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Shortest possible review: How to write your book before you write your book. In other words, if you’re looking for a book to help you create better outlines faster, look elsewhere.
This review is a bit jumbled because it just didn’t feel like I needed to expend a whole lotta effort reviewing a book with such a grossly misleading title.
First, it was very important to Mr. Driver to clarify a couple things. The plot tells the story, meaning they are not the same thing. And, yes, this can be confusing.
Let’s use Sharp Objects as an example. The story is a reporter comes home to investigate the deaths of young girls. Along the way, she deals with her personal traumas and addictions, and her mother’s role in their formation.
The plot is that she drives home (as opposed to flying, taking a train, teleporting, and the like). She meets some teenage girls, including her younger sister, in a convenience store just outside of town. And so on.
The plot can follow the classic 3-act formula, the 4-act formula, or none of the above. For the sake of the story, how characters react to an event can be just as powerful, or even more so, than the event itself.
Jim Driver’s method expects this specific understanding of plot and story. I’ve tried to use them this way throughout the rest of this review. His idea of an outline is to capture:
- Who it’s for: the ideal reader
- Overview: condensed version of your book (which he doesn’t explain until near the end of this book)
- Ultimate aims: what are the protagonist and antagonist seeking within the context of your book; maybe some of the more important supporting characters, as well
- Premise: the lesson a reader will learn by reading your book
- Character progressions: how each important character changes through the course of the plot
- Character outlines: more like a novella about each character rather than what I expect an outline to be
Wanna cheat? Pick a book you like. Better yet, pick a current best seller in your selected genre. Change some things (when, where, characters’ demographics, the goal, and/or big event). Write that.
Ok, maybe make some additional changes based on the reviews. Do more of what the reviewers liked, fix what they didn’t.
Oh, wait. That’s from his other book. Something about using the Pulp Fiction method. Movin’ on.
Seriously, this guy’s all like, hey do this and the book practically writes itself! Well, duh, because you’ve literally written the skeleton and given it some musculature, maybe even some features. And clothes. All that’s needed to actually write the damn thing is add some dialog, descriptions, and smoother segues.
Create your target reader. Give them a name. Flesh out some details. From this point forward, run everything about your book through this reader’s point of view.
You need a protagonist. And an antagonist. Maybe start filling in some supporting characters, or maybe get to them later. Or some of both.
Time for the ultimate aims. Not like the character’s lifelong goal, but within this story, what’s their ultimate goal? For the purposes of this outline, ya gotta make it fit into one sentence. Not some run-on monstrosity with 156 words. But like, a normal sentence. Harold & Kumar’s ultimate goal was to go to White Castle. There were some side goals, like obtaining hospital grade weed and getting Harold’s car back from Neil Patrick Harris, but the ultimate goal was to get to White Castle.
Give the protagonist an impediment. Yeah, it could be a handicap, like what we usually think of when we hear the word impediment. But more often than not, we mean something that makes it difficult (or impossible) to achieve the ultimate aim. Like, Neil Patrick Harris stealing your car.
This is both easier and trickier for the antagonist. Their motivation defines their ultimate aim. Let’s say it’s a killer who murders 25-30yo married white men with 10-12yo sons. The motivation is triggered by the frame of mind that requires the killing to occur. A possible ultimate aim is to stop the need for the killings, as in, what itch does this scratch, and how do we get it to stop itching?
Additionally, why this protagonist/antagonist pair? Was the case merely assigned? Did the antagonist seek out this detective/reporter, and if so, why?
I really like his idea of using a character progression instead of a character arc. The latter is the hero’s journey. <insert inappropriate hand gesture here>. An arc makes assumptions about this person growing into a hero and then lauded for all eternity as the savior of whatever was saved.
The progression, however, is how the character changed and adapted to what’s happened to them. If they were in the same situation on both pages 2 and 252, what’s different about how they handled it? Better yet, put that in the book as part of the showing not telling the outcome or expression of the character’s progression.
It’s important to note that progression can be backwards and/or sideways, too. Their mental illness deteriorated. Their dog died and they’ve spiraled down into depression’s abyss, for example.
The premise (or theme) is the one-sentence distillation of the story’s core idea. To create the premise, answer these three questions:
- How does the story end?
- How did the lead character achieve this?
