Key Points: Inciting incident and tone need to be clear from the start. Make sure to include emotional cues. Don't forget the characterization! What defines the character? Make sure the reader knows the starting state (establishing shot!). Decision Point! What is the problem for the book, and decide to overcome it. Readers should be able to pronounce names and tell them apart. Visual cues can help. If characters change their minds, make sure something leads them to it. Escalate! Don't let the Monkey King take over. Make sure characters have conflicts, problems, skills, and flaws that show us who they are. Make sure your outline highlights the plot elements, the progression, the problems being worked through, and the conflicts -- not eating fruit. Consider giving the readers the map (ala Dora the Explorer).
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 15, Editing Mary's Outline.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] Our dear Mary has loaned us for use on the podcast an old outline of hers from 2003 of a book she was working on. I'll warn you up front, we're going to let this podcast run a little long, because there's going to be some reading involved. What we're going to do is we're going to have Mary read to us from her outline. It's about 1500 words long. I will interrupt, and we will do some criticism to edit this outline. It may sound a little brutal. Mary said she's okay with this. Understand that when we're in editing mode, we do get a little bit... We're going to be looking at nits to pick. But one thing I want to suggest, this is an outline that we're editing. Podcasters, let's stay away from the sentence level sort of "Well, why would they do that?" In an outline, we can assume that when she writes "These characters do this," that there will be an entire...
[Dan] That there's a good reason.
[Brandon] Yeah. There will be a chapter for rationale. So if you see a larger scale reason... Or larger scale problem of "Well, but that doesn't seem like it's fitting character motivation," we can talk about that. But don't ask for specifics, don't... We're not going to expand this outline. We're going to take what it is and try and find how we would, as authors, help this outline become an outline for a better book. All right?
[Mary] Sounds good to me.
[Brandon] So, Mary, why don't you go ahead?
[Mary] All right. Let me... Shall I briefly tell them?
[Brandon] Whatever you want.
[Mary] Just to preface... This is... I went like 10 years without writing. This is the thing that brought me back into writing. It started as a serial. Then... For my niece and nephew. Then I was like, "Oh, I have something here." Started... And wrote an outline. So I wrote this in 2003. It is a young adult... Or a middle grade fantasy.
Chapter 1. We meet Marie and Kennedy, two American children living with their parents in China. They awaken in the middle of the night to find cats in their rooms. They follow the cats to the elevator, which takes them below the first floor.
Chapter 2. The doors open on a forest. A beautiful woman is waiting for them, but becomes angry when she sees them. She magically wraps them in silk and hits Marie. Marie kicks her and Kennedy bites her. A mysterious man appears and fights off the woman. He is a monkey.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and pause there for our first two chapters. This is kind of our instigation. This is...
[Howard] Inciting incident.
[Brandon] Yeah. So what we've got going on here... One of the things I like about this, the tone is pretty obvious from the get-go. It does feel like a whimsical middle grade fantasy.
[Howard] I'm happy. There's a monkey.
[Brandon] Okay. Are there any red flags that you guys are seeing with these first two chapters?
[Dan] Not without knowing the rest of it. It may be that this is not setting it up correctly, but I don't know what we're leading to yet.
[Brandon] Yes. Okay. Now, let's ask another question so that we can kind of illustrate for our Writing Excuses listeners. Is this how you guys approach an outline when you make one? Or do you use a different methodology? She's doing a chapter by chapter. Chapter 1, this is what happens. Chapter 2, this is what happens.
[Howard] Yeah. I handle it a little differently. It's interesting because I will... I won't go into that level of detail, the chapter level of detail, but I will include things like, "Marie and Kennedy decide to follow the cats because they're curious." Or "... Decide to follow the cats because they're angry at their parents." I'll include some sort of emotional clue for me, so that I know what it is I have to go in and flesh out when I'm writing.
[Mary] That's the way I do that now. I include emotional cues now. I also... My current outlines, I also break them down scene by scene.
