The Outline v. The (Silver) Dragon

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Figure A. My brain starting a story.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

This is my brain when I’m trying to start a story.

It’s all sort of balanced. There’s deep purple underlying it all (my protagonist, usually.) The orange, red, and yellow splashes are harmonious, and nicely accented by the fuchsia (where did THAT come from?)

What it’s not is linear. There’s no clear beginning, nor a clear end, and how the heck do you connect the cyan? It’s subtle, but it’s important, and it’s not really clear how it works in…

I just read an article from Steve Morrill, my old writing teacher over at In his July 2015 school essay he explains the importance of an outline and a “bible” (a list of characters, background, history, et. al. that may not appear in the story directly but which profoundly influences it.) Steve’s take on trying to write a novel without an outline: “That’s like hopping into your car and stomping on the gas without bothering to hold the steering wheel. The almost certain result is not going to be pretty.”

Steve Morrill's Brain Starting a Story
Figure B. Steve Morrill’s brain starting a story
I agree with him. My results have not been pretty. And it’s not like Steve, along with other teachers, didn’t try to teach me to outline. But, well, anything that’s short story, or magazine article, or even thirty-minute screenplay length (i.e. a typical one-semester student project) is small enough for me to carry it in my brain. Yes, in that horribly chaotic form in Figure A. I just spilled ’em out, prettied them up, and back-created the outline to hand in for my first assignment. Then I had the draft ready for my term project, and could add in changes from my outline…

Alternatively, I did the whole thing in the last three days before the end of the semester. If I had to hand in outlines earlier, they were only vaguely related to the actual writing. The outlines I did first always got low grades. Deservedly so.

Well, dear readers, I’ve been trying for a year (or more) to learn how to write the damnable outline before I write the story. Yes, I saw the light some time ago; a novel is too freaking big to keep track of in my brain. I’ve tried to come up with something even vaguely resembling Steve’s neat tables for my last three projects. Or even something that doesn’t resemble Steve’s tables as long as it doesn’t resemble beef stew that’s been spilled on the floor.

I need a brain comb. I need a device or a process or something that will help me take Figure A and smooth it out, remove the tangles, and result in a silky-smooth story outline and bible as in Figure B. So far, old-fashioned index cards don’t work. Excel tables don’t work. Traditional outlines — tangle me more. I was gung-ho for a while on a technique based on improvisational gaming — but I’m not enough of an in-person live action gamer to make it work. I’m getting a little traction with mind mapping software. If I get it going I’ll post some reviews and process information.

In the meantime, I welcome all suggestions and comments.

gaelle kermen

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