Writing – The Basic Outline

One of the tools I think is most useful when you are starting a book is a strong outline.  This is the blueprint for the story you are building and when you spend a little time on it, it can show you new opportunities  and twists and turns that you hadn’t thought of before.

Some people say that writing outlines stifles creativity.  I think that’s pretty silly.  Those writers that just dive in and write the whole book without planning beforehand are actually still outlining…it’s just that the first draft is their outline.  Then, they have to start over, once they know what is going on.

Imagine, instead, that you work on a regular outline and make all your missteps and figure out your big ideas before you write 100,000 words.  That would save a lot of time and frustration, right?  Why not use a tool that’s going to help you?!

So, let’s get down to it and see what you can put in your basic outline…

Three Act Structure (Thank you, Syd Field!)

The basics of three act structure are very simple…beginning, middle and end.  Another way to look at it is set up, development and resolution.

What you get between each of these sections is what most screenwriters call a plot point.  It looks like this…

Act 1…beginning/set up

Plot point 1

Act 2…middle/development

Plot point 2

Act 3…end/resolution

If you put those down on a piece of paper and start to fill them out, then you’ve got a start on your outline!  But…you may need a bit more detail to make it really helpful.

Act 1 generally has two or three parts.  The very beginning shows the status quo of the world you are building and introduces the protagonist.  Then, something happens that gives us a hint of upcoming problem or opportunity that the protagonist has to figure out.  This is the inciting incident.  Remember that this is still Act 1 and that there is still some developing to do.  If you present the problem and have the hero tackle it immediately, then you don’t have much of a story.  Instead, take the time to give us a little more information about the hero.  Maybe they are reluctant to tackle the new problem (a reluctant hero is a pretty common theme and it can make the protagonist a little bit more relate-able.).  So, give us a chance to know the character a bit and give us some more info.  Like…

The antagonist…make sure we meet the antagonist in Act 1.  This character helps us know what the hero is up against and what is at stake.  Plus, you don’t want him or her to show up out of the blue later on…that’s pretty boring.  The antagonist needs to be present and after the same goal as the protagonist in order to be a threat.

Then, what separates the set up from the development in Act 2 is a moment when the hero is locked into the quest or struggle to figure out the problem that is hinted at in the inciting incident.  This point where the hero can’t turn back is Plot Point 1.

Then you’ve got the middle…the giant, hard to fill middle.  But, this is also where the fun stuff comes in.  Here you get to brainstorm all the painful things that happen to your protagonist and all the ways that she tries to solve the big problem.

Remember, at this point, you’re just doing a rough outline…so you don’t have to have the whole middle figure out yet.  I’ll give you some strategies for that later, I promise!

Then, when it’s time to get things wrapped up, you’ve got the point where the development ends and the resolution has to start.  This is Plot Point 2.  To keep this simple…PP2 is where the protagonist gets locked into the last struggle to solve the problem or achieve the goal.  Often, it’s a low point, when the goal looks out of reach.  Sometimes, it’s a bit of new information about the problem.  Play with it and make it your own, but just think of it as the moment when the hero places all her bets on one last strategy.

Then, all you’ve got left is Act 3.  In this last bit of the story, you’ve got two main elements, the climax and the conclusion.  In the climax, you’ve got the last, biggest struggle of the story, and if the hero wins, you’ve got a happy ending (probably mostly happy…as there was some sacrifice along the way, right?), and if the hero loses, you have a tragedy.

After the climax, there’s the conclusion.  In this, the hero may have learned something or gained something that can be brought back home to help others or maybe the protagonist just walks/rides off into the sunset.  Either way, this is the final wrap up and it gives the reader a moment to breathe after the big ending.

So, one last time with what your outline would look like…with a bit more detail…

Act 1…beginning/set up of initial situation and what the world is like. Meet the protagonist and antagonist

Inciting Incident…get a hint of the big problem or opportunity.  The hero might be reluctant to go after it.

Plot point 1…Hero is locked in on the journey.  This is the point of no return.

Act 2…middle/development.  Here, the protagonist has to try to solve the problem, but the antagonist puts up roadblocks and they struggle in new and interesting ways.  Things generally don’t go well for the hero.

Plot point 2…The moment the hero decides to launch into one final struggle to solve the problem.

Act 3…end/resolution…First there’s the climax, where everything is bigger and badder than ever before in your story.  This is the part that your reader will remember more than anything, so make it good.

Finally, there is the conclusion, where things are mostly wrapped up.


Remember, the outline is a tool to help you figure your story out, so you have less rewriting to do.  Remember the Jeet Kune Do maxim about absorbing what is useful and find out just how it can help you!


Talk to you soon!


Loglines…Polishing the Rough Idea

Okay everyone, let’s start to dig into the first steps of writing your novel.

At this point, you may have a rough idea of what you want to write and you may have some particular scenes worked out in your head or in notes.  Maybe you’ve jumped into the writing itself.

These are all great steps, but let me ask you a quick question…have you written the logline yet?  Actually, I should ask this instead…have you written and rewritten and re-rewritten the logline for your novel?

If you haven’t, let me make a friendly suggestion.  Do.

There are lots of approaches to loglines, and lots of definitions, but basically a logline is a tool that helps you describe the heart of your story in the shortest, clearest way possible.  And it seems like everybody has a different way to do this.

One of the best that I’ve studied is from Blake Snyder, a screenwriting instructor and very good guy who sadly passed away in 2009.  His recommendations for a good logline were simple and direct.

In one sentence (maybe two) describe the protagonist, the antagonist and what’s at stake.

Want to practice a bit?  Think of your favorite movies and books.  Write a quick logline for each, then work on honing them until they’re interesting and capture the heart of what’s going on.