[Brandon] My big worry here, just right at the beginning, is that we have very little... Any sort of characterization or emotional cues for these two characters. I'm... Having this introduced to me, I'm assuming that this is a story of these two kids. I would envision this being their viewpoints and getting viewpoints primarily from these two. It's a middle grade novel, that they... Maybe even just one of them, with the other one having some main character parts but not being a viewpoint character. My big worry is, I don't know... In the middle grade novel, I'm going to be looking for some sort of thing I can latch onto for each of the children that is their primary character archetype. This is actually, I think, really important in middle grade. You don't necessarily want to play into cliches, but this... The girl is the brain and the boy is the impulsive adventurer... That's kind of basically... Fable Haven, the pitch for those two.
[Dan] The thing I would add to that, because the same thing stood out to me, and the thing that I would make sure to include that I think is also very important, is to give us a little more about the starting state. This may be just a case of you knew this, but didn't put it in the outline.
[Dan] But this is kids going into a magical world. What are they leaving behind? Are they coming from a broken home, from a happy home? What are they going to learn to take back...
[Dan] And solve whatever problem they have in the real world? So a good establishing shot of their lives, I think, is very important to start with.
[Brandon] All right. Let's go for chapter... Why don't you read to us chapters three and four?
[Mary] [Chapter 3] The children learned that their savior is Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King. He unties them. Kennedy removes a finger bone from his mouth. The beautiful woman was actually the Bone Demon in disguise. General Chu Pa-chieh, a man with a pig's head, arrives with the cats. The cats, Mao Murong and Mao Meigao, belong to Han Al Ming, the woman that the Bone Demon was pretending to be. They found Wu Kong when they realized that the woman was not their mistress. Wu Kong says that he will help the children return home.
Chapter 4. The children can now understand the cats. The group makes their plan to rescue the real princess, defeat the Bone Demon, and return the children to their home. Sun Wu Kong plucks hair from his chin and turns it into clothing for the children. General Pig wants to eat the feast that the Bone Demon has left behind. They convince him that it is probably poison. The group believes the clearing together in search of Al Ming's palace.
[Mary] Curiously, this outline does not at any point mention their baby sister.
[Dan] They have a baby sister?
[Brandon] Well, it does later on. It mentions the baby. But I wanted to stop you here, because actually, for our listeners, this is a very natural... I don't know if you were doing this intentionally, but bridge from Act I to Act II. We just had the end of Act I. We've had the instigation, we've had initial problems, and now it's the decision of this is the problem we're going to have to overcome for this book, and we are actually consciously deciding to set out to overcome it.
[Mary] I think this is the first time I've ever understood what Act I, Act II meant.
[Mary] The three act structure has never made sense to me.
[Brandon] Oh, no, this is perfect. Let me reiterate that then for our listeners.
[Dan] Well, they've kind of had two of those moments. There have been two moments of decision. We will follow these cats into an elevator...
[Brandon] No, see... I... That's instigation. That's curiosity. That's not the moment of decision, that's... Oh, we're gonna...
[Dan] In that case, I misunderstood because I thought the first chapter had them... They knew they were going somewhere awesome with the cats...
[Dan] Rather than just following random cats.
[Brandon] Yeah. No, but see... It's... The reason this marks a natural bridge Act I to Act II is the "they decided they are going to..." The group... They convince him that it is probably... No, no... Makes their plan to rescue the real princess, defeat the Bone Demon, and return the children to their home. That is a bridge, Act I, we have now introduced everything that is basically going to be our plot, made our decision, and we're going.
[Howard] Per Lou Anders Hollywood Formula back in Season Six, this is the point where we realize we actually have a movie.
[Brandon] Yes. Yep. So, what else... What are you guys going to say, we've now had all of Act I given to us.
[Dan] Okay. Well, here's a super nit to pick. I love the Chinese mythology popping up here. I am very concerned at a middle grade level that these names are going to be hard to pronounce and differentiate.
[Brandon] I am a little bit worried about that. Now, the fact that two of them are cats, one has the head of a pig, and one is a monkey. You can...
[Dan] That will make the characters easy. When she said General Pig, I'm like, "Oh, that's the first time she's said a name a second time and I've known who it was."
