©2011 Hampton Bush (Visit Hampton Bush’s Home Page)
Quick&Easy Discover Drafts
This article is an excerpt from my book Quest for the Golden Quill of Storytelling. It came about as a result of the constant battle between writers who outline and writers who say, “outlining destroys my creativity and my sense of discovery.” I have tried to put this argument to rest by showing how this type of quick outline and a discovery draft are virtually one and the same.
Want to stir up a heated discussion in a group of writers? Just mention “outlining.” Some say, “Outlining destroys creativity. I write a discovery draft first.” Others say, “It’s stupid to tackle a big book without knowing where you’re going.”
Well, what neither side seems to understand is that both sides are right. Personally, I think it’s terribly wasteful to write and write and write and then throw half of it away. So, I’ve developed an outlining technique that is sort of a hybrid, the best of both worlds
When I write a novel, I like to make sure the story has at least 6 or 7 big surprises in it, things the reader doesn’t anticipate. These surprises may not be life changing events for the central character, but they are surprises.
I also want to have at least 3 turning point scenes in a story. Turning points, if you’re not familiar with the terminology, are scenes that cause the story to take a drastic turn in direction. In the sample outline that I’ll show you next, the last scene is the first turning point where my hero changes his goal and his direction in a major way.
I find that a 75-100,000-word novel requires at least 80 scenes to fill it up. By setting up my “surprises” as small targets and my “turning point scenes” as major story targets, it becomes much easier to “invent” all the fill-in scenes needed to inevitably lead the reader to those targets. It’s kind of like looking at a map of a complex city. You have a starting point and a destination, but what is the best route to take to get there? The surprises and the turning point scenes are the little destinations needed to get you to the finish line.
My new novel roughly follows the Hero’s Journey as outlined in Vogler’s book, Writer’s Journey. The structure is: Ordinary world, Call to Adventure, Refusal of Call, Meeting the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold, Tests, Allies and Enemies, Approach to the Innermost Cave, the Supreme Ordeal, Reward, the Road Back, etc., 12 stages in all.
If you’re not familiar with this structure, I suggest you look up Vogler’s Writer’s Journey on the internet. Or buy a copy the book. It’s worth it. Most thrillers, such as Dan Brown’s books, and most films, such as Star Wars, are created around the hero’s journey.
Easy Outline Is Discovery Draft
Here’s a fact of life. A discovery draft IS in truth a detailed outline. But, it’s also a first draft of the book. Most discovery drafts need to be heavily edited, which means that as much as 30-40% of the work or more have to be tossed into the trash can. To me, that has always seemed to be a huge waste of time and effort.
But what if the discovery draft was shorter, and faster to write? What if you can “see” the whole of the book in a way that let’s you slice and dice without throwing away huge chunks of your creative work. That’s what my outlining/discovery draft method permits.
So let’s go for it and see my style of story outline at work. As you will see, it really is a miniature discovery draft, but immensely easier to repair.
This outline starts with my hero’s “Ordinary World” as a reporter. After 5 scenes he reaches his “Call to Adventure.” Rather than “Refusing the Call,” he accepts it.
This Call to Adventure in Scene 6 represents the target of all the earlier scenes, which are designed to get the hero to that point. Scene 6 is a major turning point scene. Hopefully, if you’re an outline hater, once you see how this works, you won’t be anymore.
Hired assassin, John Whatis, following orders from his client, kidnaps Dorothy Whoosis in preparation to “chopping” her to pieces and making her disappear . When he breaks into her house, the woman is waiting for him. The woman is acting strangely, spewing multiple languages at him, apparently without any control. She says she is “broken,” short-circuited. “I knew they’d send someone to kill me,” she says. “I wanted to call the police or to run, but I don’t seem to be able to.” She cooperates with him. Dorgan is spooked by her response.
Ex-marine combat correspondent David Lee Hunter, now on the rewrite desk at the Washington Daily Something (need name), is called to meet his ex-marine buddy and best friend, homicide detective JW Johnson, at the Jefferson Memorial. JW, a big, powerfully built black man, is acting “weird.” He’s upset with DC and something serious is worrying him, but he won’t tell David what it is. He pulls out a 4×5 color photo of a headless, legless, armless torso of a woman’s nude body, and shows it to David. The cops haven’t been able to identify the body, and now the case has been taken away from JW.
“They say it’s national security,” he says, “but I think that’s bullshit, a big cover up for someone in high places. He places the photo in a manila envelope which has several other pages in it, seals it and hands it to David. “Look, buddy, I’m trusting you with this. Keep it safe. Open it only if something happens to me. Otherwise keep your hands off. If you write about this, I’ll lose my job. Can do?”
