January 10, 2011

The heart of the story: Outlining for structure

Structure can be such a bugaboo for writers – especially, I think, for writers of fiction or narrative nonfiction. The writer of expository nonfiction can usually come up with something logical, but the problem for writers of narrative is a bit different. They need to decide what their story is really about, what incidents need to be part of it and in what order they should place those incidents.
Now, suppose that as an editor you receive a manuscript that has interesting characters and an engaging story, but you keep getting lost, and although many things happen in the story, it doesn’t seem to “go” anywhere. In fact, it’s all such a muddle that you think it needs more than tweaking; the whole structure needs to be rethought. How do you advise your client to go about doing that?
A book I often call on in this situation is Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story. Franklin is a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize twice and is now a teacher of writing. Although the book is aimed at writers of narrative nonfiction, I believe it can be useful to writers of fiction too. What Franklin excels at is breaking a story down into its relevant parts. He is a big fan of the outline.
Now, this is not the outline your English teacher made you write for your essays. Franklin calls that outline the English teacher’s revenge, or ETR. The ETR is logical, Franklin says, whereas his version of the outline is dramatic.
I’m going to simplify what Franklin says a lot, but basically his outline consists of five statements with three words each—a subject, action verb and direct object. The first statement is the complication of the story and the last is the resolution. The three in the middle constitute the development. Here’s his example:
Complication: Company fires Joe
·         Depression paralyzes Joe
·         Joe regains confidence
·         Joe sues company
Resolution: Joe gets job back.
This outline is suitable for essays or short stories; a book would require a longer development section, but the basic principle is the same, I think. Franklin insists that all the sentences be whittled down to three words and says three questions should be asked of each:
·         Does the verb connote action?
·         Is your main character in the statement?
·         Can you illustrate the event described?
I think this very simple and basic outline can help a disorganized writer cut through the details to the heart of his or her story. And what’s really nice about Franklin’s book is that he includes copies of his two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories—first as they appeared in the newspaper when he wrote them and then in annotated form. In the annotated form he divides the story into sections with his five outline sentences above the relevant sections. He then uses footnotes to comment on the writing. It’s one thing to talk about an outline, but it’s another to see it in action. It’s worth the price of the book just to get that. (By the way, if you’re a writer of narrative nonfiction, you might be interested in Franklin’s e-mail list, WriterL.)
As an editor looking at a disorganized manuscript, I sometimes use Franklin’s method to try to outline what I see and it helps me to discern what the writer is trying to do. More important, I can guide the writer to do his/her own outline using this method as a way to begin the necessary restructuring. It’s a great way to turn chaotic action into real drama.
Of course, Franklin’s dramatic structure isn’t the only possible structure for a book.  For a good explanation of other structures, see the Northwest's own Priscilla Long’s book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor. Long is a Seattle writer, editor and teacher, and she offers useful tips about many aspects of writing in her book, which was only recently published.


  1. This is such a great lesson for me. I do a lot of "outlining" when I'm working on a developmental letter, but my outlines are long, detailed, and highly personal. They change shape for each manuscript. Which is fine for my process I suppose. But I've hesitated to ask my clients to do their own outline because it has seemed such a huge task to ask for. This sort of outline, however, is really doable, and I can see how helpful it will be. Thank you!

  2. I love the simplicity of this tool, too. As Kyra mentioned, my/my authors' outlines can get very long and detailed. While these can be helpful, they can also take a lot of time and effort, and still make it difficult to discern what's really important. I think I may just try Franklin's method on a current project...thanks Nancy!

  3. Thanks for the recommendation. I've been on the fence about reading this book or not. Now I've got it at the top of the list.