[Brandon] See, the thing is, I'm willing... I think that's a red flag to raise for an author. This is something that can be achieved very easily in text by using a cue alongside them. Every time you mention... If you call Sun The Monkey King very often or you mention Sun hung from the branch by his tail and chattered at them... You can use very easily a lot of visual cues to remind us, this is a monkey. This is a pigheaded man. These are cats I'm worried about the two cats getting mixed up.
[Dan] This is a case that really hammers home the kind of conventional wisdom of make sure that each name is as visually different as possible. That they all start with different letters. It becomes difficult when you're dealing with each character has three names.
[Howard] Do they have to be two cats? Is that a mythological thing?
[Mary] No, actually this is... Here we go into beginning writer errors. Those are my cats.
[Brandon] Ah. Okay.
[Howard] Mary and Sue.
[Mary] Yeah. Basically. It's Marlo and Maggie. There becomes... Because I had two cats, later there are plot reasons that there need to be two of them. But no, when I was writing this, it was... It was a way to connect with my niece and nephew.
[Howard] Yeah. There's nothing wrong with that, when that's the mission of the story. My editorial brain would say, "Eugh, the cats' names are too close, they both look like cats..."
[Mary] Yeah. No, I completely agree that they should be different.
[Dan] Well, the other way of doing this is just have them be essentially one character that there's two of.
[Brandon] Right. That you don't need to differentiate. Oh, it's one of the cats.
[Dan] So as long as we know these two cats, everything one does, the other one's doing, then we don't have to differentiate them. That's kind of... That works kind of well as well.
[Brandon] All right. Let's read...
[Mary] I was going to say. On the page, they do have very different personalities, and they do very different things.
[Brandon] I think in that case, just changing the names...
[Mary] The names. Yeah.
[Brandon] We're going to go... Howard's like we're running out of time, we're running out of time...
[Howard] I was just going to say book of the week. All right.
[Brandon] We're going to go way long this time.
[Dan] Way Long. Is the name of one of the cats.
[Brandon] So, yeah, book of the week does need to be done. But let's go ahead and read the next two.
[Mary] [Chapter 5] Okay. The sun comes up as they are walking through the forest and the children realize that their parents will be very worried about them. They ask Wu Kong if they can just go home and let him find Al Ming alone. He tells them that the Bone Demon will come after them, because Kennedy had bitten his finger off. In the middle of the day, they smell food cooking. Pa-chieh leads the way to a small hut where an old man is cooking dinner. The Monkey King attacks the old man with no warning.
Chapter 6. Pa-chieh and the children try to stop him, but it is no use. Pa-chieh winds up with a cloth over his head, so does not see the old man become the Bone Demon and almost gain the upper hand. The Demon tries to turn Marie into a snake. Kenny trips him and in the process gains the Bone Demon's foot. Monkey King chases the Bone Demon away. The spell on Marie stops when the demon leaves. Wu Kong adds the foot to his collection. They can't find Mao Murong.
Okay, I'm just going to say that I need to be consistent with names on this, because that's driving me crazy.
[Brandon] Well, that's okay. This outline, remember, is written to you.
[Brandon] So you can differentiate. But it's going to be a little bit hard for our readers, our listeners. I think we can keep them mostly straight. Let's look at large-scale things happening here. Any red flags for you guys?
[Dan] Okay. The first one that jumps out to me is, in chapter 4 or whatever it was, at the end of the last section, they decide we are going to go off and solve this problem. Very first thing that happens in the very next chapter is "Oh, dang, we want to go home now." That makes sense. We're worried that our parents would be messing us. But it seems like there should be something that happens that leads them to that, rather than immediately making a decision and following it up with a different one.
[Brandon] No, Dan, I actually wrote down, when I was reading through this, that I thought that that struggle should have been moved back to Act I. Just right before the decision was made. I really like... One nice thing that's happening here is the escalation. He tells them that the Bone Demon will, after them because Kennedy did such and such. Escalation. You can't just escape, you must defeat the evil, confront the evil, because if you run away, the evil will get you. Very nice escalation of the plot, but it is a good thing to help us for that bridge, that Act I decision-making time. Not right after it.
[Dan] I would say the other direction to go is to move it later.
