May 21, 2018

A Detailed Story Outline is Key

By Rich Ritter: The New Voice of the American West

I know what you’re thinking: “Why do I care about something as tedious as a story outline?” I understand. I’ve spoken with several authors who began a novel with only a minimal outline or (in one case) none at all. This approach may work for some, but I feel compelled to prepare a detailed story outline—likely because I am pathologically analytical. Recently, I heard a celebrity brag that it took over three months to write his book. I find this statement quite amusing because this is typically the length of time I require to write the outline. With this in mind, here are my suggested components of a detailed story outline:

1)       Book Titles. The first title that pops into your mind is usually not the best. Write it down anyway. And don’t stop there: record all potential titles, especially when they come to you in the bathroom.
2)      List of Characters. You have probably already imagined a number of characters. Write these down too, including when they were born, place of birth, interesting life experiences, psychological traits (especially pathologies), and anything else you can think of. Organize by primary and secondary.
3)      Chapters and Titles. I know this sounds painful, but you don’t have to come up with the entire Table of Contents in one sitting. List as many as you can, then give it a rest. If you keep thinking about it over the next few weeks, the chapters will automatically present themselves as your subconscious works it out while you’re asleep.
4)      The First Sentence of Every Chapter. At this point, you’re probably saying, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Well, I’m not. Just write out the sentences. Revise or replace them later.
5)      Outline of Each Chapter. This is why it takes months to prepare a detailed story outline (unless you’re a celebrity). If you can’t outline the chapters now, then you certainly can’t write them later.
6)      Research Notes. Mark Twain said, “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” Since I write edgy historical fiction, I always keep this in mind. Record any historical information relevant to your story, including sources. Insert links to Internet websites, articles, or news stories that will improve the authenticity of your writing. If you collect printed materials, organize for easy retrieval.
7)      Historical Photographs. I’ve used a single photograph to inspire a protagonist, an important event, or an entire chapter. Employ your favorite search engine to find photographs pertinent to your genre and story. Save with descriptive file names in a separate folder for each chapter. Make it a game and collect photos by the hundreds.

I encourage you to prepare the story outline in a series of increasingly improved drafts until you are deeply satisfied with your effort. When you finally begin that masterpiece, you will find that it nearly writes itself!
Rich Ritter is the son of a father who worked in the aerospace industry and a mother who taught first grade. Born in the Midwest during the Korean War, his family moved to California before he began the first grade. He attended second grade through high school in Anaheim, and then California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He completed his thesis year in Denmark, and while there met Kristine from Alaska—in the balcony of the Royal Danish Ballet during a performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. He moved to Alaska and married Kris a few years later. The author and his wife have two sons. Book titles: Toil Under the Sun: A Novel, Heart of Abigail: A Lyric Novella of Juneau, Douglas and Treadwell, Nor Things To Come: A Trilogy of the American West, Book One: The Perilous Journey Begins, Book Two: Gathering of the Clans, Book Three should be available in 6 months (or thereabouts). His social Media links:  --  --  --  --

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