Kernel-to-Outline Plot Development
I’ll attempt to retell what I learned in a master storytelling class taught by Beth Horner. She covered the story development process from the kernel that forms the basic story idea to a plot outline. Lots of people teach how to outline a plot, but Beth is the first person who helped me coordinate the emotional arc of a story with the plot timeline.
First of all, I would like to thank Beth Horner for visiting Pittsburgh for both teaching and performing at our Three Rivers Storytelling Festival. Secondly, I would like to encourage the rest of you to look her up online. She travels, and her stories are a lot of fun. I laughed so hard, I felt utterly exhausted – but in a happy way! Even if you can’t catch a live show with her, I suggest you look at her website and consider ordering a CD. She is one of those charmed souls whose voice records well, too. And lastly, no, I will not copy and post her teaching materials. Those are hers alone. I will, however, make my own crude diagram to illustrate what I learned.
Even though us storytellers are usually limited to stories that are five to forty-five minutes long, because that seems to be the expectation of our American audience, in other parts of the world listeners enjoy stories much longer than that. The plot development tools presented here apply to a story of any length, from a three-minute short-short, to a novel-length book.
You have a story idea, and you don’t quite know where to go with it. First, think of your main character and jot down a list of characteristics. Then I want you to think of the setting (a particular city, or a workplace), and jot down a set of characteristics for the locale. Make sure to use all five senses. Then, I want you to think of the emotional take-away at the end. How will your reader or your listener feel at the end? Write that down, too. These are the bricks of which your story will be built. You can do character sketches of other people and objects in the story as well, if you find this will help.
Whether the story sprang to your mind as a start-to-finish plot, or whether you just have a strong, evocative scene in mind that forms a kernel of your current WIP, describe the plot in only three sentences. In class, we used the Three Little Pigs as an example, and it went something like this:
- Three little pigs are grown and have to build their own homes.
- Big, bad wolf cons two of the brothers out of their livelihood.
- The third brother outsmarts the wolf, and saves his brothers.
Then, have a partner read your three-sentence summary, and have him or her ask you questions about it. Using the insight gained from your conversation, rewrite the three sentences:
- Mother had to move to assisted living, and the three brothers were forced to find their adult independence.
- The older two squandered their resources and fell pray to the neighborhood wolf gangster.
- The youngest brother takes on the wolf to rescue his brothers, who resent the hell out of him for being shown up, and kill him to get his money (or not… further discussion might help).
It’s not only okay to be silly while coming up with these variations, it’s necessary.
Next, consider your story, and express it using only one word. Any word. This might be your emotional take-away, or part of your future title. Regardless whether or not you use this one word, it will help you focus – for now – on what the story is about.
In the exercise above, you took your kernel of an idea and developed it into a three-sentence plot summary, and came up with a one-word representation. Now you are ready to develop the story a bit further. Divide a piece of paper into five sections, and mark them Act I, Act II, Act III, Act IV, and Act V. You will begin to establish your general outline.
If you are an Orderly Writer, outlining is second nature to you, and you will feel right at home writing down your ideas and making notes for the parts where you might need to do some further research. If so, that’s fine, but don’t get carried away just yet. You want to stick to the general five acts for now.
If you are an Organic Writer, you abhor the straitjacket that is a written outline, and you fear that once you put your plot down on paper, the creative juices will leave your body with your next bathroom break! If so, stick to simple points. Don’t overdevelop it, so that the expository nature of writing can still surprise you and keep you interested in your characters and their doings. To find out more about strategies for both Orderly and Organic Writers, please see the book “The Arvon Book of Crime and Thriller Writing” by Michelle Spring and Laurie King.
I am an Organic Writer, and my five-act outline looked something like this:
Act I (set-up)
Mother Pig has a stroke.
She must sell the house to pay for assisted living.
She gives each pig-boy an equal sum of money, hoping they will finally grow up.
Act II (problem)
Brother 1 gets involved in a fraudulent scheme, and ends up owing the Wolf money
Brother 2 buys a popsicle stand and does OK, but the protection he must pay Wolf is killing him.
Brother 3 rehabbed and flipped a house in the next town, and is financially stable.
Brother 3 feels like he should help his irresponsible brothers, but he resents them for it.
Act III (solution)
Brother 3 decides not to pay the debts for his brothers, because he doesn’t want to feed the Wolf
All brothers argue about what to do.
The two irresponsible brothers accuse their youngest, rich brother for being disloyal
Discord in the family
Act IV (climax)
Brother 3 lures the Wolf to go after him, and ends up killing him in premeditated self-defense
Act V (resolution)
One brother is grateful and sees the error of his ways
The other brother remains resentful
The last act can be a good place for a hook, if you are already planning a sequel. As in, will the resentful brother attempt to murder the responsible one?
Now that you have a five-act plot summary, you will start thinking of plot elements and scenes that go in various places. Make note of them, but stick only to the general points. You are not writing yet, because you need to coordinate your plot outline with your Dynamic Tension Graph. Beth Horner calls it “the check-mark,” because it kind of looks like one (I drew this with my finger while on an airplane using new-to-me software… Just focus on the general idea, will you?)
Some people, I was told, like to take a very large piece of paper, draw their general Dynamic Tension Graph, and they place various plot elements on it, as though it was a visual outline. Even though I am an Organic Writer as opposed to being an Orderly one, and I usually abhor the idea of outlining, this visual representation of the plot’s ups and downs attracts me, because I can see what’s going on. The wavy left side of the check mark represents the smaller ups and downs in the plot structure, but in general, the action is rising until climax.
Remember the characterizations and the emotional take-away lists from the beginning of this chapter? Look at the graph and decide if there is a place to mark any special events and characteristics that you might want to reveal at the right time. You are, in effect, coordinating your timeline with the emotional ups and downs of the plot.
This is, pretty much, all I can tell you for now. This is a simple, yet effective, system. There are more advanced versions: For instance, if you have two POV characters, you will have to interweave two plotlines and see where they intersect. Their emotional points may or may not intersect, and whether they do or don’t might, in fact, be a part of your story. One character’s high point could be the other’s low point. You can use a big piece of newsprint and bright markers, pin it to the wall, and plot away.
Even though this is a useful technique, it is by no means the only one out there. For me, the main value comes out of two lessons learned:
- I learned that there is a systematic way in which to coordinate the plot arc and the emotional arc.
- I learned that this method would help me advance the plot, instead of adding in excess matter, which my editors will cut out later. For instance, had I known and done this before I started writing “Wild Horses,” the plot structure would have been a lot tighter, and the last third of my book wouldn’t make the reader’s eyebrows rise nearly as much.
However, writing is about learning a craft as well as being awesomely inspired in the shower. This craft stuff isn’t hard – as long as I care enough to sit tight, focus, and apply it. If you found this useful, please pass it on! If you come across something nice and useful, please share it back!