Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Pulp Craftsman's Toolbox - The Page Outline

The Page Outline is a planning and storytelling structure that I have developed over the last few years to rocket-boost myself over the wanna-be writer hump and into genuine productivity. The inspiration for it arises from last minute seat of my pants essay writing methods I developed in college over a decade ago, revived and repurposed to defeat my two greatest writing foes. I hope that it will help to defeat yours.
I have experimented with both the heavily outlined and seat-of-your-pants styles of writing, and wind up with problems doing either of them. If I heavily outline a story, I lose myself in needless minutiae that feels like writing but ultimately contributes nothing to the finished piece. If I run by the seat of my pants the story drags and dissipates into a meaningless haze without fire or direction.
This technique attempts to resolve both of these issues while training myself and others to put (and finish) story first. You may use whatever story structure you prefer, though my preference is for a hybrid Lester Dent Pulp Master Plot with elements of the East Asian Ki-sho-ten-ketsu structure, which I will elaborate on later. It is a simple tool, but one which has provided me fantastic results. I will explain both the external (work affecting) and internal (psychology affecting) elements of each stage.

1. Determine the desired length of the piece.

        Externally, this is essential because it will affect the pace and grain of your story. Internally, this allows you to see the size of the piece and constrain the infinity of the white page down to a handful of blank sheets.

2. Allot yourself one line on a standard sheet of paper per target page.
        Externally, this frames up your story and will keep you from going into too-great a detail about any one page, keeping your mind's eye moving. Internally, this further narrows infinity and allows you a steady punctuation of completed lines.

3. Rapidly, fluidly write out your story according to your desired structure.
        This should be done in one sitting if possible, as this will allow the outline to cohere with itself. Remember your beats, and what must be done by each page of the tale.
Externally, this is the stage where you set fire to your idea and watch it play out in its entirety. If the idea is weak and comes apart four or five pages in, you've only given it four or five lines before revealing the flaw. If the idea overflows the banks of your framing, you will know you need to allot more space to the tale or are lingering overlong on things of particular interest. Pull the frame apart and put it back together if you think what you have cultivated so far is worthy.
Internally, doing all this in one setting prevents the inner editor from striking - its only an outline, after all. Your beats are clearly visible and changes and revisions as better or more clearly imagined ideas occur to you later in the story are simple. When you reach the end of the outline, guess what? You just told a story. No, you haven't set it into prose yet, but the story is there, and the story comes first!

4. Allow yourself five to twenty minutes to cool down from the storycrafting...but use the momentum you have developed in some way - write junk pages to get your prose warmed up, revise or edit existing pages. Keep your eyes on words, but don't look at your outline just yet.
Externally, this allows the story to set up and become an external thing from you, like something you'd find written up in a book. The goal here isn't to discard the piece, but to allow a little distance between the moment of outline and the moment of review.
Internally, this time away from the story further silences the Editor. By not looking at the piece, you do not fuel the little goblin, and when you do lay eyes on it again in the next step, it will be as a complete piece, not a half-begun stub.

5. Read the outline aloud.
No, you haven't put your best prose down, but verbalizing the outline is the spell that makes it real, makes it solid. If you find yourself grinning or laughing, make note of it! If you find your fingers itching to draw this moment or that in clearer detail, do so! Put the outline down and write up that line of dialogue, describe the way the stars glitter on the horizon, whatever.
Externally, this re-engages you with the story as a whole item. You take it in and feel the texture of the tale, see how well you applied your structure - where you drifted, and if so was it intentional. Does this part need more room, and you can replace that weaker part with it? Your handles on the story are very coarse at this point, so play with the structure.
Internally, this is where you proof the tale for real. Let your imagination run, feel out the cast and the details that you want to add into the bare and restricted outline. Trust your instinctual self.

6. When you are ready, lay out your page outline and write. Pull liberally from the notes and vignettes you have been sparked by, but write from beginning to end. You already know where you are headed - this is adding color, meat, and blood to the bones you have so carefully framed up earlier.
Externally, this is a simple affair. Sit your butt down and write. You've been writing for some time now with this already, haven't you?
Internally, this is where the Editor returns, but that energy is now your ally. The story is written and proofed. You know it is solid and now you have only to apply your craft and will to bring it fully into the world. Here the Editor will hold the outline, helping you to steer your prose toward the course you have already chosen, the self-defeating drive for perfection turned into a drive for completion. Do not be afraid in this phase to continue making changes - you have been over the story at least twice now, and this third trip through in more detail may reveal twists and turns that surprise you.

To summarize...
1. Determine page count and story structure.
2. Allot one line per page.
3. Write the story one line-page at a time, paying attention to your structure and inner eye, and complete it in one sitting.
4. Let things cool. Write practice prose pages, edit existing pages. Keep engaged with your work and voice.
5. Read the outline aloud. Elaborate and vignette what draws your especial interest.
6. Write out the story beginning to end with your outline to one side and Editor to the other. Keep it moving and get it done!

Give it a try and let me know what you think below.

P.S. Advanced Mode
Allot two lines per page. The second line is for your twist/new fact/reader interest element. One per page. Tell that tale and make it stick!

1 comment:

  1. James

    Super helpful advice but I don't understand #2. It's unclear. Are you refering to dialogue or description?

    Could you give us a generic example?