moment you want to reward them with.

Your hardest work will be making a middle that doesn’t flag for a single page, but that’s very doable. It begins with ensuring your middle is nutrient-rich, like the endosperm of a seed.

Seed #1: “A depressed marathon runner discovers joy when an injury sees him in the care of the woman who was to blame for his family’s death.”

Embryo (end): Bob (the marathon runner) holds Cynthia’s (his nemesis) hand as she dies from her cancer and whispers the words he’s never dared: I forgive you.

Seed coat (beginning): Bob enjoys the satisfaction of seeing Cynthia collapse from exhaustion on the track and wonders how she bears her shame. “She deserves it,” he thinks, as he sprints on, remembering why he’s running: to honor the memory of his wife and children. And that bitch is the one who took them away.

Endosperm (middle): Bob is going to break his leg after a training. Cynthia is his nurse, then shows up at his house with a bowl of soup. He’s never voiced his resentment to her, and she won’t go away. She’s kind and sweet, which surprises him, but he can’t bring himself to warm up to her, even when he realizes she’s the kindest woman he’s ever met. But when he finds out Cynthia is dying, he starts to second-guess his instincts.

Seed #2:  “When a bounty hunter bent on capturing the bad guys finds out he’s the bad guy everyone’s after, he chooses to forge a new identity and abandon his quest for justice.”

Embryo (end): Steve (the bounty hunter) shoots his best friend (Jim, a.k.a. “Patches”) when he discovers he’s a mole and their whole friendship was a lie. He decides to flee the country he’s been proud of his whole life, disgusted with its hypocrisy.

Seed coat (beginning): Steve catches a bad-guy after a high speed chase and smokes a cigar with his best friend, Jim, a pacifist, and adds another mark in his notebook – one sporting an American flag on the cover. “One day, we’ll catch them all, and make our country a better place.”

Endosperm (middle): Steve is surprised when the police come to arrest him for a murder he knows nothing about. He suspects he’s been set up, since the man he just took down was one of the Senator’s sons. He flees as soon as he gets bail, becoming a fugitive, using his free time to get the better hand against the corrupt politician. His friend, Jim, has strangely accurate hunches, leading him closer to answers, even if each lead is a near-miss.

Embryo #3: “An elderly woman discovers her lifelong dream to free her people against an insane king when she worms her way into his court and turns him into her play-thing.”

Embryo (end): Ren (the elderly woman, a seamstress) orders Mad King Burt Left-hand to dance for her before every scheming noble and enjoys the satisfaction of finally being able to show that she holds the power. “Revolution is coming, starting with fairer taxes and equal rights for women,” she declares. “Anything she tells you, do,” her puppet lover says, not missing a beat.

Seed coat (beginning): Ren watches as a tax collector rapes one of her apprentices in an alleyway and knows there’s nothing she can do. It’s been like this all her life, compliments of Mad King Burt, who she’s hated and wishes he will die more and more each day. Especially this one.

Endosperm (middle): The king chooses Ren as his seamstress for his new wardrobe and, upon meeting him, she realizes he is nothing like she thought. Worse, he’s handsome and there’s an immediate flare between them. He’s still mad, without a doubt – banishing her from his castle for a fortnight, then inviting her to dinner as though nothing ever happened. Slowly, she becomes a regular part of his court. When she realizes the true source of corruption in the kingdom is the nobles who are taking advantage of the king’s madness, Ren plans the revolution she’s only dared to dream of – without the scheming nobles getting the best of her.

You’ve created a vivid ending, and a beginning that is a very unlikely path to it. Although your middle will expand the most, don’t worry about getting too detailed – just make sure you create a believable (and interesting!) pathway from the beginning to the end. Be creative and quirky; these unique twists will help you with your next stage, the 9-part outline.

Dealing with the sprouts

By the end of this exercise, you no doubt have characters, settings, and perhaps some world building notes. Your seed is growing well, but it has many sprouts. For now, you might want to write them down on a separate sheet of paper. Next week, we will talk about ways to deal with them and prepare you for the 9-part outline.

Keep your evolving stories to yourself it you’d like, or share them here. Feel free to post your progress, and jump in at any time.

out_of_the_darkness_300sigRita

Graeme is an epic fantasy author. His first published story, The Pact, is now available for KoboKindle, and other ebook formats through Burst Books.

You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog, Fantasy Writing Journey.

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3 Comments

Filed under Graeme's World, Storybuilder Inc. Outlining and Storytelling Process

3 responses to “Storybuilder Inc. — Step 3: The Three-Part Outline

  1. Pingback: Storybuilder Inc. — Step 5: The 9-Part Outline | Worlds of the Imagination

  2. Pingback: Storybuilder Inc. — Step 6: The Proposal | Worlds of the Imagination

  3. Pingback: Storybuilder Inc. | Worlds of the Imagination

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