[Brandon] Okay, you could.
[Dan] That they meet all these amazing new fun friends and they decide they're going to go on an exciting quest. Then maybe in chapter 10, they're like...
[Brandon] Yeah. Things get hard.
[Dan] "You know, this isn't fun anymore. Maybe it's time for us to go home."
[Brandon] Oh, that's an equally good suggestion. In fact, it might be a better suggestion. One red flag I'm seeing here also... This is a red flag that isn't all the way up yet. But it's a... I guess it is a red flag, but it's not necessarily a problem yet...
[Dan] It's a red flag at half mast.
[Brandon] I'm worried that the Monkey King is going to do everything interesting. He's such a compelling, dynamic character in mythology, he's so powerful compared to the children, and I'm worried that this is going to turn into a we get into a problem, Monkey King rescues us, we get into a problem, Monkey King rescues us, over and over again.
[Howard] I'd read that book.
[Brandon] Well, the problem is it's going to feel...
[Howard] I know what you're saying.
[Brandon] The Monkey King is becoming the main character. Even though you're going to be giving viewpoints to the kids, if the Monkey King is doing all the interesting stuff, we have passive observers watching someone doing something awesome. Which is a red flag. It's not to say that can't be done. Anything can be done and achieved, but it's a big major red flag for me.
[Dan] Well, this could still definitely go the direction of the kids ending up doing something that rescues the Monkey King or helps the Monkey King or something. We'll see.
[Brandon] Yup. But that's a worry for me. Let's go ahead and stop. Oh. Dan?
[Dan] I was going to stop us. So.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Mary, you're actually going to promo our book of the week this week?
[Mary] The book of the week this week is my book, Glamour in Glass, which I wrote a long time after this. That is the sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey. So this is basically what happens if you take a happily ever after that ends book 1 and then send them on honeymoon to the middle of Waterloo.
[Brandon] [chuckling] Oh, that's a great pitch.
[Dan] Right before Waterloo gets crazy?
[Mary] It's right before Waterloo gets crazy. This is not a spoiler because it's history, but the book is set in 1815. Shades of Milk and Honey is 1814, and the interesting thing about 1815 is that's when Napoleon comes out of exile. He goes in 1814, so people went to the Continent.
[Howard] So our listeners can head over to writingexcuses.com/bow for book of the week. So, writingexcuses.com/bow, where you can find Glamour in Glass and many of our other recommended books of the week. If you want to support the podcast, click on one of those links and shop with us through Amazon, and we get a tiny little piece of that pie.
[Brandon] Yup. So let's keep going on this. Once again, readers... Listeners, we're going to go pretty long on this podcast. I think it's legitimate and justified because we want to get through this whole outline. We're maybe halfway through now. So let's keep going and read the next ones. The next... Let's do the next three.
[Mary] Okay. Chapter 7. Murong had fled up a juniper tree when the fighting began. He can't get down, so Wu Kong goes to rescue him. While at the top of the tree, Murong is able to point out the palace of Al Ming. Pa-chieh again protests that they must be fed. Wu Kong concedes and points out a star fruit tree. He tells them to eat while he and Meigao do something outs. Kennedy accidentally makes Marie cry about the snake thing. They reconcile. They eat the fruit.
Wu Kong comes out of the house with an old man... Or with the old man.
Chapter 8. The old man had been bound and hidden by the demon. Wu Kong had released him. Wu Kong confesses that he had been afraid the old man would be dead, which is why he didn't want the children to go with him while he looked. The old man is Ma Li Yang, a painter. (Folktale about a painter who paints real things. This is his descendent whose paintings move and show what is real. This is an actual folktale.) As a measure of his gratitude, he gives them a magic scroll so they can see their parents. Their parents are sick with worry. The journey resumes with [flights?]
[Brandon] Okay. Let's actually stop there. I think that's a good place to stop. I'm just going to go ahead and raise a red flag. We were worried about the characters of the children. By this point, I'm really worried about. Meaning the only real character thing that I've had for them that seems like conflicts or personalities for them is the two of them fighting over the snake thing. Definitely not big enough for me. I want... From the shape of this journey... I'm not at all... Our listeners may actually be worried about the magic and things like that. I'm not worried about it at all. It's a whimsical middle grade fantasy, the magic is serving as something...
