Outlining and Road Trips

We went on a mini-road trip over the weekend, and that got me thinking about journeys, both real and literary. The weather the past week or so has been unseasonably warm and absolutely gorgeous. We have a brand new little car (after sharing a gas-guzzling vehicle for three years) that we were able to fill up for less than twenty bucks, and Jake made onigiri for a bento-inspired picnic lunch. In short, I couldn’t sleep the night before, but still woke up before my alarm went off, fueled with anticipation . . . and later caffeine.

That’s the anything-can-happen-and-it’s-gonna-be-great feeling we writers need our readers to have when they get into the first scene of our novels, whether we are talking about a literal car trip on a sunny day, or deeds of questionable morality performed under the cover of darkness. The important thing is giving them a character that they are eager to get into the car with, knowing there will be interesting conversations to pass the time and stops at only the most unique places.

The reader trusts the writer to have checked out the seat-belts and topped off the break fluid, making sure this journey ends safely. That’s a large amount of trust, especially today when there are so many books out there for a reader to choose instead of ours. We don’t want them to feel like they have wasted their time, or that we took them the round-about way to our grandmother’s house in suburbia, when we promised an adventure filled weekend at the beach.

One way to do this is with an outline. I am a recovering pantser, and I still have a hard time outlining a new project. After all, I don’t know the person I’ve put in the driver’s seat. I haven’t been anywhere with him yet. So I write a little bit, organically, and figure out who he is, and I define the worst challenges he could face. And then I outline, including that information. This gives me a road map for the trip, and rather than dull my sense of anticipation for the writing actually whets it by giving me a writing prompt for each stage of the project. I do kind of a free-form thing in Scrivner, but I check it against a couple of different plot models to make sure I’ve got the key scenes needed to keep the reader’s interest.

So what is the caffeine that keeps the reader awake for the whole trip, chatting with the protag and taking blurry snapshots out the window? Tension. When you outline, think specifically how to keep the tension building, upping the stakes while at the same time giving your character fewer and fewer options.

I taught a writing class for kids last summer using storyboarding software from LEGO. The kids posed the LEGO people and built backdrops, then we photographed the whole thing. Not only did the visual reference make it easier for them to write sensory prose, it helped me understand what they were wanting to say so that I could help them figure out how to say it. I think I learned as much from that class as they did.

That I why this week, I am giving you guys a handout to do a basic storyboard, with space for you to draw stick figures or anime characters or whatever helps your brain. Use the space under each box to write a sentence that describes the story goal of that scene alongside the character’s inner goal.

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