Outlining in Reverse

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa – unsplash

Jim Bell’s excellent post from Sunday about plotters vs. pantsers serves as an introduction to today’s subject: Is outlining useful for a pantser? Can it be done? 

The answer is yes…if you do it in reverse order.

Create the first draft.

Then go back and outline what you’ve written. 

In construction, there’s a term called “As Builts.” An architect may start out with an initial blueprint (outline) but the blueprint changes due to circumstances that arise during construction. The finished building is never the same as the original blueprint. Here’s an explanation from Precision Property Management’s site:

“An As-Built drawing should show the building exactly as it currently is, as opposed to a design drawing which shows the intended or proposed layout of the building. This is a critical distinction, because a constructed building almost never corresponds exactly to the original design drawings.”

Like a building, a finished story almost never corresponds to the initial idea. That’s why I don’t outline before writing that initial draft of discovery.

However, once the first draft is finished, I create an outline in the form of as-builts. That’s where the pantser’s errors and oversights show up. And, believe me, there will be plenty.

Oops, I forgot to install reinforcing bars before I poured the slab. Without rebar, the foundation cracks and sags. Gotta jackhammer up the concrete and start over.

Darn, I forgot to include a door that connects the kitchen and the dining room. Better get out the reciprocating saw and cut an opening in that solid wall.

Wow, the shingles on the roof look beautiful…except some of the trusses underneath are missing. The first snowfall causes the whole thing to collapse. Drat.

You get the idea.

Dennis Foley, novelist/screenwriter/educator extraordinaire, introduced me to the concept of “as built” outlines in fiction. He recommends writing in three steps:

  1. Think it up;
  2. Write it up;
  3. Fix it up.

Pantsers feel strangled if we try to adhere to a formal outline during the initial draft. We’d much rather give free rein to our imaginations during Steps 1 and 2.

But, eventually, all that unfettered creativity needs to be organized. Step 3, the “fix it up” stage, is the time to create an “as built” outline.

Outlining in reverse points out structural problems with the plot: events that are out of order, a character who shows up simultaneously in two different places, missing time periods that must be accounted for, lapses in logic, etc. Once those glitches are repaired, the story becomes a coherent sequence of rising complications that ultimately delivers a satisfying climax.

My WIP, Lost in Irma, takes place in Florida during Hurricane Irma in September, 2017, a catastrophe that left 17 million people without electricity. The story covers a two-week period during and after the storm and had to adhere to actual events in the order that they occurred.

The main characters, Tawny Lindholm and Tillman Rosenbaum, are visiting Tillman’s high school coach, Smoky Lido, in New Port Richey when Irma hits. During the height of the storm, Smoky disappears. Tawny and Tillman spend the rest of the book trying to find him. Is he dead or alive? Did he flee because of gambling debts? Was he abducted by thugs he owed money to? Or did he vanish into the storm to commit suicide?

Hurricane-related emergencies overwhelmed law enforcement, leaving Tawny and Tillman on their own to look for Smoky. Power blackouts, gasoline shortages, and unreliable cell service were integral to the plot. They couldn’t make phone calls or search the internet. If they drove, they risked getting stuck in floodwaters or running out of gas.

To pin down significant events on the dates they actually happened, I printed out a blank calendar from September 2017.  I filled in the squares with factual information like: what time did Irma hit New Port Richey (late Saturday night, early Sunday morning); what time did the power go out there (around midnight); when did the Anclote River flood (Tuesday)?

Here’s a link to a handy site that includes sunrise and sunset times for each day, which I also found helpful.

 

Electricity came back on in fits and starts—one street regained power almost immediately while the next block over stayed dark for days longer. That gave me fictional latitude to turn the power off as long as necessary for plot development.

While researching public shelters, I wondered if there was a roster or record kept of people staying there. Astonishingly, no.

I also learned Red Cross maintains an online “Safe and Well” website where victims of disasters can voluntarily register their names, phone numbers, and leave messages for loved ones. But there is no requirement to register.

I inserted that bit of info into the story, adding that the system can’t be accessed if internet and/or cell service aren’t working or your phone is dead with no way to charge it. That added more complications for Tawny and Tillman, who had to physically go through each shelter, looking for Smoky.

What goes into the as-built outline?

Timelines: The chronology of events is important to nail down correctly which is why I use the calendar technique above.

Scene by scene outline – This traces major characters and plot developments. What day is it? What time is it? Where are they? What action happens?

As you can see from the above illustrations, my outlines are low tech. You may prefer to use Scrivener, Excel, or other spreadsheet programs.

Onstage Characters and Offstage Characters:

Typically, the protagonist appears in most scenes, onstage, and the story is often told from his/her point of view. But if characters are not in a scene—in other words, offstage—they also need to be accounted for, especially in crime fiction.

