The Power of Simple Structure—Creating a 15-Word Outline

IMG_0002One of my favorite books about writing is the venerable Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by Jon Franklin. He advocates reducing your story to its bare essence and testing it up front, before you write thousands of words, to correct any structural flaws.

This calls for an outline of 15 words, max. Any more than that and you flirt with fuzzy thinking.

A sample outline

For example, here is Franklin’s outline for story in which Joe (the main character) gets fired unfairly and eventually sues to get his job back:

  1. Company fires Joe
  2. Depression paralyzes Joe
  3. Joe regains confidence
  4. Joes sues company
  5. Joe regains job

Statement #1 in this outline is the complication — the problem that suddenly confronts Joe. Statement #5 is the resolution — Joe’s solution to the problem. And statements #2 through #4 represent the major turning points in the story. These are the milestone events that occur between complication and resolution.

Notice that each statement follows a specific grammatical form: noun, active verb, direct object. This is critical.

Five statements. Three words per statement. (Franklin calls them focus statements.) Fifteen words total. That’s it.

Of course, each statement can represent hundreds or even thousands of words of text in your final draft.

“Joe sues company,” for example, might be the climax of a long scene in which Joe enters the courtroom, witnesses his trial, and hears the judge deliver her final decision in his favor.

Test your outline with these questions

You might be surprised at how long it takes to write your 15-word outline. That’s because each word must be consciously chosen. Revise each statement until you can answer yes to these questions:

  • Does the verb connote action? A story is about people who do something about a complicating situation in their lives.
  • Is your main character in the statement? If not, then your story will lose focus.
  • Can you illustrate the statement by writing a scene? A good story is driven by dialogue and action—people who talk to each other, make decisions, and move into action. Lacking those things, you have a lecture—not a story.

Most importantly, does the resolution (statement #5) actually resolve the complication (statement #1)? With certain exceptions (such as Hamlet) great stories have constructive endings. This means that the main character undergoes a transformation that allows him or her to finally solve the major problem—that is, to resolve the complication.

Stories about people who fail to resolve complications are sad, sad, sad. These stories leave audiences feeling vulnerable and possibly victimized. (Imagine Lord of the Rings with all of the Hobbits getting killed.)

Most of us turn to movies and novels for the opposite reason. We want people who triumph—who change, develop, and learn enough to solve a problem.

In good stories, this often takes place with pain and sacrifice on the part of the main character. Yet the ending feels complete and satisfying. Despite facing hardship, the main character ultimately survives and prevails.

Applying these ideas to nonfiction books

Writing for Story is about crafting “creative nonfiction”—true stories that unfold like a novel. Examples are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.

But can Franklin’s ideas about outlining and telling a good story apply to business books, self-help books, and other genres favored by idea entrepreneurs?

Yes. And my next post will explain how.

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