Finding the Bones.

So we've established in earlier posts that I'm a pantser. But that doesn't mean that I don't use outlines. I just outline a bit later than most people.

I'm working on a novella currently, and it's written in eight parts. This folds itself well into one of my favorite outline types, the Three Act Eight Sequence structure. This is a structure particularly favored among screenwriters, and if you watch your favorite modern films with an educated eye you're likely to see it all over the place.

Part of the production process (warning: this is about how the sausage is made) is writing copy. A lot of writers pay other people to write their copy. People with marketing backgrounds and experience in writing this kind of thing. The reason is that writing copy for your own book is extremely difficult for a lot of people. I never thought about the work that goes into jacket copy, for instance, but I have definitely decided to buy a book based on the jacket copy.

The thing about jacket copy is that the unsuspecting reader thinks of it as a kind of synopsis of the story, and that's not at all what it is. If that was what copy was, that would be no problem. I mean, I now know this story better than anyone else. I can write a synopsis.

But jacket copy is subtly different from a synopsis. Jacket copy tells the reader, this is what you're getting for your money when you buy this book. And it does that in a few short paragraphs and with precision. 

The problem with the novella I'm working on is that it's essentially eight small stories that make up one larger story, so not only do I have to write copy for the book, but I have to write copy for each individual story. So that's nine pieces of copy.

In order to assure readers with precision that they will get an awesome story when they buy your book, there's a kind of a universal language that's used; the language of the story. So you have to know what and where each of the universal elements of the story are before you can translate your book into a guarantee for the reader. So you need to know where the beginning, the middle, and the end are, and you need to know which transformative events in the story drive those parts, and which ones transition from each part to the next.

That's where reverse outlining comes in.

Buy slotting the events in the story into an existing outline structure, you can find where those turning points and crucial events are, and it allows you to translate an entire book into a short encapsulation that is explained in the universal language of the story, so that even readers who are new to your genre can at least understand what's between the covers.

And when I reverse outline in this way, it allows me to discover things about the story that I didn't explicitly know before. In this case, it allowed me to see that the turning point in the middle of the book pivots around the introduction of a specific character. This lets me know if there are areas in the book that need to be punched up, or areas that need to be shortened.

Everything I've applied this technique to naturally falls into one structure or another; this is due to the fact that I'm an experienced reader, and that reading has provided me with an implicit understanding of the basics of story structure. If you're an avid reader, regardless of whether or not you write fiction, you probably have that understanding as well.

This is particularly helpful in this case, as it has shown me that some of the eight stories that comprise the novella need some structural adjustment. They're not bad; they just aren't as on point as the overall story. This makes sense; I'm not as good at writing short form fiction as I am at novels, I think mainly because I've never been a huge short fiction reader. So tucked into the three act eight sequence outline, each shorter piece has a five point outline. 

And it's not a violation of the original work to do this. It's not a matter of cramming the creative work into boxes. It's a diagnostic tool, yes, but it's also an exploratory process. And aside from the usefulness of the resulting outline, it's fun. It's interesting to me to discover things about my writing that I couldn't previously see because I was too invested in other layers of the story, and it's fascinating how much I have to learn from myself about the craft of writing.