Story Road Map

If I could only have one book on writing, it would be a copy of On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Here’s a short-hand outline method taught by Zinsser. I like this method for writing longer pieces, as it helps keep me from spaghetti-ing and losing direction.

Story is thought. ‘Writing’ is the mechanics and craft of recording thought. ‘Writer’s Block’ is most often caused by a failure to know which direction a story is going. Most often the problem is: the story hasn’t been thought-out sufficiently before recording. Losing direction, being lost, interferes with the creative writing process, causing the ‘block’. It’s hard to concentrate on crafting creative prose while at the same time trying to decide where the story is going. So, I do some thinking before I write a story. I carry a notepad and pencil around with me while I’m thinking. I want to have the story arc firmly in mind before I start typing, once I have that, I am well down the road.

Now, I need a road map for the narrative. An outline. Everybody hates writing outlines. Right? Okay. But this is not a fat outline like they made you do in school (and this shorthand style of outline will also serve as a framework for the story outline a publisher might ask for). You can outline most short stories with a single sheet of ruled notebook paper or a notebook page.

Once I know what the story is, have the arc firmly in mind, I come up with a working title and write it at the top of the page. I make a bullet-point under it and write ‘beginning’ beside it. Now, at some point, the opening narrative is going to exhibit an action of some sort. Remember: Narrative builds to action points, sentences containing strong verbs, or, at least, the strongest verbs in the passage. I write that action next to the bullet-point in the fewest words possible, three or four words if I can: ‘Betty smacks Jake’. After that action, the narrative will again build to another action and that will be the next point, and so on until the end. If there are to be flashbacks, I mark where they begin and end, continuing down the page with the action points. Once I have that string of major action points down, I have the entire skeleton of my story, a framework to hang it on, and the most tedious brainwork done. And now the fun part: cruising, filling in the narrative between the action points, knowing where I’m going. I try to get the first draft out quick, with emotion and heat. I don’t poke along self-editing the first draft, I’ll be editing through it many times, cooling and polishing, making it fatter or paring it down.


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