[Howard] That's all working fine.
[Brandon] It's all sense of wonder. It's working great. Sense of mythology. But what isn't working is I need these characters to ground me in reality. That's who... That's their job. They need to have either a relationship problem between themselves that they're working on... They probably should each have a skill they add to this story. Whatever it is. Now Lemony Snicket did this in a very obvious and kind of over-the-top way, but each kid had their skill. What was it? One was good at reading, and one was good at building, and one was good at biting. Or something like that. He could do it all in one sentence. That's actually really good advice. For this, I would look for a little more depth. But one of them... They each have to add something. Maybe one of them loves mythology. He can say, "Oh, I've read of this painter." That's their special skill. They should all... Both... Each have some sort of special flaw that they're working through.
[Howard] I think in terms of the want-to-go-home conflict, that this is the point at which...
[Howard] We introduce the "Oh, maybe this decision we made was too hard." I still think that back when they made the decision, they have to be a little worried about leaving home. Then... But they cowboy up and get out.
[Dan] Well, I'm going to combine your comment with Brandon's and say that one of them is worried.
[Brandon] Yeah, one should be worried and one should be excited.
[Dan] And the other one's excited.
[Howard] Okay. Yeah. But the paintings showing them their parents...
[Howard] Is a pinch.
[Dan] Yes. That's absolutely when the moment should come where they're like, "Oh, well, crap. Maybe we should go home."
[Brandon] I'm going to be looking for some escalation with the parents, eventually.
[Brandon] We see this thing, we can see the parents. Just seeing that the parents are so sad and worried is good right now. But I want... I kind of want the parents to be in danger at some point, to escalate this up. The other thing I'm noticing right here is this outline as an outline includes a lot of random junk.
[Brandon] That really doesn't need to be in an outline.
[Mary] [laughing] Oh, I know.
[Dan] Take that, Mary.
[Brandon] It's at the expense of the important things, such as where... What is our mystery plot, or our sense of progression? What are the things that we are working through and our conflicts? These things are being left out, and instead, they eat the fruit. That you laughed at when you read it. That's what's really, I think, the biggest problem for me in this outline.
[Dan] Well, I think we are getting some sense of progression. We have this growing collection of Bone Demon bones, which is deliciously...
[Brandon] Yeah. That's a great... That's great.
[Dan] Macabre. It suggests to me that the progression is very slow, though. I worry. But we'll see.
[Brandon] The other sense of progression is motion. We're going from point to point to point. I would almost... I would suggest... All right, in order to get to the castle, we must travel these places. To signal to the reader...
[Howard] Give the reader the map.
[Brandon] In the middle of this, this is where we're going. There's a reason why Dora does this.
[Dan] Like Dora.
[Brandon] Don't do it as obviously as Dora, but it's good to outline...
The reason why Dora does this... In fact, it's a good reason.
[Dan] Well, I want to say, adults who don't know what Dora is or have never seen an episode of Dora the Explorer. Go watch one. It's dumb, and you'll hate it, but it is a really brilliant condensation of the quest formula into a very easy to understand, little bite-size piece.
[Howard] It's dumb, and you'll hate it, but it's a really brilliant condensation?
[Dan] Yes, it is.
[Mary] I like brilliant condensations.
[Dan] On a long car drive, my wife and I once plotted the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the Dora formula. It really works well.
[Brandon] Okay. I did warn that this episode is going long. It's actually... I think I'm actually going to break it here. I think we're going to continue this outline next week because I think we'll want to talk about the ending with enough time that I don't want to feel rushed. So we're actually... We'll stop here. Almost to the end of Act II, and then we'll start at the end of Act II next week. And we'll then do Act III. All right?
[Mary] All right. I have a writing prompt for you. This started off as a retelling of a Chinese folktale. So, what I want you to do is I want you to take a folktale and retell it in the Dora the Explorer formula. So make it a quest story, and just go ahead and outline it for right now.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.