Crayons, conflicts, crises, and catastrophes: how I’m outlining my new novel

When I was in grad school, I once participated in a group presentation on Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I forget what all the group as a whole wound up saying, but I remember clearly that my first instinct was to focus on that famous first chapter, where the author of the book (Vonnegut himself?) explains why and how he went about telling this story about the bombing of Dresden in WWII and poor Billy Pilgrim coming unstuck in time as a consequence.

I was interested in the narrative device of opening with a metafictional prologue like that, with the voice that Vonnegut establishes in that chapter, with that chapter’s relationship to the author’s later appearance in Billy Pilgrim’s story. In order to sort those issues out, I realized I would need some kind of outline for my part of the presentation, and in a flash of insight, I realized that the text itself had provided me with one. It’s right there in Chapter 1, in the author’s own words:

The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper. I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.

I didn’t have any wallpaper handy, but I popped out to the local Walmart and picked up a roll of contact paper. (Close enough, I figured.) And I borrowed my wife’s (then-fiancée’s) crayons from her art set, and I recreated Vonnegut’s own outline.

I’m sad to say that I don’t know what happened to it. I know I kept it, but where it’s gone in all our various moves in the 15 years since I drew it, I can’t recall. (That’s okay: grab some crayons and make your own!) But I was thinking about that graph today, and about Vonnegut’s famous “shapes of stories” lecture, and about story arcs and plot points and outlines.

This coming week, I have set aside my writing time for outlining my new novel. It’s the one I’m taking to workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference next month, and while I know where the story is headed and I’ve written and revised and thrown away a handful of outlines already, I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle the various narrative lines I’ve created.

(Okay, these Scrivener notes aren’t “outlines” as one might normally think of them, but it’s how I work on the computer.)

Then, on Friday, I got the current issue of Poets & Writers, and I found the “Literary Life” article by Benjamin Percy, “Preparing for the Worst: The Negatively Framed Outline.” (I’m sad to say the article isn’t available online, but get thee to a library or bookstore and look on page 23 of the July/August 2015 issue of P&W.)

Before this week, I’d been leaving off the outline and focusing on producing content, on letting the story evolve at its own pace and getting to know at least one of my characters as I explored his backstory on the page. I’d been playing out the organic line and seeing what came of it, and I’ve been getting great results — this character is really coming to life. But I was also thinking about the story to come, watching it recede the closer I got to it, like a dolly zoom in a horror film, and I was wondering just how big this book was going to get. How much content I was going to wind up producing only to throw it away later.

I was feeling the need for some sense of order, and then I read the Percy article in P&W, which opens with this sentence: “When I talk about the bloody business of writing fiction, I sometimes reference the act of mapmaking, blueprinting, planning out a story before beginning it.”

And I remembered Vonnegut’s crayons. I remembered Bill Roorbach’s “mapping the story” exercise (a couple of weeks ago, I was in Google Maps plotting the towns where the early action is set; I even got into GIMP and designed the floorplan of a character’s home, just to orient myself). I remembered my old screenwriting course in grad school, the lessons I learned about three-act structure and climactic moments and turning points in the plot.

So today, ahead of schedule, I found a brown paper bag from my local comic book store, I slit it open longwise and spread it out, and I started drawing an outline (the image below isn’t clickable, because it might contain spoilers — zoom in at your own risk).


It’s not terribly colorful at the moment — I’m just working with pencil and black Sharpie — but it’s a version of something I’m toying with. The longest line is the protagonist, and he’s following the classic story arc of a long rising action toward a climactic moment, followed by a fairly rapid denouement.

The second line picks up at the first turning point and shows the arc of a secondary character, a lowly member of the protagonist’s gang who I’m planning to use as a kind of “Greek chorus” figure, chronicling the events from other perspectives. But he’s also a human being who plays a role in the events of the story, so he gets an arc, too, albeit a shorter one.

The third line is the antagonist, whom we’ll probably meet before the midway point in the story but I’ve put his introduction there for the time being because that’s when I think he’ll become a major, active force in the story. (Thanks, too, to author Ben Boulden — my cousin! — for pointing me in the direction of a historical figure who has become the basis for this antagonist. Another thing I’ve figured out ion the past week or so!)

You’ll notice that all three lines rise to the same climactic moment, everyone’s story coming to a head at once. That doesn’t mean they have the same climax — I’m hoping for some layers here — but in terms of story, there is one major event that’s going to occur in the vicinity of the 3/4 mark, and everything will unravel from there.

What’s less obvious are the pencilled-in mini-arcs, a rising and climax and falling action in each quarter of the chart. There are several other characters I’m working with in this book, and they’ll all have their arcs, too, some of which will be tied to the main arc but some of which will rise and resolve in tighter, more contained subplots. Those are some of the things I’ll be working out this coming week.

