Posts Tagged ‘Outline’

Every writer develops their stories in different ways. Some outline, some write from scratch and let the characters develop and the plot emerge as they write. Others might draft three or four chapters before they decide it’s time to step back and determine the flow of the story.

I’ve tried all of the above and other approaches, but always come back to, and finally settled on outlining. My “ideal” story will be mapped out with all questions and issues resolved before I write the draft. Of course, that’s in a perfect world.

Regardless of the approach you use, at some point the chronology of the events in the lives of your characters will need to be validated. Most, if not all stories involve background events for your main characters, which may or may not be included in the final version. But these events are important because you want to ensure, for example, that your antagonist (let’s say he or she is a serial killer), was in a certain location at a certain time when he or she claimed their first victim. You also want to make sure he or she was not six months old at the time of the murder.

Here is where a timeline is most useful and I believe must be part of the writing process at some point of story development. What you use to create a timeline is a matter of choice.

In the past I’ve used a Word document in the standard outline form and even used Post-It notes on a whiteboard, but a template I created (and am always “tweaking”) in Excel has proven its worth and stood the test of time. If you’ve ever ‘Googled’ the phrase ‘Timeline in Excel,’ you’ll find more examples than you’ll know what to do with. The truth is, figuring out which one best fits your needs can consume a lot of time.

I’m hoping to spare you that research time.

I’m a proponent on providing examples because I believe giving advice without suggesting how to implement that advice falls well short of being effective. It’s like your doctor telling you to lose weight then sending you on your way without recommending the best approach.

For the moment and the sake of this blog, consider me a caring doctor.

Here is my prescription – my timeline template in Excel in column listing form.

  • Event Month
  • Event Day
  • Event Year
  • Time of day (Estimate)
  • Time of day (Precise)
  • Event Character
  • Event Character birthdate
  • Event Character Age
  • Details (a short summary of the event)
  • Event Location
  • Where does the event become known?
  • Notes (a free form column to expound on event details, ask questions, or brainstorm

If you’ve used Excel for any amount of time, you’re aware of its flexibility and power. Using drop-down lists, tables, and calculations, I’ve saved considerable time filling in the columns in my template.

For instance, I created a character table in a separate sheet and use a drop-down to select the Event Character. This keeps me from having to refer to a separate source of characters.

I use drop-down lists to select Event Month, Day, and Year.

You’ll notice I listed two Time of Day columns. In the Estimate column, I use a drop down list of 24 values corresponding to the hours of the day. This is a ball park time for when the event might occur. In the Precise column I enter the actual time the event occurred, because multiple events are likely to occur within a given hour and it’s essential to list them chronologically. Are both necessary? Perhaps, perhaps not, but to each his own, and in the words of actor Fred Dryer who starred in the TV series, Hunter, “works for me.” I’m probably dating myself but you get what I mean.

The character name table includes birthdate which allows me to set up the calculated column to show the character’s age at the time of an event. This allows me to verify that the CEO of a company is not four years old, for example.

Hopefully before I progress too far into the story development phase, I’m able to create a drop down list for my scenes or chapters, allowing me to select from the list to enter it into the column where does the event become known? For instance, the event date and time our serial killer won’t become known until later in the story, after the protagonist investigates (and hopefully finds and stops the dude).

The Data –> Filter tool in Excel is a powerful and valuable assistant.

Once I fill in as much of the timeline sheet as I can, I can display by a certain value or values by selecting that value or values from the column.

  • I filter by character to track the events in their life.
  • I filter by date to see what events occurred on that date.
  • I filter by scene or chapter to isolate the events that will become known at that time, which allows me to start drafting that particular scene or chapter.
  • I validate that my character’s age jibes with the event, and check the time to ensure the facts of the story are presented as they occur in the story.

. . . All at the touch of a button!

Another benefit to this timeline manifests itself during the brainstorming phase. By filtering on an event for a certain character, I can create previous and/or subsequent events for any character I believe will contribute to the plot. This determines the flow of the story.

For example, I might have an event, ‘John discovers a dead body.

From this I can brainstorm and create previous and subsequent events for John as well as other characters. Who is the person? Who killed them? How did they get there? When did they kill this person? Did anyone witness the murder? Placing characters in a location and time will help to determine hints, clues, and witnesses.

I’ve discovered the best thing about this timeline approach to developing story is it’s more fun than writing the actual story.

Isn’t it “time” for your timeline?

 

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Process or Program?

This is for all those unfortunate writers (like me) who aren’t blessed with the ability to start writing and keep writing a complete story without the need to stop and outline or at least brainstorm a plan for the flow of the plot.

Frankly I don’t know if there are many out there like that but whoever you are, you have my respect and admiration (and more than a tinge of envy).

I’m prolific out of the gate when I have an idea for a plot or a character and have started a story with as little as three random words, using the almost unlimited resources from books and the Internet for creative writing prompts. You could open up a dictionary and pick out three of four random words, although realistically they do better when referring to a character, a place, an object, and/or an event.

It’s what follows that initial burst of flowing words where I usually come to a screeching halt. What happens next? Why are these characters doing what they are doing at this place? What are they after? It’s time then to start planning, outline, and brainstorm the answers to these questions.

There are a number of ways to approach outlining, one of which is to employ a writing software application. Dramatica Pro, Wizards for Authors, Scrivener, Write Now, the list goes on and on. There are a number of free applications available for download, a few of which I’ve tried. There is a market for writing software, mainly because writers are looking for help in organizing their work, and like me, are searching for ways to write a novel or short story faster and more efficiently, minimizing the time between the germ of an idea and a work worthy of submitting for publication.

I won’t make any claims as to the worth of any of these applications. I’m sure there are writers who use them with some degree of success. I have experimented with a few of them and they all have redeeming value.

Given over twenty-five years in the IT field, I’m well aware of the work required to design, code, test, and implement these programs. The developer must anticipate the errors which might occur and the responsibility to stand by to support their product is an awesome one.

I prefer a process to organize and design a story. Software programs will do only as much as the developer allows, even if they are is a writer or consulted a writer while designing the application.

A process allows the writer to design, outline, and organize a story on a piece of paper, a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, a whiteboard, or a chalkboard without restrictions on rules.

In the coming weeks, I will document my experience in using Excel for things such as timelines and character profiles.

My Author website:

http://jstrandburg.wordpress.com

Order Hustle Henry and the Cue-Ball Kid here:

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Order An Appointment With God: One Ordinary Man’s Journey to Faith Through Prayer here:

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