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Storybuilder Inc. — Step 5: The 9-Part Outline

Last time in Storybuilder Inc., I talked about character, setting, and world profiling. If you followed along, then you no doubt have many profile cards for your characters, settings, and maybe some world-building details of your story, as discovered in your 3-part outline. This will help tremendously for the next step:

The 9-part outline.

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Rolling out the dough

Your 3-part outline is a very small version of your story. Imagine it as a flattened ball of dough. Before we stretch it into the thin, page-by-page draft, we need to roll it out to make sure it’s even.

There are many versions of the plot-point model for a story, including the 3-act play (which is my favorite). However, for the sake of being even I like to break beginning, middle, and end into three parts, based on the standard parts of a conflict arc. Today we will talk about each of them, with some examples from our 3 favorite premises.

You will want to take 5 cue cards (or similar-sized sheets of paper) and label each side with one of the 9 sections:

Opening sequence, Turning point 1, Start of Main Action, Inflection 1, Midpoint, Inflection 2, Turning point 2, Climax, Resolution

1: Elements of the beginning

The beginning can be divided up into 3 parts: an opening sequence, a turning point 1, and the start of the main action. You will have your beginning already from your 3-part outline. What you will likely find is that this beginning is in fact the starting scene—the opening sequence.

Remember Bob? Our marathon runner?

Here was his 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.

It turns out this is the opening sequence, part 1 of the 9-part outline. When we start writing this story, this will be chapter one, unless something more suitable presents itself during the many surprises that the drafting stage often presents.

The beginning is the entry point, the place where you introduce your character, and the opening sequence is the embodiment of that. It is short, quick, poignant, and often by the end of your story, meaningful.

What about the other two parts of the 9-part outline?

Part 2 of the 9-part outline is turning point 1: an event that shifts the introduction toward the central conflict of your story arc. For example, in the case of Bob, we know he’s going to get injured, and this is going to be the event that brings him under Cynthia’s care; this would be turning point 1. Turning point 1 turns you from happy introductions to the tension that develops your story (turning point 2, as you will see shortly, turns you toward the climax, which will resolve that tension).

The start of the main action—part 3 of the 9-part outline—consists of events that follow turning point 1. For example, after Bob breaks his leg, he discovers that Cynthia is his nurse. This signals that the action of the novel has begun.

2: Elements of the Middle

The middle can be divided up into 3 parts: inflection 1, midpoint, and inflection 1. Unlike the beginning, the material you have from your middle might be harder to place. In fact, as you saw in the example above, some of the middle elements end up in parts 2 and 3 of your 9-page outline.

We will use bounty hunter Steve for our example here. This was the middle for his 3-part outline:

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.

If we were breaking this into a 9-part outline, then the surprise arrest would be turning point 1 (part 2 of the 9-part outline), and perhaps he might have a meeting with his lawyer to express his suspicions about the Senator (start of the main action, part 3). But what about the rest?

Part 4 of the 9-part outline is called inflection 1. It is an event that sets up a change in the conflict toward the character’s fundamental shift. In the case of Steve, his fundamental shift is going from being a patriotic bounty hunter to an anarchist who sympathizes with “good” criminals. So let’s make inflection 1 for Steve the time he spends on the run trying to find evidence against the corrupt politician, because his choice to go on the run represents a change, but he hasn’t decided to abandon his country and false sense of justice just yet.

Part 5 is called the midpoint. It is the fundamental shift that turns the conflict from something imminent to something immediate. If you want to picture your story like an arch, this is the apex. The stakes change, the impossible becomes possible; your character is now heading straight toward the end state you had in mind when you first started shaping your 3-part outline (which you can read about here if you need a refresher). In the case of Steve, maybe he meets a radical who shows him evidence that several judges, lawyers, and cops are corrupt, and he gets so angry that he shoots the man. Wow, now there’s no turning back from that!

The final part of your middle, part 6 of the 9-part outline, is inflection 2. It is a unique event that develops as a result of your character’s fundamental shift. You can also look at it as the mirror image of inflection one, just on the other side of the conflict arc. So, Jim shoots a radical and has to live with growing guilt that he’s committed murder. Not only is he a fugitive, but he’s actually guilty of something. Worse, he finds out the radical was right. The judge (Honorable Bill Heron, who, by the way, will get his own profile card now that I’ve mentioned him) is guilty as sin, and Steve, full of rage, becomes a vigilante, shooting the man covertly at night. Yikes!

