Shedding The Stigma: Outlining Like A Pulitzer Prize Winner

Outlining, or sometimes called “plotting,” is one of those filthy concepts that is not discussed often in creative writing courses.  For example, in Writing Fiction A Guide to Narrative Craft, a book often used on writing courses, outlining it isn’t even mentioned as a possible tool for writing fiction. When it is discussed by writers or students you get comments like…

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” Stephan King, On Writing. P.164

So, we ignore outlining. There are justifications: stories are more about characters not plot, plotted stories are ‘formulaic stories,’ and more. But the result is often the sense that those who outline and plot are hacks.

Then I read this by two time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin,

“I don’t care what you’ve heard, or what your literature teacher said, or even what the writers themselves said. Every writer of any merit at all during the last five hundred years of English history outlined virtually everything he wrote.” Jon Franklin, Writing for Story, P. 110

When you start digging, you do find that many writers outline, and yet, I don’t remember any particular class or instruction into the ideas of outlining in any of the creative writing courses I took. And I want to remedy this.

The John Franklin Outline: A definition.

Among the horrors of middle school, teeth lock first kisses, tinfoil lunches of turkey tetrazzini (which I’ve recently discovered isn’t the mush of canned mashed potatoes and turkey parts they gave us in school), and of course the classic outline for writing essays. Littered with roman numerals and the “i, ii, iiis,” those outlines were the bane of joy. English teachers brought us before those outlines and slashed red inked marks of disappointment through it all.

Franklin argues that those outlines which he terms “The English Teacher’s Revenge” is what gives outlining a bad name. It is also that experience that fueling our belief that outlines are useless and only produce bad writing.

The Franklin purposes a different way to outline:

The key points of an Franklin Outline: 

  • They’re short.
  • Noun Verb Noun.
  • Action Verbs.
  • Resolution completes Complication
  • Allows a meta verse micro interaction of the story. 

So what does the Franklin outline look like? Well they look something like this:

Complication: Company fires Joe

Development: 

1. Depression paralyzes Joe

2. Joe regains confidence

3. Joe sues company

Resolution: Joe regains job

(From p.121)

Unlike the school outlines we were taught, the statements are very short sentences: usually made up of two or three words. These sparse sentences emphasize a Noun, Action verb, and a direct object. No articles (the/an). No adjectives. No adverbs. Nouns and verbs and a direct object to take the abuse. Nothing else.

Franklin argues that we must take the time to find the right word for these noun verb noun chains. Why is this so important to Franklin? Let’s look at two sentences:

Joe is now unemployed 

Verse:

Company Fires Joe

Both sentences are very sad, yes, but which sentence could you make an elementary school level crayon picture of the sentence?

If you answered that the first sentence is easier to draw, then clearly you’re the type of person that thinks taking Ketamine and staring up at asbestos dusted ceilings is a cracking Friday night. Please stop taking drugs. If we were to try drawing this, what would you draw exactly? Joe homeless? Joe eating cup ramen on his couch while playing playstation?

The reason that number two is better, according to Franklin, is that the sentence is actionable. It’s vivid. It gives us something we can imagine with movement. We can see the gorilla of a man in his stupid bobbed hair and pencil tie, grunting his way down the hall and giving poor Joe a pink slip and a leftover box from Costco to clean out his cubical. All thanks to the active verb.

The second difference is that each statement in the outline represents the end of a section of the story. Not the beginning like in the school outline.

Complication: Writer chokes story

1.) Doubt cripples writer

2.) Writer Learns outlining

3.) Writer grapples story

Resolution: Writer liberates story.

In the above outline, when would we imagine the writer realizing that the story he had labored on for months is choked and completely shit?

Probably not in the first paragraph. But after a paragraph or two where we’ve been brought into the situation, the world, the trash of empty bottles and pizza boxes littering the writing space and the tornado of tiny flies swirling above it all. And this is good for us as writers. Like blurry eyed college students about to embark on their first road trip, you need to know where you’re going, not necessarily how you’re going to get there.  By knowing the important point that you’re working toward as opposed to the place where you’re starting, you have made the decision of what is important in the story. That’s much easier to write, and according to Franklin, less likely to “spaghetti.” 

Why Franklin says outlines are better than going commando. 

So you sit down and you write an outline. What’s next? Well, one to keep in mind is, the outline is not a list of commandments. The sections are terse and bare of detail. They give us the idea of images and movement but it leaves the writing of the story in the woodworking.

Franklin suggests that we tact up the outline behind our typewriters, (the book is from the 80’s) and whenever we stray from what we wrote in the outline, or we hit the brick wall and freeze, we look up at the outline. If we deviated from the outline, we should ask ourselves why we did it. Was it because the story is better this way, or we just got lost?

For example, if we deviated by tossing in a garden gnome who dreams of being a superhero because we thought it would be cool, but when step back and realize that no, it wouldn’t be so cool for the story as a whole, we cut it. However, if we feel that maybe this is what the story is really about, we go back to the outline and adjust the whole outline (if you change one part it will likely affect the rest of the outline).

And that’s the thing about the woodworking process while using a Franklin outline: it’s a negotiation between the draft and the outline. One affects the other until the structure of the story is solid, complete.

Another benefit of this process is the ever-present reminder of the complication and the resolution of the story. What is the purpose/structure/meaning of your story? This is something that is very hard to keep in mind when just doing the woodwork of writing a draft but by using the Franklin outline we already made that decision (a decision we can change) and we have it tacked up beside our monitors to keep it in mind.

And so you write, comparing the draft with the outline, adjust and continue the negotiation between the two until the story is structurally finished.

DELIBERATE PRACTICE: Three exercises to try it.

So great, we got the bare bones of the Franklin system of outlining. We have the arguments of how and why this could be an asset for us when we approach shorter forms of either nonfiction or fiction. The best way to see if it is a benefit to you is to experiment for yourself.

After trying the practice sessions let me know how it worked for you. Do you think it could be a benefit? 

Practice #1: Dissection.

Benefits:

-Allows you to practice “reading like a writer,” analyzing stories with an eye for structure (and meaning), and gives you sense of how the outline and the story are very separate animals.

-Repeatable

-Gives you a sense of the stories you like, and perhaps a deeper insight as why you like them.

Dissection: 

In the book, John Franklin includes two of his pulitzer winning stories. Both with and without annotation. He also gives us the outlines he used in writing the stories.

Using the outline system, dissect a story of your choosing and decide what is the complication/resolution and developmental focuses. 

Example: 

Dissecting George Saunders’ story “Sea Oak”

I first read “Sea Oak” in the (The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories) and absolutely loved it. It’s the story that made me a fan of George Saunders. But what makes the story tick? Why was I so drawn to it? So I decided to use the Franklin model to break it down.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, please read it. Take some time to make a Franklin outline, then when you feel that you’ve got it, compare it with mine [Link]

Practice #2

Write a new story using the outline method. You could write an imitation story based on the outline you made in Practice #1, or a new story. The goal is to get a feel of using the Franklin outline and making a decision on whether or not this is something that aids you in writing/reading stories or not.

Benefit:

– Can add clarity to the story generation process. 

– Can make writing stories quicker (less time sitting and the table banging your head when you hit the brick wall.)

Practice #3

Read Writing for Story.

Benefit: Franklin goes into far greater depth about outlines, what makes a good complication/resolution, characters, and a whole lot more. There are many little gems worth learning.

Thanks to Domenic Stansberry for assigning this book to me. 

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