In mysteries, the murderer’s identity may be withheld from the reader until the very end. But the author still needs to know what that character is up to while s/he is lurking in the shadows. S/he may be trying to elude discovery, throw down false clues, or menace the protagonist. I discussed this topic in a 2017 post.

As a pantser, I often get tripped up because I lose track of a character who’s not onstage at that moment. That’s where the as-built outline catches goofs in the sequence of events.

For instance, the hero can’t find the murder weapon in chapter 4 if the killer doesn’t discard it until chapter 6. Even if you don’t show the killer onstage while he’s tossing the gun off a bridge, you still need to know when that action took place in relation to what the hero is doing. A time line helps point out inconsistencies in the sequential order of events.

Altered Timelines: What if you use flashbacks or jump around in time? Pulp Fiction utilized that technique to memorable dramatic effect. I don’t know how Quentin Tarantino wrote the screenplay but I’m guessing the final version of the film was far different from his initial blueprint.

If you decide to mess around with time conventions, it helps to first write the outline in chronological order. Once that’s done, you can rearrange blocks of time and scenes in any order to best serve your plot line.

Writing About History: If you write historical novels, real events must be accurate. Set up a calendar or time line to cover the duration of the story. This may extend over years or even centuries. Plug in the dates of pivotal events.

For a World War II saga, that might translate to a time line like:

1939 – Nazis invade Poland

1940 – Dunkirk evacuation

1941 – Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

1942 – Battle of Midway, etc.

Other genres: Even if you write sci-fi or fantasy where the story world is entirely made up, that world must still conform to its own time system that is consistent and logical within its parameters. Suppose in your sci-fi, time travels backwards rather than forward. Events happen in reverse order of what we’re used to. The story might start with the death of a character, then goes backwards year by year, to their birth. Within that logic system, you would see the effect before the cause, the consequence before the action that triggers it.

Time travel stories especially require a clear time line. When you zigzag back and forth through history, it’s easy to get confused. If the author is lost, the reader will also be lost and likely give up on your book.

Jordan Dane just published a gripping time-travel thriller, The Curse She Wore. Maybe she’ll chime in on her techniques to handle multiple time lines.

As-built outlining may seem bass-akward but, for this pantser, it works.

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TKZers: What are your favorite techniques to organize a plot? 

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Debbie Burke first used reverse-outlining in her award-winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil. On sale for only $.99 at this link

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Way Stranger Than Fiction

Cops: Woman, 26, Wielded Hatchet After Her Demands For Sex Were Repeatedly Rebuffed

EMS Ghouls Competed In “Selfie War”

Voodoo Client Made Threats, Man Tells Cops (Dissatisfied customer sought marital help)

Have you ever noticed how many truly bizarre news stories come out of Florida? As a kid and young adult, to me Florida was just the place I visited my grandfather and occasionally went on vacation to the beach. It seemed pretty tame except for all the alligators. (And my grandparents did give me one of those real stuffed ones wearing a sombrero. **shudders**) It wasn’t until the last five or six years that I noticed the news stories. Of course now everyone notices the Florida news stories. The Smoking Gun, whence I pulled the above headlines, even has a “Florida” section. As to the why, ridiculous theories abound: everything from “crazy old people” to the truly baffling “racism because it’s a melting pot.” A more logical explanation is that it has something to do with Florida’s open records laws. The gritty details are ostensibly out there for everyone to report. (Elaine? Do you happen to know if this is a true thing?) I don’t mean to pick on Florida. Weirdness abides in every corner of this country, but I think that it is no accident that the novelist Harry Crews found Florida to be very fertile ground for his darkly colorful stories.

I used to keep a file of weird news clips, or crime stories that piqued my interest. Now I just make notes in my journal or bookmark them in my browser.

The one big problem with using real life, over-the-top events is that they sound way too implausible for fiction. If you ever find yourself saying, “Wow. I couldn’t make that up,” about something, it’s probably because, well, you couldn’t.

I’m not sure why fiction and real life fight each other in this way. It might have something to do with the vast number of variables in real life that must come together to lead someone to do something like wrap his face in plastic wrap to rob convenience stores. In real life, there are coincidences. In real life, there is serious mental illness, and there are women who try to smuggle drugs into the country in burritos. Conversely, in real life, things can get dull awfully fast. Just try to imagine writing that (insurance, law, human resources, retail buyer) office novel that your cousin says will make you both a million bucks after she tells you about the crazy drama that happens where she works. (Don’t do it unless her name rhymes with Micky Fervais.)

Good fiction depends on competent, complete world building. Even if you don’t spend a lot of verbiage on a character’s backstory or personality, every action that character takes has to seem plausible within the world you’ve created. That created world is a finite place, and your reader will know right away if you throw in something that doesn’t work.

Real life is full of uninventable details. With practice, a good writer can make invented details seem uninvented. One of my favorite examples is the speech of a toddler or child anywhere under the age of seven. All the wild variables of the world go into their small heads, and what comes out is often bizarre beyond belief. It makes sense only to them.