You’ll notice I used the original middle (above), but took it a bit deeper, based on what each part of the 9-part outline is. See if you can follow along and do this. Take your time and think, and make sure your choice for each section suits your overall arc. Remember, too, you can always make changes later.

3: Elements of the end

The end can be divided up into 3 parts, making the final 3 parts of your 9-part outline: turning point 2, climax, and resolution. You will most likely find that your end corresponds to the climax. After all, you wanted to pick a vivid, climatic moment—something that is worth the trip—when you developed your 3-part outline.

Let’s look at Ren, our elderly puppeteer of Mad King Burt, and the end we chose for her 3-part outline:

Ren 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.

Turning point 2—part 7 of the 9-part outline—is an event or sequence of events that leads to the climax of a story’s conflict. In the case of Ren, our middle doesn’t give us much information on how to get to the climax, but we know that Ren is going to discover that the nobles are the true source of corruption in the kingdom of Altavar (yes, we’ll profile that). In fact, Ren is going to go from hating the king and wishing a better nobility would replace him, to loving the king and destroying the nobility through his covert plans. Let’s say that, for inflection 2, Ren finds out that one of the nobles is scheming to have the king killed. What would be a good turning point 2?

Last week we talked about profiling (review it here if you need to), and in the process of profiling Mad King Burt Left-hand, we realized he’s not actually insane, but is using this as a trick to fool the scheming nobles in his court. What a turning point! This was not in our 3-part outline, but it fits: turning point 2, Burt and Ren make love in the Garden of Cards, where no servants are allowed, and he tells her he’s not insane, and in fact has been using his madness to gain the upper hand on all the nobles in his court.

The climax, part 8, is quite self-explanatory. Here’s Ren making the king dance, but it’s not with the satisfaction of getting revenge on him, but getting revenge on those who have made her life, and her peoples’ lives, miserable. He dances, she loves him, and knows she’s part of the act that will be their downfall.

Part 9, the final part of the 9-part outline, is the resolution. It can be seen as an aftermath or an afterward, events that result from the fulfillment of your conflict arc. For Ren, perhaps this might be an epilogue where she sits as queen next to her husband, watching as the headsman takes off Lord GeBralt’s head (oh, by the way, he’s the one who was behind all the scheming, according to the profile cards).

Is your 9-part outline empty?

If your answer is yes, then don’t despair. Your job is to transfer the elements of your 3-part outline to your 9-part one. If you have done some profiling, you may get ideas for what to put in the blank spaces, but if not, then I suggest profiling characters or settings to get some ideas.

In particular, try profiling characters. Vivid characters create story. Think about creating characters who will relate to and be involved with your main character(s), since things they do are likely to influence your story.

Try profiling settings. Settings generate characters, after all, which might give you characters to profile and hence some story ideas.

Whatever you do, think about your premise and story arc and always ask how story choices fit with the tale you are telling. Be spontaneous and free, or else you might just be staring at a blank page. More importantly, be willing to change your ideas (so, buy lots of cue cards) so that you come out with the best ones possible.

Preparing for a proposal

This step was big, but next week I’ll be putting it all together as we prepare for the short proposal. With this will come several tips and a useful checklist to make sure your story is ready to move to the frame-by-frame stage that proceeds actual drafting.

I hope your stories are evolving, and if you’re just joining this week, pick your own pace. These posts will be collected and used as a free online resource on my blog once the series is over.

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Graeme Brown 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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Talespin Tuesday: Writing Drill #2 – The Bounds of Planning

Here’s the drill:

20 minutes. Fresh, free fiction (of the imaginative variety), based on a few preset parameters.

Every Tuesday, I’ll spin you a quick tale and give you something to think about. Call it a writing drill, an exercise in imagination. I spend nearly a year to get a book together, so what better than an opportunity to have something finished by the time I click “save”. Now I like that, and hopefully, so will you.

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What is a writer not allowed to do? Some writers would like to tell you they can do whatever they want, but how come it is that so many are careful to capture their story just right? You can plan all you want, but the tale has a mind of it’s own. For twenty minutes today, I’ll tell a story without a plan – a story that has a mind of it’s own from the first sentence – to prove a point: no matter what you set out to write, the story has a way of working out, so long as you know how to run after it.

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“I’m going to the moon!” she demanded.

