How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
I rarely outline, not at first anyhow. But like most writers, I do a lot of thinking about structure, and especially about what I call the reveal.
Admittedly, outlines are great for seeing what you’ve got to work with and for playing around with organization. But they also wheel us back to the artifices of academia that work against fresh, lively prose.
The outline’s partner in crime is the five-paragraph essay. Both set up habits that please teachers but stifle interest. Find a topic, chop it up in the most obvious way, knit it back together with a thesis statement and a bunch of handy transitions, reiterate, reiterate, reiterate, and then wrap it all up. You may thank Artistotle for the snores of your readers.
This training is all wrong. We’re not building a case in a courtroom. We’re aiming for art, insight, and enjoyment. But if logic’s not the best way to arrive at surprise and delight, a hodgepodge doesn’t satisfy either.
Rewind to Aristotle, more helpful with his three acts. Beginning, middle, end; set-up, complication, climax/resolution. Screenwriters can tell you how long each should be, and how the action shifts. The more we read, the more good movies we watch, the more we develop an intuitive sense these three acts, so as we’re playing around with ideas for a story or a narrative essay or a book, we start to envision scenes in which the action builds from the set-up and complications toward a climax and resolution.
Though we’d like to think the process is entirely organic, at some level order does get imposed. The question turns to when and what kind of order. First thoughts aren’t always best thoughts, and that’s the problem with a lot of traditional outlining, which carves a topic into logical parts and arranges them in the most logical and expected manner.
Pulitzer-prize winning author Jon Franklin says there are three levels of story: the academic, polished level; the outline level that deals with conceptual relationships between characters; and the structural level, made up of major focuses that zoom in on emotional turning points. Transitions aren’t used to connect dots, but to move the reader from scene to scene.
The first focus
Franklin calls the complicating focus. It’s where your reader is hooked, where character begins to unfold, where the nature of the dilemma is made clear. The second focus, in three or more parts, is the developmental focus, where complications are explored. Each of these has its own beginning, middle, and end. The first can carry a flashback. At the end of the third comes a moment of insight, a plot point in screenwriter lingo. A resolving focus comes at the end.
S.C. Gwynne’s bestseller Empire of the Summer Moon, a finalist for the Pulitzer, is a great example of
Franklin’s principles on the page. The subtitle reveals the scope of this nonfiction book: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Outlined in the traditional way, it would follow the life of Quanah Parker, starting with his birth, tracking the rise of his influence, and ending with his death. Yawn.
Gwynne begins instead with a complicating focus, hooking the reader with on-the-ground accounts of fierce Comanche battles. Hints of Quanah’s character through the captivating (literally) story of his mother, a white woman taken by the Comanches. The over-arching dilemma is clear: the Comanches rise up as warriors among the Plains Indian tribes, and they won’t go down without a fight. Every complication has its own beginning, middle, and end: the introduction of the horse onto the American plains, the botched Indian policies of the
U.S. government, the in-fighting among tribes. Each focus weaves into the others, and the very, very end of the book satisfies the reader’s anticipation of how they’ll ultimately come together.
Even at the paragraph level, Gwynne is a master of rocking the traditional order. Look at where he puts the traditional topic sentence in this excerpt, which comes at the end of a long paragraph about the blunders of Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, deemed the “Anti-Custer” by Gwynne:
Large concentrations of soldiers with long supply trains were a signal to simply disappear, which was usually easy enough. It was the reason so many
troops spent so much time marching and riding about, looking for and not finding Indians. Not finding Indians had been the principal activity of the U.S. cavalry for years in the West. Mackenzie’s force was enormous by plains standards: It was the largest that had ever been sent to pursue Indians. U.S.
“Not finding Indians had been the principal activity of the
U.S. cavalry for years in the West.” A less writer would have killed the reveal by moving this great one-liner to the top of the paragraph where we expect the topic sentence, and thereby deflating its effect by half.
Withholding is a huge part of good writing. So is shaking up the traditional order.
Try This: Shake up the order of your work in progress. Think like a camera, zooming and in and out of complications. Work the stories within your story. Strategize your reveals. As Seth Kantner says, you need to always carry your reader, but don’t overuse transitions to impose logic; instead, use them sparingly, to move the reader from scene to scene.
Check This Out: Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story promises – and delivers on – craft secrets of dramatic non-fiction by a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. It opens new ways to think about structure for writers of fiction, too.