One other thing I’ve been thinking about is the relationship between external and internal conflict, and that’s probably where I’ll start breaking out colors. For this, I’m returning to a familiar favorite, Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Building Fiction. Her discussion of how to balance internal and external conflict and her concrete advice on bringing each to its own climactic moment (or “crisis action”) is fantastically practical:

External conflict is always resolved by a visible crisis action, no matter how small that action may be. Readers must be able to see the crisis action. It must happen in the external world of the story, like the runner winning the race or Cinderella sliding her foot into the slipper. [. . .] If exterior conflicts are resolved by an exterior crisis action, it is equally true that interior conflicts are resolved inside a character or in some secondary reflection of a character’s internal thoughts, such as dialogue or analysis by a narrator or author. If Cinderella’s internal conflict is Am I worthy of love? then the internal crisis occurs when she decides to put her foot in the shoe and risk being recognized and loved by the prince. The crisis is the moment she decided to act. [. . .] Either way the internal crisis takes place inside a character, and that leads to the external crisis action.

I’ve long known what the main external climax, or crisis action, is going to be in this novel, and I’ve known a few of the minor external crisis actions, too. But the internal crises are trickier, and it’s one reason I was setting aside plot and just exploring character the past few weeks: I was trying to get inside to find the motivations and internal conflicts.

And that brings me back to the Percy article in P&W. The title, “Preparing for the Worst,” is a reference to the worst-case scenario for characters: “If you know your higher-order goal, and if you know your character’s weaknesses, the calculus isn’t complicated.”

Percy then launches into an analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark: We find out in the opening sequence that Indiana Jones has a mortal terror of snakes. Later, as Indy gets involved in the main plot, Percy argues that while Indy’s main goal is to find the Ark, he’s doing so mostly to prevent the Ark from falling into the hands of the Nazis. So, about two-thirds or so into the film, where does he find the Ark? In a pit full of asps. And once he hoists the Ark up out of the snakepit, he discovers that the Nazis are there waiting. They steal the Ark and seal Indy in the pit.

He has lost the Ark — and he might lose his life to the thing he fears more than a firing squad: “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Worst-case scenario: check.

I started thinking about my protagonist’s worst fears, the main internal conflict I had discovered over the past few weeks, and I realized that the main crisis action actually had nothing to do with that internal conflict. So how to bring his internal conflict to a reasonable crisis point? I played Percy’s game, and based just on the few dozen pages I’ve written about this character’s backstory, I found his worst fears and realized how I could connect those to his situation at the external crisis point. So the internal and external conflicts can get resolved not at the same time, not through the same action, but at least in concert with each other. And, exactly as Kercheval suggests, the internal crisis point is going to lead to the external crisis point.

It’s been an illuminating couple of days, folks, and it’s all been focused on the thing I struggle with most: plot. But with Percy’s “worst-case scenario” exercise and his “Negatively Framed Outline” article, combined with Kercheval’s layered story arcs of external and internal conflict and Vonnegut’s crayons and story shapes, I’m beginning to see the bigger picture on this new novel.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

3 thoughts on “Crayons, conflicts, crises, and catastrophes: how I’m outlining my new novel

  1. I love articles and blogs on writing technique. There’s one series – in the hands of my good friend Millie Ho, who is not only a writer but also did the cover illustrations for two of my published novels – that I follow avidly. It’s great to join in, to measure the way I write against the way other people write. When it comes down to posts about writing technique from you, Sam, I realise that I would be ‘joining in’ with someone who actually teaches how to write. I’m probably a wee bit more ‘backward in coming forward’.

    I like to buck technique, I love to ignore rules and methods, and to write by the seat of my pants. I think I make writing difficult for myself that way, but I don’t believe that making writing easy is a goal anyway. I try to ignore the concepts of ‘story arcs’ etc. etc. As an admirer of early ‘modernist’ writers like Katherine Mansfield, I am suspicious of the convention that demands a ‘resolution’ to a story – I can and do write like that if needs be, but I feel that the writing process can then be ‘end-driven’, too ‘male’, for want of a better word. On Millie’s blog we had an interesting thread about whether ‘resolution’ and ‘closure’ were the same thing; we concluded they weren’t, resolution being a matter of structure, and closure being a reader’s feeling that they had read a complete story. The latter does not necessarily depend on resolution.

    If I have a process at all, it may involve some or all of this:

    I open a word doc and simply record any idea that comes into my head about the book I’m going to write / am writing. Characters, happenings, possible starting points, possible arrival points (is that simply a ‘soft’ term for ‘resolution’?), pieces of research, glossary items, anything. It tends to ramble, it tends to be chaotic and orderless, but there’s this wonderful thing called ‘cut-and-paste’ which means I can shuffle stuff around if I want to. 🙂

    I open another word doc and write any episode that occurs to me, from anywhere in the story. Ditto with the cut-and-paste.

    I sometimes open a third word doc into which finished stuff can be transcribed, and this eventually becomes my ms.

    What I hope comes from this is that something grows ‘organically’ (again for want of a better term). I save on wallpaper. You have no idea how much I admire Vonnegut, by the way, but I’m not Vonnegut (any more than I’m Snoek-Brown) so I mustn’t try to be him. 🙂

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