- What was situation at the beginning of the story? (the book can start anywhere)
For example, slow but steady wins the race is a good premise. Notice that it doesn’t tell us anything about the characters, location, and so on. It’s the lesson or overriding message the reader should know by the end of the book. It can be about rabbits and turtles, horses in a race, an up & coming drug king pin, or an old cop seeking redemption. Or two stoners totally jonesin’ for the ultimate munchies quencher. No, this is not the exhaustive list.
Next, write up a biography for the protagonist, and another for the antagonist. You may not use this backstory in this particular book, but if you’re writing a series, pieces may appear in each story in the set.
Remember to run this premise and the biographies through your ideal reader. Only you and this persona will know anything about this process. It’s all for you to write the book. The actual readers will likely have no idea that any of this work even happened, let alone what it all said.
The end of your book should be explosive, and compel the reader to want your next book. The options are:
- Positive – what Hollywood almost always uses
- Negative – the bad guy wins, all hope is lost
- Ambiguous Positive – good guy gets what he needs, not what he wants
- Ambiguous Negative – good guy gets what he wants, but it’s not a good thing
- Non-ending – the book is unfinished
Write as many endings as possible, and toss out the one you’d expect to see in a book from a big publishing house, a movie or TV show, and so on. Pick the one that’s both the most surprising and ties everything together. Or will tie it together once this massive pseudo-outline is tweaked a bit.
Never rush the ending. The reader trusted you to use their time wisely. That’s definitely not 348 pages of story with 2 pages of wrap up and ending.
Every scene must advance the story. It must fit the premise, and be necessary to get to the ending (or feed a subplot). Keep a list of all the details that must be included in a satisfying ending.
Similarly, keep updating the character biographies as details get written. Readers will notice that your midget in chapter 3 is over 6′ in chapter 22. Either you forgot to keep the biography updated or the story must explain how this happened.
Now write a narrative summary from beginning to end. While it doesn’t to have all the scenes, it should include all the important details and big events.
Scenes will likely turn into chapters, which drives the pacing. Book scenes are activity based, whereas movie scenes are location based. To go fast, include enough details to move the story forward and little else. To chill for a bit, provide more details and/or longer sentences & paragraphs.
Don’t feel like the reader can’t do any of the work. You don’t have to say they got in the car, put on their seatbelts, turned the engine on, backed out of the parking space, and so on. It’s perfectly acceptable to end one scene (chapter?) saying they’re gonna go somewhere, and then start the next at the destination.
Better yet, quickly summarize what happened, such as, “yeah, we canvassed the whole neighborhood last night, and nobody saw or heard a thing.” Only include canvassing details if they’re needed to provide a satisfying ending, make the reader feel smart for catching a clue in it, or provide a red herring.
If desired, add a subplot or two. Three is probably too many to expect a reader to keep track of. Subplots can add tension to the main story, kinda like the backstory of an action, reaction, or someone’s feelings. Why did this daughter get kidnapped instead of that one? Why does the inspector feel guilty about pulling this assignment?
Show don’t tell sometimes means writing a subplot to explain something instead of using one simple paragraph to summarize the why.
Figure out where subplots might help, and write quick summaries of them. Consider adding those that drive the story to the main plot. If there are more than two that delve deeper into a character’s why, keep the two that are the most interesting, or will better setup the surprise ending. Definitely eliminate anything that gives away the explosive ending.
This list of scenes, including the scenes needed for the subplot(s), is your outline. Ok, I’d call this an outline, whereas this author says we haven’t even started to outline, yet? He says everything so far is gathering info to create the outline?! Clearly we have very different definitions of what an outline is. But sure, let’s see where this goes.
Create a beginning, middle, and end for each scene. Create a hook at the end of each scene that keeps the reader intrigued enough to keep reading instead of putting the book down. This makes the book a page turner. Write all this up in a couple hundred word summary per chapter.
Include pertinent location-building details that the reader should know. What did it smell like? How was the lighting? Which tactile sensations are important, and what did they feel like?
Also include character-building bits. Get more mileage from the location building with the memories or thoughts that came up for various characters while these sensory things were happening. What emotions came up for these characters? Maybe these are great segues into subplot moments?
