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How I Outline

I like to think that my stories have equally powerful plot and characters. But at the outlining stage I focus on plot and develop my characters as I go. I basically adhere to Hitchcock’s advice: ‘First decide what your characters must do, then provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they would do it.’

There are two questions I repeatedly ask myself as I’m outlining my story:

1. What character would be most challenged by the situation I’ve created?

2. What situation would most challenge the character I have in mind?

Answering the question about character gives me ideas for the plot, and exploring the question about situation gives me ideas about my characters. In this way my plot and characters are like two seedlings planted side by side that continually intertwine as they grow.

Outlining RUN TO ME

When I was creating the plot for RUN TO ME, initially I knew only that my heroine was going to save the life of a runaway boy. That was the idea I started with.

Considering the danger the boy was in, (being chased by killers) that would have been a difficult enough task for my heroine. But by repeatedly asking myself, ‘What would make that situation even more challenging?’ I found new dimensions not only to my character but the plot as well.

In my heroine’s case I gave her a similar experience in her past – she’d once had to protect her own son and failed, leaving her crippled with guilt over her only child’s death. To then be faced with that situation again, even involving a total stranger, it would have a far greater impact on her.

Adding this element made the story more compelling to me. But by pushing even further and asking the question again – how can this situation be even worse for my character? – I came up with another plot element: not only does the heroine carry this dark secret from her past, she is still adversely affected by it in that she suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – to the point she can barely function in the world.

So by repeatedly asking these questions in the plotting stage, I moved from ‘a woman helping a boy in danger’, to ‘a damaged recluse, in hiding from the world, forced to relive the very experience that drove her to that state – the greatest challenge she could possibly face that will push her to the very brink of insanity.’

After going through this process with the heroine, I moved to my second main character, ten-year-old Zack, and asked that same question – bad enough he’s a child being chased by killers, what could make that situation even worse for him?

Answer: Zack is an orphan who’s been shunted from one foster home to the next. For years he’s been desperate for a mother’s love and now suddenly he’s presented with a ‘mother’ who seems to adore him and is prepared to give her life to protect him. The only catch is, she thinks he’s her dead son, Jesse; which means she doesn’t love him at all. To be given this taste of his deepest desire yet denied the reality, ups the emotional stakes for Zack.

Lastly, I repeated the process with my hero. As he’s a doctor dedicated to helping people, I decided what would make things hardest for him would be to present him with an ethical dilemma – help the woman he’s falling in love with, even though he can see she’s unstable, or do things ‘by the book’ and run the risk of her being killed.

To make this situation even worse for the hero, I gave him an experience in his past where he was faced with a similar choice – he’d once tried to help a victim of abuse through the ‘proper’ channels and in that instance the woman had died. This time, because it’s a woman he cares for on a personal level, his decision is all the more agonizing.

These were the questions I explored in creating my outline for RUN TO ME. I firmly believe this preliminary stage helped me get the most from my original idea. If I’d simply sat down and started writing, I doubt I would’ve come up with these extra dimensions to my plot and characters. Or, if I did, they would’ve occurred to me so far into my first draft, I’d have had to go back and rewrite a lot of earlier material.

So while it takes some extra time initially, for my money, outlining is well worth the effort. Spinning my yarns becomes so much easier with a bit of thoughtful preparation first.

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