Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Writing: The Mighty Outline

I hated using writing outlines as a kid. I understood their purpose but assumed those Roman numerals and letters were for lesser scribes. I was Mr. Creative. I was the boy who could raise his English grade to parental acceptance with a well-placed essay.  I was the Writer Guy.
Last summer I started using them again. I find they really come in handy when I have an idea that I don’t have time to turn into a full-fledged story. I’ll bang out an outline instead, and sock it away for later. When I have the time, I can dig up the outline and work from it. It seems to work better, for me, than writing notes or a synopsis.
I use a three-act outline. Act one takes me from intro to the start of the rising action. Act two picks up the rising action and carries the story to the point of climax. Act three is everything that happens from there – falling action, resolution.
For example, here’s the outline for a short story I wrote back in June. The story has undergone many revisions and a title change, but it started with an outline.

Cloud 9 from Outer Space

Act 1 -- Setup and Explosive Incident
Scene 1
We're in the future, maybe 25 years. A 16-year-old girl comes home from a school dance, giddy at the fun she had. In the future, most folks are wired to the hilt with built-in cell phones, computers, cameras, etc. The only ones who are not are the dirt poor, old-fashioned or devoutly religious. Most homes have a family computer that all the crap is synched to, and most of the these computers are linked to the GooglePlex Global Network
Anyway, this chick gets home, hugs her mom and dad, and heads to bed. Before pulling up the sheets she puts on her “synchband,” a terrycloth gadget that will download everything her in-brain computer has recorded for the day and put it into her personal file (locked but with a parental override) on the family computer (photos, school notes, etc.). All the kids have one, most have even connected it to their social network sites. As she sleeps it will upload all the info she'll need for the next day (schedule, required reading, etc.). She dials up some Sweet Dreams and drifts off.

It had been the best night of her life, Amity Kittle decided as she exited the RoboCab. She turned and waved to the teens still on board.
“See you Sunday,” she said. “I'll meet you in the Food Court.”
Amity very nearly skipped to her front door but caught herself in time to slow to a dignified walk. She palmed the biolock and let herself into the house.

Scene 2
The next scene is at a police station. The homicide cops, led by Detective Davis Wood, have a strange one: a 16-year-old girl killed her little sister overnight, shredding her with her fingernails and eating parts of her brain. Yes, it's the same girl from scene one. Her mind is gone, she keeps moaning in some unknown language and attacking everyone she sees. She's ripped all of the hair off her head, gouged out her eyes, torn her clothing into rags. Her family is shocked, friends are shocked, etc. The instrument of death was a heavy, heirloom jewelry box, which the teen used to bludgeon open her little sister's skull.

Act 2 -- The Journey
Scene 3
Wood and his partner talk to the girls' parents. They ask permission to check out the teen's personal files. Mom and dad say yes and use their parental override to download the files to the cop's badge (small, networked computer).

Scene 3.5 – Wood meets a friend for beer late that night, an astronomer at a local observatory. They did their undergraduate degrees together, sharing an interest in science. Their paths diverged after college but they've stayed in touch. Wood talks a bit about the case; friend relates a story about an odd cosmic radiation belt the earth is passing through. They part.

Scene 4
The next day, cop rolls into work and learns there were more killings that night. Six killers, similar age, same MO: the culprits are all in similar states. Cops begin their investigation, looking for connections among them. “Is it some kind of cult,” a cop wonders. “Maybe a pact?” Newspapers are dead in the future and all news is delivered by customized RSS feeds. Wood checks to see what the media knows and, so far, there's not much.

Scene 5
The next day, 30 people have been killed, nationwide. The media starts referring to the cases as the “Zombie Killers” because of the victims’ half-eaten brains and the animal-like regression of the killers. Experts are speculating about the causes: virus, pollution, mass hysteria, one conservative commentator claims it's a flash mob organized by atheists.
 Wood begins a careful examination of the first teen's files, starting with the newest, downloaded the night of the killings. He sees pictures from the dance: happy pretty kids having fun. In the girl's personal diary, he sees a note, “Bradley kissed me.” He continues working back through the files and sees the life of a typical American teen--pictures of her friends, movie files of parties and sports games.    All police computers are networked now, via GooglePlex Global, so he designs a custom search of all the victims' and suspects' personal files to look for commonalities.

Scene 6
Wood gets a warrant to synch up the onboard of the first girl. He goes to the sanitarium where he watches as the screaming, frenzied girl is strapped down and then has a synchband placed on her head. The download takes a long time, far longer than usual. The files are confusing. Cross-referenced by time, the girl’s sleep progresses normally. She’d dialed up a PG romantic comedy dream and it played itself out as scheduled. The download portion however was odd. She should have received her schedule, the latest articles on music and fashion, and a synopsis of “Catcher and the Rye.” What she got was a massive data dump, far larger than any normal download. The files she received are corrupted, or something. Instead of the typical naming convention, the files are slugged with long streams of ones and zeroes. The video and still-frame files are blank, the sound files are filled with what might be animal noises, howls and screams. A third type of file can’t be opened at all.

“Check the others,” Wood tells his crew, “as many as you can.”

Act 3 -- Highest Point and Resolution
Scene 7
Two days later, the death toll has reached 24,000. Because of the sheer numbers involved, members of this new breed of zombies are wandering the streets, attacking anyone they come in contact with. An increasing number have not clawed out their eyes, making them even more dangerous. Scientists have ruled out a virus and pollution.
Wood’s crew has checked the onboards of 30 of the killers, with similar results: a massive download featuring a confused muddle of files. Based on the results, the police department holds a press conference and urges the citizenry to avoid synching until the crisis has passed.

“We suspect the Zombie plague has something to do with the download,” the chief said. “Some kind of virus or corrupt file; we’ll say more when we know more.”
“That will help us some,” Woods said, “but not enough will listen.

The next day 75,000 are dead, with 100,000 also reported dead in Europe, 250,000 in Japan and a near million in China. The governors of 51 states declare martial law. President Bush declares a national state of emergency and advises citizens to stay in their homes and off the Internet.
A week goes by with no end in sight. The number of new cases goes down but hordes of near zombies are roaming the streets, howling and attacking anything that moves.
The scene at the PD is bleak. The men are tired, unshaven and at wit's end.

“Let's go over everything again,” Woods says, “just in case we missed something.”

Scene 8
Woods grabs another late-night beer with his astronomer friend. Friend tells him that the cosmic rays band is more interesting than previously thought. There are thousands of binary signals buried in the mix.

“They're corrupted by the distance and the background radiation, but we've captured several terrabytes of information. The best decoders in the country are trying to make some sense out of the files. The SETI guys are all claiming it's proof of extraterrestrial life. It's getting kind of hard to argue with them.”

Scene 9
Wood leaves the bar and walks several blocks back to his apartment. He's forced to shoot and kill a zombie, previously a young adult, who is attacking a hooker in the alley. This zombie has eyes and is still wearing its synch band. Bingo

What do other folks do? Do you outline? What format do you use?

1 comment:

  1. I was anti-outline until late college, and after working from an outline for NaNoWriMo, I'm switching back to no outline to see how that pans out. During NaNo, I often felt like I was trying to jam together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that didn't always fit.

    Although, blocking out a few pages right before I was about to write them was often helpful for those nights that I would be writing, sapped of energy, in cold blood.