Though it’s simple, it’s definitely not easy.  But it’s worth the time it takes to practice and hone the skill.  Because once you have, this simple little logline will give you a much better idea what is going on in your story.

Here’s how it works and what you can get out of it for your own story…

One of the biggest problems that writers run into is the feeling that their story is stuck.  It usually happens about 100-200 pages into the book (30-50 pages into a screenplay), somewhere between the first act and the midpoint.  Some people call it writer’s block (which I may just rant about in another post), but what it really is is a lack of clarity about what is going on in the story.

And a good, clear logline is the first step in getting that clarity.

You see, your logline has a description of your protagonist, so you know something of the heart of your main character.  It also has the stakes, which tells you what the hero is after and how important it is, and the antagonist gives you a good idea of what the hero is up against.

Knowing what’s important to the protagonist not only gives you a goal that points to the plot, but it also informs you about the theme or underlying meaning of your story.  This can even influence subplots and character design.

In short, this is a very useful tool that can help you in many ways.  Plus, it’s very useful for queries and describing your book to people that you meet (a short description to a stranger is much more enticing than a whole plot summary, trust me!).

One final piece of advice I would have on loglines is to rewrite your logline at every stage of writing.  Start the process with a logline, do one after your first outline, after your final outline, after your first draft and even after you’ve polished the manuscript.  It can help you at each stage.

Talk to you soon!  Please don’t hesitate if you have any questions!


Writing – Absorb What is Useful

Have an idea for a story, but aren’t sure what steps to take or how to do it?  Don’t worry.  You’re not alone.

It’s hard to start a new writing project, and looking for advice on how to tackle your story might even make it worse.

Now, I don’t want to come off as a doom-and-gloom writing instructor…what I’m really talking about is the fact that there are many different ways to approach your story, and because people are human, most everyone loves to shout about how their method is the best and only way.  It makes it hard to pick which way to go.

But here’s the thing…while it seems that there are dozens upon dozens of different approaches to writing, they really break down into two different camps: structure and style.

The structure people say you have to outline, outline, outline and figure out each little thing before you start writing.

The style people say you need to learn how to write decent sentences.

And boy, can these two camps hate each other.  The style people say that all the outlining takes all the spontaneity out of writing and make it formulaic.  The structure people say that the style writers waste tons of time because they don’t know where anything is going and will have to do endless rewrites.

Most literary fiction writers tend to fall into the style camp.  Most screenwriters tend towards structure (I did say most…not all).

As for me, I’ve been lucky.  When I was working on my MFA, I studied both approaches, and after my grad degree, I continued to study both…and I think I know why I did this instead of picking one over the other.

I’ve been doing martial arts almost all of my life.  It’ll soon be 30 years of study I’ve put in, with the vast majority of that time spent in Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee’s martial art.  I’m also honored to be an instructor under Guro Dan Inosanto, who was Bruce Lee’s top student.

And one of the things that has made the biggest impression on me, aside from how to take a punch, is what Bruce Lee said about absorbing what is useful.  Here’s the full quote…

“Research your own experience.  Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

You see, the great thing about Jeet Kune Do is that it’s not just about how to win fights.  It can teach you some great ways to approach life…and writing.

I won’t belabor each point of the quote.  You can do your own research about different ways to approach writing, you can discard what doesn’t work for you, and you can add in what specifically and uniquely helps you the most.

The one I do want to talk a bit about is how you can absorb what is useful.

Whether you are working on your MFA or writing a screenplay, know that you aren’t stuck with just one approach.  If you are working on a literary novel, do some outlining, so you know where your characters are headed.  If you are stuck on a spot in your outline, start writing that scene and see where the prose leads you.

Jeet Kune Do stresses the individual over any particular art or approach.  Do the same with writing.  Put yourself and your process ahead of any particular school of thought on how to write.  Just remember to have fun.

And I want to help.  While I’m releasing my novel Schism here on the blog I’ll also be posting information on both structure and style, so you can absorb what is useful.

Let me know any questions you have along the way!


Writing – The 6 Month Novel Challenge

I’ve got a challenge for you.

This year, I’m working with a group of High School students and over the next 5 months, they are each going to write a novel.  I’ll be joining them, and I’d like to challenge you to join in as well.

Doesn’t matter if you’ve never written more than a short story, of if you have novels published, join in, write alongside us and see that you can write and start to polish a novel in 6 months.

Here’s the basic schedule…

2 months to plan and outline

2 months to write (6 pages a day for 60 days = 360 pages, a perfect length for publication)

2 months to do the first 2 rewrites

Does this sound hard?  Yup!  But if you can squeeze in 1-2 hours a day, you can plot, write and begin to polish a novel in that time.

And…you won’t be alone…

Along the way, I’ll be talking about loglines, characters, plot, outlining, theme, style, dialogue, subplots, the myth of writer’s block…and everything else you need to write a kick-ass novel.

So, no matter what your favorite genre or idea, come and join us.  Send me a note, let me know what you are going to write, let me know what questions you have or problems you’ve run into in the past.

Talk to you soon!


Writing – How To…Or a Peek Under the Hood


As I work on getting the podcasts ready to release, I also want to start sharing something else with everyone on the site…writing advice…particularly, how to plan, structure and write novels and feature screenplays.

These posts are both for writers wanting to learn more or get a different perspective and also for readers who just want a peek under the hood of how the writing process can work.

I’ll be sharing things I learned in my MFA program and also what I’ve learned in all the other classes I’ve been taking for the last six years since then.  I’ll also throw in approaches that I have come up with on my own after writing a dozen screenplays and two novels.

So, please get your questions ready…this will be a lot of fun.