“That’s impossible,” Jonathan replied. He always stood so tall, it seemed his legs were made of trees. It let him stare down at his sister with that pointy nose of his. “Do your homework.”

“Fine,” Laura said. As soon as the door closed, though, she grinned and put her pencil away.

“Are you ready?” came the whisper. Laura jumped up from her desk, hurried to the closet door.

Ryan and Celia wore their goggles. Raymond had the flashlight turned on, pointing down the long tunnel. They must have been in there all day. “Flight’s at midnight. We have to hurry, or we’ll miss it.”

Laura could barely keep up. She ended up running, trying to stay close enough to Raymond’s flashlight so that she didn’t trip on the uneven gravel. When they emerged into the night, it was cold, like winter, even though it was the middle of July. “Where are we?” Laura asked.

“Somewhere near the north pole. Not sure.” Ryan unfolded a map, pored over it under Raymond’s flashlight. His thumb went over something like a circuit chip. “They will be here. Any minute now.”

“How are we getting to the moon?” Laura asked. She looked up at the sky, but couldn’t see a thing. It was all black, just like the trees surrounding them. On second thought, it was so dark she couldn’t be sure they were trees. No. They’re too tall…

“What is this place?” Laura looked up at those pillars, so tall, they had no end in sight. “I thought we were going in a space ship. I thought we were going to outer space to explore. You told me you built a space ship.”

Ryan quirked a grin. “Not space. Somewhere better, far better. I’ve had this plan for a while, but didn’t want to say too much. People can’t know.”

Laura looked back at the shadow of the tunnel from which they had come. Jonathan waited in their bungalow. Soon, he’d be by to check on her, and he’d come looking. There was no time to hesitate. “Let’s go – wherever that is.”

“Good.” Celia came and took Laura’s hand, leading her with the other boys toward the cover of the towering pillars. They didn’t go far before Raymond stopped them again.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. This isn’t what was supposed to happen.” For once, Ryan didn’t smirk. He looked confused as he took the flashlight from Raymond, held it high, stepped forward cautiously. “Watch out!”

Laura stopped just in time. The flashlight shone on the edge of the ground, revealing a canyon. Warm air blew up, like heat through a vent. When she squinted, Laura saw the small orb, far below, glowing like a red sun, like hot magma in a pit. “I don’t want to go down there. You’re all crazy.”

But Ryan already stepped over the edge of the pit. His foot fell on some sort of translucent bridge, making it shine red and blue and green when he pressed down with all his weight. “This is the gateway. It’s not what I thought, but it will take us where we need to go.”

The others followed him, leaving Laura alone, staring down into the strange world below. This wasn’t the moon, it wasn’t even outer space. Whatever this place was, she didn’t know if she’d ever come back. But then she thought of Jonathan, knocking at her door, looking down at her with his big pointy nose, and it was enough to push her to take the first step. Once she began to walk, the other steps were easier.

She didn’t speak until they reached the bottom. Rather than reaching the glowing sun, the bridge met a ground of white diamond and green, jagged stones. The dim, red light glowed through it, tracing out faint lines in the sky. Ahead of them, the stone reared up into an uneven arch or blue and gray, opening into a dimly lit room. That was where Ryan led them. Only when she stood before it did Laura realize that it wasn’t a room at all.

“What is it?”

“Another world,” Ryan said. “No one’s ever discovered it before. It’s ours. My grandpa told me about it, before he died, said that now is the time. He said…I…I have no choice.”

Intrigued, Laura looked through, into the vast canvas before her. She felt like someone standing before a map, except every detail felt twice as real…like she could reach out and touch it…

“Careful!” Celia warned. “That’s how you travel. We need to stay together, at least for now, until we understand how everything works. Ryan’s explained everything to us, what we’d find when we get here. We have to go to the Heart first, that’s the highest mountain – there, you see?”

Celia pointed to a mountain in the middle of the world, one that stood so high it must have been twenty thousand feet. It poked up like a dagger. She looked around at the other parts – the seas, some of them green, some of them blue – the exotic islands and plains. One place looked like a floating continent, with domes so large they looked like Christmas baubles. She wanted to go, to explore, even if it meant she never came back.

“What is this place called?” she asked.

“Earth,” Ryan said. “It’s my home, or at least, it was, before my people destroyed themselves and fled to this world. Soon, though, we’ll have it back again. And you’re all going to help me. All of you. Are you ready?”

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Want to read more by Graeme? Be sure to check out The Pact, coming May 1st.

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