It’s a good idea to take notes on real life. You’ll discover those uninventable details if you look closely enough. Try not to think: “How would I describe this person?” Simply observe. We’ve all read a lot of books, and often come up with the same old shorthand for describing our characters, their situations, and even their speech. Look. Really look, and just write down what you see. Chances are you’ll see something surprising. Then, when you do, figure out why it’s consistent with that person. What is it about their life that makes their surprising behavior reasonable?

Here’s one more story. It’s a real life example of a bizarre event that might actually work as fiction. A sixty-eight year-old man in Belleville, Illinois, repeatedly stuck sewing needles into packages of meat at his local grocery store. When asked why he did it, he said, “it was stupidity, I didn’t want to hurt nobody.” The uninventable detail? He rode around the store on a motorized scooter with his portable oxygen tank. I don’t know why I was so struck by this story. Tampering cases are diabolical. Fortunately no one was badly injured. Wanting to know more, I did a more thorough search on his story, and found his obituary. He died a little more than a year after he was caught tampering with the meat. His case had been postponed because his lawyers said he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial when it came up. His obituary described a man who was productive in the world, and much-beloved by his family. Somewhere in between those two documents there is a complete story, waiting to be fleshed out and told. A place where real life and supposition live comfortably side-by-side.

What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve ever included in a story? Did you make it up, and pull it off?

 

If you’re in the St. Louis area, stop by the Meshuggah Cafe on Delmar Blvd. on Saturday night, July 30, 7-10 pm. It’s a Noir at the Bar launch party for St. Louis Noir (Akashic Books, Scott Phillips, editor), and I’ll be reading with Scott and some of the other contributors.

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Freshening Up Your Scooby Doo Ending

 

Scooby doo 3

 

True story: some college students were touring a county coroner’s office. The tour included visit to an autopsy room, where a coroner and a diener were in the process of examining the body of a deceased unfortunate. The diener, with the students looking on, turned the corpse over and exclaimed, “Rut row!” The reason for this utterance was that the corpse had a tattoo of Scooby Doo inked into one cheek of his posterior. Gallows humor, indeed.

Scooby Doo is firmly ensconced in the American culture. The plot of each cartoon episode is very similar, with a crime occurring, Scooby and his pals investigating, and the villain of the piece being unmasked, literally, at the end. I think that I scooby doo2scooby doo1       first heard this type of climax referenced as a “Scooby Doo” ending during the second of the three climaxes to the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It has been a vehicle used in mystery novels long before that. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, except that 1) it sometimes doesn’t work and 2) sometimes it needs a little work. I ran across an example of the former several months ago while reading a thriller that was one of the many nephews to The Da Vinci Code wherein the protagonist’s adversary was running around killing people while wearing a tribal mask and attempting to obtain an instrument of antiquity which would permit him to destroy the universe. The protagonist got the mask off of the evildoer near the end and the book ended. “Rut row!” The book was okay, but the ending was a total disappointment.

season of fearThat brings us to a book I read this week in which the author uses the Scooby Doo ending to great effect by taking the story a step or two beyond it. The author is the morbidly underappreciated Brian Freeman and the book is Season of Fear, the second and latest of the Cab Bolton novels. (Please note: it’s not quite a spoiler, but there’s a general revelation ahead. Read the book regardless). The premise is fairly straightforward. Ten years ago a Florida gubernatorial candidate was assassinated by a masked gunman, throwing the election into chaos. A suspect was identified, tried, convicted, and jailed. In the present, the candidate’s widow is running for the same seat when she receives a threatening note which purports to be from the same assassin. Indeed, he eventually turns up, and his identity is ultimately revealed in a grand unmasking. But wait. Freeman, after giving the reader enough action to fill two books and expertly presenting a complex but easy to follow plot, gives the reader more to chew on. Things don’t end with the revelation of the identity of the doer; instead, Freeman moves us a couple of more steps forward, revealing a potential unexpected mover and shaker who was a couple of steps ahead of everyone, including Bolton. This has the double-barreled effect of making the climax much more interesting and setting up a potential adversarial setting for Cab Bolton in a future novel. Nice work.

Again, Scooby Doo endings are okay. They’re fine. But if your particular novel in waiting has one, and seems to lack pizazz, don’t just take the doer’s mask off, or reveal their identity, or whatever. Take things a step further just as the curtain is going down, and reveal who is pulling the cord, and perhaps yanking the chain. It may be a character that was present throughout your book, or someone entirely new, or…well, you might even want to create a character and work your way backwards with them. But stay with the mask, and go beyond it.

So what say you? Have you read anything recently where the ending really surprised you, unmasking revelations or otherwise notwithstanding? Do you like Scooby Doo endings, in your own work or the work of others? Or can you do without them?

Oh, lest I forget… SCOOBY-DOO and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and © Hanna-Barbera. Rowwrr!

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