The 9-point outline.

As I discussed here, I am doing a “30×30” list (thirty tasks in the first year of my thirties), and one of the items is that I will take thirty writing ideas to the 9-point outline stage.  When i am outlining a project, I begin with the simple, single sentence encompassing the whole thing. Then I write the hook, the paragraph long text you might see on the back cover or book jacket. From there, I do the old 3-Act outline–beginning, middle, and end. I then take a paragraph to establish the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist as well as define their key conflict in detail. After that, I follow that with the 9-point Outline.

The 9-point outline is my favorite moment in the outlining process. In fact, until I hit the actual penning stage, it may be my most fulfilling point of development in a project. I love it for three reasons.

First, if you got nine points, you have something. If your beginning, middle, and end are set, and each of those acts has a solid arc, then you are on your way. Your story is more than
boy runs up tree (beginning);
boy stuck in tree (middle);
boy gets out of tree (end).
Now,
boy enjoys the day (beginning’s beginning),
boy gets chased (beginning’s middle),
boy finds and climbs tree (beginning’s end).
boy survives in tree, (middle’s beginning)
boy finds advantage in tree, (middle’s middle) (midpoint/changeover)
boys pursuer invades tree (middle’s end)
boy is pursued further up tree (end’s beginning)
boy leaps from tree, (end’s middle)
boy escapes, lives happily ever after (end’s end)
The story has some meat on it at this point–granted, it’s no magnum opus, but if you can at least make each act have an arc, you’ve got something.

Second, the 9-point gives you some real flavor for your pacing. We all know that stories hold attention by pacing, even if it is methodically slow but thematically engaging; and the 9-point gives you a glimpse into what aspects of the story should be shorter or longer. For example, the climb up the tree might be a bit longer than the leap from the tree, and once the boy has leaped, you will not want to oversell his flight, either (after all, the story is about a kid stuck in a tree, not a kid running away from a tree—once he’s on firm ground, get out!). Your 9-point shows you at least a glimpse of this, if not showing you it in full.

Third, the 9-point, while it gives a good base outline with which to run, really does not confine you to anything. Inasmuch as you have found your general idea and its basic form, you still have a great deal of leeway to develop your world and your story. For example, how does the boy find the tree? Is this the only option? If not, why choose that one? What keeps his pursuer from reaching him? What does the boy find in the tree? Does the tree produce hazards of its own?  A beehive? A jaguar? Another kid in hiding? How does he manage to leap without injury? Once he does, how can he now outrun his pursuer? What did he find in the middle of the middle that make the middle of the end so compelling?At the 9-point stage, you have created all these good, important story questions, and you have a wealth of possiblities with which to answer them. Oh, and if your 9-point does not have you interested to the point that it creates these kinds of questions, you may not have a story worth telling–if it does not get your attention, you can be assured will get no one else’s either.

Oh and for a bonus, the 9-point outline can also help give you insight as to mistakes you’ve made up to this point in the process. Maybe the story doesn’t end with the boy escaping the tree. Maybe he needs to be rescued. Maybe the boy is not the protagonist but the tree is? Maybe the real point you are trying to explore is not the cleverness of the boy but the steadfastness of the tree? Maybe? I have experienced many lessons from developing the nine-point outline, and I am sure that I will continue to learn from it as I do it over the years.

Anyone else out there outline? If so, how do you and what is your favorite part of the process?

Thanks for Reading,
C

About C.J.:
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