What does each character expect to get out of this scene? What did they bring with them, what was forgotten that was needed? What did each character actually get out of the scene?
Now’s a really good time to cut anything superfluous. If it’s not in the premise and/or doesn’t lead to the conclusion, is it really necessary? Afterall, you’re going to fill in everything that’s here. No point in wasting your (or the reader’s) time with inconsequential BS. Unless, of course, you’re providing the reader a red herring to increase the surprise ending’s wow factor.
Run all this by your target reader. Maybe do this after taking a break from authoring for a bit, to have fresh eyes, so to speak. As authors, it can be really easy to read what we meant to put in there. Coming back the next day can be enough time away for our brain to not fill in what’s missing.
Before writing your book, consider the viewpoint. Will it be first person? If so, how will scenes without the observer, usually the protagonist, be handled? Will chapters be first person by different viewers? How will the readers know who’s POV each chapter is using? Will some chapters be third person? Which scenes need to be modified or removed?
One thing not in this book that I’d like to add is which tense to use when. Is everything current, aka present tense? When might past tense be used? How are future thingies handled? On the one hand, a lot of readers prefer a single tense. But does this actually make sense for your book? Is a flashback present tense because it’s happening now, or past tense because it’s a memory?
Another thing about tenses and points of view is manipulating them to put the reader into a specific state of mind. Subtly jumbling these things can add to the edginess of a crime, thriller, or horror story. Personally I use present tense for what’s happening now, and past tense for what happened before, and then some weird amalgamated present perfect to describe future events.
Anywayz. Fix, remove, or replace anything that doesn’t fit the premise, isn’t explained by the ending, sounds too much like another book, doesn’t say what you’re intending to convey, or is boring. Add some twists or big surprises.
While he doesn’t include research, now might be a good time finish up any that’s needed to make this a better book. For example, if you’re going to include military personnel, make sure the ranks make sense. Don’t have the 4-star private telling a freshly-minted general what to do. Not only are these ranks inaccurate, you’re likely going to need a reason why the chain of command isn’t adhered to.
Once you have a good, condensed version of your book, you can finally start writing it. For reals, he considers this condensed book to be the outline. Let’s think about this for a moment. Let’s say your book has 20 scenes, and each scene has 200 words. Your outline has 4,000 words. Uh … no.
To me it feels like a lot of the book is likely already written by this point, and all that’s left is filling in the bare spots. And let’s face it, with all that’s been done so far, there really aren’t a lot of bare spots.
He really does say to write a couple hundred words per chapter in this “outline”, but then later says his chapters are 500-1,000 words long. Yep, that’s 1-3 magazine pages per chapter. And this pseudo-outline already has 20-50% of them.
Lastly, write plainly. It’s better to beautifully use common words than it is to use beautiful, uncommon words in an ordinary matter. For example, it’s, “the cat sat on the mat,” not, “the glorious feline ensconced itself on the delightful Persian weavings.” Afterall, nothing stops the reader quite like labeling themselves as too stupid because they don’t know what a carbuncle is or why it’s used. To save face, they’re more likely to label your book as stupid and cast it aside.
So, yeah, I’m glad I read this book. But the title is 100% inaccurate. An outline is, well, an outline. A hierarchical, lettered & numbered list. Maybe add a couple bullet points about location sensories and character feels. But it’s still a list.
Secondly, no, you’re not going to die if you don’t do this.
Adding this book to The Snowflake Method feels like a whole lotta actionable wisdom to help pantser authors fine tune their craft without being tied down to a specific style or formulaic story telling. Jim, here, explains how to use Scrivener to write his, uh, outlines, whereas Randy (Snowflake Method) created a quick little app to help you write.
Either way your pantser ways are tamed enough to put out better books without hampering the creativity and/or rush you feel by not having some strict method to follow. Both give you the option to pick up and write wherever you feel like writing at the moment, and both give you moments to let your pants fly. Wait, maybe we’ve pushed this metaphor further than it was meant to go.
Anywayz, as a pantser in remission, the Snowflake method means I can fly by the seat of my pants to come up with the initial flakes, and maybe even while filling them in to build more flakes.
In the pseudo-outline method, the seat of the pants thing can happen with the initial setup, be turned off for a bit while tacking some things down, and then let loose again to finish the writing within the, um, outline.