David, who has never seen JW so frightened, agrees. JW grins and says, “Hey, man, this story may be your ticket off the rewrite desk, to becoming a real investigative reporter.
Back at the paper, David has decided it’s time to confront his boss, the paper’s owner. David has been on the rewrite desk 3 months, ever since he was hired away from a weekly newspaper in South Carolina. David was promised a field job, and he wants it now. David tells the General what he saw, but no details. He asked his boss to the story secret. He says he wants to follow the murder story. His boss laughs and says, “Son, murder in this country is no more important than gossip designed to give the great unwashed public a vicarious thrill. I didn’t create this newspaper to pander to the gossip needs of the public. I formed it to shake up the corrupt politicians who run this place. But I understand your impatience to get in the field. So, tell you what. I had already decided to assign you to cover the Department of Education, so tonight you get your chance. I want you to cover the PADOE News Conference.”
(PADOE is an acronym for People Against the Department of Education.) David is dismayed. “Education!” he says. He can’t think of anything more boring. His boss launches into a lecture about the importance of education to the nation’s security. He ends by saying, “Take it or leave it, son,” he says. “It might be exciting. Those people are a bunch of conspiracy nuts, I hear.” David reluctantly agrees.
First surprise. David is expecting a boring conference.
David attends the PADAE conference with a staff photographer. His boss was right. They are a bunch of conspiracy nuts, who believe America is being dumbed down deliberately in order to make the population more controllable. Midway through the various rants, a man pulls a weapon and opens fire, slaughtering three of the PADAE people. He turns the weapon to kill others, but David uses his black belt Marine martial arts training to take the man down. The man struggles and shoots himself. As he is dying, he whispers to David, “They made me do it.”
He dies. All of this, except for the man’s whispered words, has been picked up on TV and broadcast over local TV stations, including David’s actions.
The cops arrive, including JW, who heard the call and came along. They take control and JW questions David. David tells him exactly what happened, but not what the killer whispered to him.
A TV reporter asks David what the man said. David grins and says, “Read the Washington Something tomorrow, and you’ll know.”
Later at his apartment David is struggling to write the story for transmission to the paper’s offices, which are now closed. He wants it to be a good story, to impress his boss, to gain a full-time position as a field reporter. He is sipping a whiskey as he works. There is a knock at the door. Surprised, he answers to find two men holding out FBI badges. They say they saw what he did on TV. Their boss wants to talk to him. David, a patriot, nods and goes with them.
First major turning point target scene
The agents take him not to the FBI office, but to a large mansion in Virginia. They are shown in. The agents leave him with a man who calls himself an Assistant Director of the FBI. The man has looked up David’s service record, which is impressive. He says what he is about to tell David is top secret. He requests David to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
The agents come in and witness the signing, then leave. The man tells David a story about an organization, (need name). The organization has obtained new brainwashing technology that allows them to quickly “turn” anyone over to their way of thinking. He doesn’t know what the technology is or what is their goal, but he knows it’s inimical to the best interests of the U.S. He wants David to use his position to track these people down, to become a thorn in their sides, to write about them, to try to stir them up, in hopes they will make a move or a mistake.
“In other words, you want me to be the bait. You want them to come after me.” David says. “That might not be healthy.”
“I saw how you handled yourself on TV tonight,” the man says. “Will you do it?”
“Hell, yes,” David answers.
End of sample Outline.
As you can see, this little discovery draft/outline gives you the flavor and pace of the novel, sets up puzzles, some suspense, and lets you get a feel for the characters. It was quick and easy to write and just as quick and easy to change.
The really good thing about the system is that if you find at scene/chapter 21 that you needed to set up some piece of information at scene 12, you zip back and quickly revise scene 12 and move along repairing all the dominoes.
If you are a discovery-drafter and hate outlining, try this mini-discovery system. You might like it. I’ve read that outliners tend to be more prolific than non-outliners.
Stephen King, of course, is a major exception. He says he thinks of an interesting situation, then takes off writing, just like a scientist on an archeological dig. Of course, he also got stuck at times because he didn’t know what to make happen next.
There are two other major turning point scenes in this book, one about halfway through, and one near the end. The “surprises” are scattered throughout to help keep the readers going.
Before I got halfway through this outline, I discoered a better premise for the novel, a different slant on the hero, a totally better set of villains, and an exciting concept about the type of paper the hero works for. The main thing is that I didn’t have to write 80,000 words to make those discoveries.
I rewrote the outline, eliminating scenes that didn’t fit, and now feel very satisfied with the flow of the book. All that’s left is to write a final draft from my mini-discovery draft.
One last thing. The 12-part structure I used here is just one of many ways to help structure a book. There are many other structures available, many of which are discussed in detail in The Quest for the Golden Quill of Storytelling.
Hope this article helps you get your story moving.