Say your novel-to-be is about rock and roll—that much is clear—and you’re ready to outline. Or rather, ready or not, you need to outline. You sit down to your spreadsheet, blank Word doc, legal pad, or multicolored sticky notes, your head abuzz with story impressions: the thudding loudness and in-your-faceness of rock’s heyday; the rock modernists; some patchy character profiles; a main plot, three subplots, and fifteen mini plots; this idea you have to score some original rock tuneage and include it in the book—your music actually telling part of the story (not sure how—will figure out as you outline); this other idea you have to represent the dissent that frequently breaks up bands by telling your story not just in alternating narrative voices but alternating POVs; and . . . and . . . and . . .
By the time you’ve wrangled all your potential storytelling elements into focus, you’ll likely have not only scared yourself out of writing word one of your outline but also decided that you and three to four of your friends are the rightful heirs to Deep Purple and what the hell are you doing trying to make a book when you could be making music. And, hey, if that’s your route, go for it. The kids these day need good music.
They also need good books. And if you intend to actually write, rather than think endlessly and vaguely about, one, you need to free yourself from the trap of trying to all-at-once decide how to handle characterization, plot, structure, POV, voice, style, and whether or not to include an original score.
Using Attention Effectively
In the book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, David Rock talks about the bottleneck phenomenon that occurs when various decisions that need to be made line up (impatiently) behind the decision you’re consciously trying to make at any one moment, creating a jam that creates all sorts of frustration in turn. If you’ve ever tried to make a decision about a solitary issue in your outline only to find your mind flooded with twenty-five other related issues, making it impossible to suss out the pros and cons of an option you’re considering, you’ve experienced this sort of bottleneck.
What Rock suggests, while primarily addressed to those in a business setting, applies to outlining your novel as well: determine if “a decision higher up needs to be made.” If you feel mentally jammed and keep replaying the same questions regarding character, plot, or style, ask yourself whether there’s a more fundamental question, with broader implications, you could answer first.
Story Planning Hierarchy
Establishing a hierarchy of story elements to be planned should make the entire outlining process easier. And while different writers like to begin at different beginnings (philosophical theme, character, plot, and even style have all been viable starting points for major literary works), the following represents an order that is, for many, clear, doable, and effective:
(1) Establish Your Main Theme
It’s likely that your novel will eventually encompass various thematic elements that intersect and interweave and (hopefully) entertain. 😉 What matters here is the BIG one. As you think about what you want to say, the important pieces of the plot as it’s so-far hammered out, and your characters who may be inchoate but have their vivid spots, look for an overarching question to be answered or thought to be investigated—that’s what will unite your material and make your work a cohesive one.
If you define this theme too broadly, you’ll probably find yourself continuing to struggle with all questions down to the last step of the ladder; define it too narrowly, and you’ll have to keep climbing back up to revise it to fit the breadth of your chief story lines.
For example, defining your theme as “rock and roll” is simply too broad. Are you focusing on the music itself? The ugly underbelly of life backstage? Fandom and drug use? If you define it as “how love found at a rock concert doesn’t last over the years because it’s founded on a specific cultural setting and may not be able to transcend that setting and progress on its own,” that may be too narrow, inapplicable to all except one of your plot lines. Let’s say the theme of this book is “how rock and roll can be a venue for expression and therefore connection for many who don’t find those factors elsewhere.”
(2) Ask How the Theme Applies to Each Major Character
Asking this is particularly helpful when you have an idea of who various characters are but find yourself flummoxed when you try to straighten out their details, psyches, and arcs. Let’s take a look:
For William,* writing about rock and roll allows him to connect with a band and with the groupies “band aids.” Among others who seem to appreciate the music as much as he does, he feels he has found his people.
For Penny, rock and roll is a setting in which she can express a reinvented version of herself, a character with no past. Within the rootless and free feeling of rock, she connects with others who want to view her in the way that she wants to view herself.
For Russell, rock and roll is a dream come true that encourages him to express both his grown-up, musical-genius side and his gimme gimme gimme little-kid side. He connects to William largely through one side and Penny largely through the other.
* Yep, this is the character cast of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
(3) Map Each Character’s Arc
If it’s been difficult so far to prune the fascinating potential trajectories for your precocious rock-nerd main character, you can now view them through the lens of how he connects to the novel’s main theme.
William’s main story, then, involves getting him in direct contact with the band (let’s say he’s writing a piece about them for Rolling Stone). But how does story-making conflict—and eventual resolution—play into his own use of rock and roll for expression and connection? He admires Russell, but he also has a growing connection to Penny, whom he views as the only other person who may love rock as much as he does. Russell’s irresponsible treatment of Penny forces William not only to choose sides but also to examine whether rock and roll itself is going in an ugly direction.
(4) Identify Subthemes and Subplots
These often come up in simply going through the first three steps. That whole thing about whether rock and roll is headed south? It makes for a natural, powerful subtheme in this story.
You have your main theme and subthemes. Your characters’ connection to theme, around which you can fill in any missing character details. You have your character arcs. Now it’s a matter of delineating how, step by step, they walk down those paths, creating as many intersections and overlaps as you can while keeping each journey clear.
(6) Determine Your POV and Other Elements of Style
In MOST cases, style can safely come last in your process of mapping major elements. If you’re writing a whodunit that hinges on the narrator’s identity remaining secret or your sights are set on a post-modern shake-up of reader expectations, then POV and overall stylistic technique will be among your chief concerns. In most cases, though, having the other pieces already firmly in place will help make it clear what POV/s will work best for your story and how it should be told—from the somewhat large elements (Should I treat my chapters as song verses? Should I include an original composition or would I risk alienating those who don’t read music?) to the small (If I’m going to write an article about rock and roll in which I quote a nonfiction business writer, should I at least find one whose last name is “Rock”?).
Kidding. Rock & roll/David Rock—just one of those happy coincidences. 🙂
Image credit: By Warner Bros. Records (item photo front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons