In the previous blog, I explained where I place my focus while I'm breaking a story. It was probably no surprise to anyone that the focus is broader at first and becomes more and more narrow as I go. In writing the last blog, I happened upon a metaphor that used a big ol' pile of Honey Nut Cheerios to explain how I'd divvy out my attention to the different parts of the story as I moved along. In this blog, I'm going to parallel the metaphor with the actual example of our outlining the Spooky Corps narrative so you can see how it works in less vague terms.
Three giant piles of Cheerios
Of course, we didn't have this light bulb of a story idea and immediately break it down into a three volume structure. If it were that easy with this story (as I'm actually sure it is with many stories), I wouldn't have two massive blogs talking about how I went about organizing it. But all of the material that is in our story developed over a decade of email conversations, and changed over time, and much was added, discarded, overwritten, or forgotten. We didn't have much structure in mind most of the time, but once we decided it was time to start writing it down in earnest and figuring out the purpose of the story, we did find it pretty easy to say "Okay, the meat of part one is this, and part two is this, and part three is this."
But finding the thresholds for the three parts took a little thinking. It meant finding four key points: the beginning, the transition to the second part, the transition to the third, and the ending. We have always known how the story starts, and we figured out a couple of years ago how the story ends. So we talked through our story and found the two places where the rules shift and the stakes are drastically raised. Two good extremes before the big finale.
I can't offer any advice on that discovery process in this particular blog, because this blog is all about focus and where to place it when you have a story that's ready to be organized, not how to come up with or structure a story. But once we knew these four points of the story, we had the dividing moments we needed which would allow us to place the multitudes of scene, character, and story ideas where they belonged - between the first and second, between the second and third, or between the third and fourth key points.
We wrote roughly one paragraph per part, each of which summed up the major events and character arcs over twenty issues. And these 90,000 foot outlines were pretty lacking on the details, but we understood the overall purpose and major events of each one.
Like the back of a DVD case, remember?
Twelve medium piles of Cheerios
Then we broke each part into arcs, writing at least one good paragraph per arc. In this stage, we covered all the meaningful plot points, character changes, and story resolutions of each four- to five-issue sequence, and ended up with a Cliff's Notes version of the entire narrative. We could get a sense from reading this version of the outline what the focus of each arc was, and why each movement has an important role in telling the overall story.
We did throw in some rough issue-by-issue breakdowns for the arcs that we already had pretty well figured out in our heads - typically toward the beginning. For the beginning of the story, some issue outlines were over a page long. Toward the end, most issues were outlined in just a few sentences if they were broken down at all. Otherwise, it was just generalized arc outlines (as in "Part Two, Issues 9 - 14" followed by a paragraph explaining the beats of that arc). All of this is part of that step I mentioned in the last blog where you make a rough estimation of how many Cheerios need to be in each medium-sized pile and move or eat the ones that don't belong where you have them.
And believe me, this was a vetting process. We found ourselves struggling to succinctly fit a particular story or character arc into the outline in a meaningful way, so we had to lose some things. Hard things. Things we liked but could see needed too much attention too early in the process to be considered a major part of the story.
Did we erase all mention of these things from our notes, never to be thought of again? No, of course not! But the important thing in writing an outline is telling a story that can actually be followed when you read it back. Maybe in a later step, you'll find a way to work it in. But doing these outlines with increasing details helps you focus on what is really important, what your major events and themes and character choices are. We knew then as we know now that actually scripting the issues will be a discovery process, and things will change as we go, and we wanted to allow ourselves that room to explore and not be forced to follow the plot on a rail. We could see that the more hard-and-fast details we wrote in this early on, the harder it would be to find room to wiggle later.
So at this stage, you need to start asking yourself some questions about these ideas you have. Do they serve the overall narrative? Do they add to the depth of the story? If so, great! Try to figure out how to fit it in here. If you can't... something to think about.
When we had the whole story outlined to this level of detail, we knew things about the end that we didn't know yet when we'd started. So we sat down to look the whole thing over and did a second pass, adding things into the beginning and middle that we knew we'd want to be mentioned so things that would come later on didn't just seem pulled from thin air. We cleaned up ideas that were bigger when we first thought of them but ended up being less important to the overall story than we originally imagined.
This second look helped us tighten everything up and consolidate some story threads to the point that we were able to decrease the issue count by about 25%. And what a relief that was!
Just the first few medium piles
Next, we focused just on part one and let the second and third parts remain less detailed. As I said already (and will say once or twice more), we wanted to allow the story room to live later, and allow the characters to make their own decisions along the way. Since we knew where the first part needed to end and where the second part needed to start, and since we'd done a second pass on the entire thing, we were able to put the latter two parts aside and trust our outlines of those parts were solid enough that we could work on telling the first part as its own story without mucking anything up.
