Some of you may have written an outline of the novel you will be writing. Some will have sketched out only the barest minimum—starts here; something happens over there; this thing takes place; somehow it all wraps up. Many of you will have no outline at all, but only a premise, a sense of some characters, a handful of scenes, and—if you’re lucky—an insistent voice dictating the telling of a story.
Outliners start with some gas in the tank, but for those of you who write without a certain idea of where you are going, starting can be gulp-inducing. Happily, NaNoWriMo is almost tailor-made for seat-of-the-pants writers. Plunging ahead is a great way to blaze a trail through the dark of an unknown story. Your trail may ultimately turn out to have wrong turns and dead ends, but the cutting of the path will help you figure out where you need to go.
One way to lessen such missteps and detours is to draw a picture of your story. Not so much an artfully shaded pencil rendering of your characters and their trials, but more a picture of the shape of your story. Most everyone is familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid, the basic structure of most dramatic storytelling. (If not, I’ve pasted it in below.1This is a slide from a talk about outlining I delivered a few years ago; the text is talk-specific, but you get the idea.)
But we’re not talking about that. We’re going to trust that you’ve already internalized the ideas above. More, we’re talking about other shapes that you might use to think about where to place key moments from your story. Nothing you’d have to slavishly follow, but more a way to think of the parts of your story in relationship to each other.
This idea came from a long-ago class with Samuel R. Delany, who proposed thinking about our novels visually so that we might see our ways to more interesting ways of telling our stories.
For example, one writer suggested her novel would be structured like the ripples from a stone dropped in a pond: the events of the book would be the ripples reverberating from a central incident. Until I read John Green’s Looking for Alaska, I couldn’t quite picture how such a book would work. Another writer had drawn a sort of sideways helix, narrowing to a point on the far-right margin. He explained that to his mind, the story’s events started broadly, with frequent shifts between characters, but then grew more focused as the novel progressed. Still another drew a series of circles on a line like pearls—self-contained units of story that together create a larger arc. (Think Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, among many novels-told-in-stories.)
These drawn shapes overlie Freytag’s pyramid, and are more just a shorthand way to organize your thoughts. To remind yourself as you write where bigger scenes might need to be placed. To give yourself the most rudimentary of road maps as you forge your way through a forest of prose toward that distant target of An Ending.
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