So we looked at the arcs for part one and continued breaking down in the same way as we did the larger story. We wrote issue outlines for every issue, sometimes breaking them down page by page. Just like with the full narrative, the front of the story is more detailed, the end slightly less so. For example, the outline for the final issue of the first part was about 3/4 of a page long, but the first issue outline was about two pages. I'm pretty sure it came out to an average of about one page per issue.
I think this step took the longest. This is the stage where I was writing fifteen hours a week, often staying up until three in the morning three nights a week. Scripting is taking more calendar days to get through with my severely decreased writing schedule, but I definitely spent more hours outlining part one than I've spent at any other stage.
Just the first medium pile
Next, continuing the trend of treating part one as we did the full narrative, we focused on just the first arc, trusting that the other arcs were solid enough for us to leave them alone and trust we'd get where we knew we were going. This step wasn't so much rewriting what we'd already outlined as it was looking it over and defining / adjusting its structure as a story unto itself with a beginning, middle, and sort-of end that leads into the next arc.
This is where I got a lot deeper into story theory than just looking at "beginning, middle, and end". This is where I started looking for weak spots, places where a beat needed to be adjusted because it was stuck in a series of "and then" moments rather than "but" or "therefore" moments. This is where I started to look at whether problematic moments could be improved when I considered the steps of the Hero's Journey, or the principles of Story that Robert McKee wrote about. And again, this isn't a blog about structure, so I'm not going to get into the details of that. The point is, the smaller the field of your focus becomes (like say 100 to 125 Cheerios rather than 1500), the more details you're going to pick up on. We're not at 90,000 feet anymore. Now we're looking down on a few city blocks from the top of a water tower. It's going to be a lot clearer from this vantage whether one of the houses needs to be demolished, or the yards need to be rezoned...
or to stay on-metaphor, if two Cheerios are... I don't know... stuck together, or redundant, or... something.
The page-by-page outline for the first six issues was about ten pages I think, and we discovered in that process that it only needed to be four issues.
With this super detailed outline, we were able to move to scripting pretty easily - everything we needed was basically as it needed to be, just requiring page breaks and formatting. So with all of our planning and plotting and organizing done, we finally started scripting the first issue, and treated that much like we treated the full story, and the first part, and the first arc. I broke it down into a few chunks, then refined those chunks from beginning to end.
And we finished it. Then we finished the second, and the third, and just today we paneled out the last few pages of the fourth issue. And once we get a draft for all four issues, we'll look again over this first arc and adjust as necessary to make sure it's a solid story, and can move onto the second arc, give it a solid outline and structure unto itself, then script that arc one issue a time.
And we can continue on that way through the end, reviewing the full outline as we go and adjusting things if necessary. The good thing is, as I've mentioned plenty of times, it's NOT super detailed all the way through. There is plenty of room to adjust as necessary as we work through from the beginning. And it's a good thing. We discover something every time we sit down to write. Nothing so huge that we've needed to change the outline yet, but it's good to know if we ever need to, it'll be a matter of changing a few sentences or paragraphs, not a few pages.
Does it sound like a repetitive process? Well, it is. Is this process for everyone? Probably not. I know for certain some people just sit down and start writing page one, paragraph one. And good on 'em. That's probably a hell of a ride, and the right writer will make that work. But I don't regret it or think I overdid it. Not one bit. I can already see how intimately understanding the things that are to come have helped even in these early stages. In fact, in scripting the third issue, we had to dig into our outlines to make sure we got something right which will become crucial in a scene that won't show up for twenty-five issues or so. It's been a lot of work to get here, but I see it paying off every time we question a character choice or the repercussions thereof and find that, oh yeah, we wrote the answer in before it was even possible to ask the question.
Maybe every story doesn't need this much time spent in the planning or outlining stage, but I think the method can still work, even if you only have 50 or 100 pages to write. Basically, I'm saying you need to look at the big picture, break it into small chunks, look at those chunks and break those into smaller chunks, and look at your first chunks and start to mold them, now confident that you know what it is you're heading toward.
Now that I put it like that, it seems really unnecessary for me to have written as much as I have....
But hey, I hope someone out there eventually finds this to be helpful. And maybe by the time that person reads this, I will have found a much clearer and more succinct way to say the same thing... but this is the best I've got for now. So until that time, I hope someone at least finds it interesting to hear how much effort we are putting into making this story the best version of itself it can be.
Thanks for reading.