Outlining with Continuity Cat and the Hound

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, I’ve been expanding my index card outline to include secondary characters and POVs for the Alchemist of the Arch Saga.  I’ve color-coded them by character and laid them out with the reworked sequencing gleaned from the first draft of cards and am happy to say they are much more orderly and tidy, with far fewer scribbled-y bits than their predecessors.

I came up to five sets of outline cards, each set containing eight cards (one card per point from the 8-Point Arc format) and began to weave them together, according to what each major player is doing as he or she meets their big moments of Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Surprise, Choice, Climax, Reversal, and Resolution. Most of these will directly impact the main character, so in large part they coincide in a pattern that starts to resemble a staircase spiraling around the central column.

Of course, as you can see below, there were some complications as I began my new card-based outline. I’ve decided to tell the tale…in eight-point outline form!

Inspired, I know. :}

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1) Stasis/Exposition/Everyday Life: Wherein I butt my head repeatedly against a recalcitrant outline, leading Continuity Cat, unasked, to insist on reviewing my note cards.

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“You misunderstand–I’m not saving your seat. I’m taking it.”

It’s been my inclination to rush through the stasis section for a few years now, and it’s something I’m trying to fight since a premature trigger often lacks real draw. Without a well-formed start, the kick in the pants trigger moment for the character is not necessarily a kick in the pants for the reader. That’s not to say the exposition should be long and exhaustive–a tightly wound exposition should show either the potential for conflict or a setting so peaceful that as the reader you know it can’t last and you decide you need to see what particular brand of tragedy will befall the too-peaceful world and its inhabitants.

2) Trigger/Inciting Incident/Hook Moment: Wherein Continuity Cat determines I’m less clever than I think I am. 

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“Yawn. Put some bait on this hook, would you?”

The hook is the moment or series of moments were it all gets real for characters and reader alike. In more practical terms, I’ve always seen it as the moment where I decide if I’m going to keep reading or I decide I don’t need to know what happens. What the reader decides at this point is dependent on how likable the characters are by then, or at least how engaging the circumstances are. Showing a small incident that the main character may or may not take seriously and then immediately showing an implication of a larger repercussion works particularly well. Utterly surprising the reader and character at the same time works with fine-tuned execution, but slamming too much onto the table at once runs the risk of making the moment cartoonishly larger than life and can cause the incident itself to fall flat. In that case, the reader’s shock turns into confusion as events happen without real lead-up.

I’m fighting the latter with my outline’s current exposition-skimpy incarnation. To deal with it, I’ve moved the exposition segment back a bit to allow for a better lead-in replete with nail-bitey dread.

3) Quest/The Reaction: Wherein I decide to act on Continuity Cat’s criticism, rather than pour water in his smug face.

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Reorganizing the cards yet again, hampered only slightly by Continuity Cat’s reluctance to budge over.

The quest usually introduces a series of events where the central characters take the first deliberate steps along the story’s post-trigger path. In adventures, this is usually the point where the main character embarks on a voyage or begins training or seeks revenge–in whatever way, he or she responds to the catalyst event. The stakes may be relatively low compared to the stakes determined after the surprise phase.

4) The Surprise Phase: Wherein a challenger appears! Hyper-Critical Continuity Cat is scared away by the Hound and a minor skirmish further scrambles my card grid.

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“I sense that these cards are upsetting you. I will shield you from them.”

I was relieved to find out that the Surprise Phase, rather than the quest, is usually what takes up the bulk of most adventure stories. The initial surprise gives way to what is essentially a new quest stage: the stakes change as alliances come into question, a betrayal thickens the plot, critical information comes to light, a new player or threat emerges, etc. While it should not be completely out of the blue or completely accidental, the surprise(s) should still contrast with the next (more purposeful) step.

5) The Critical Choice: Wherein I must shoo the Hound away and get back to work.

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“I leave you for now, but soon the bitter taste of your scorn will grow into a burgeoning thirst for revenge as I howl my woe to the moon. Then these cards will know the true meaning of fear. And you, regret.”

This is where the hero gets particularly serious about his situation and the way things are going. Even if your hero has been acting according to a plan and is very driven throughout the rest of the story, this is generally where he or she really battens down and prepares for the next step. It usually involves neglecting feelings and personal wants or loyalties. Sometimes the first major personal sacrifice is required or hinted at.

6) The Climax/the Showdown: Wherein I hold distraction at bay and get after my fearsome card grid with a will. A viable visual aid slowly emerges.

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Finally, a modicum of success! Main baddie in red on left, ambiguous-but-competent secondary character in purple on right, converging at different times upon the progress of the main character during points 1-8.

This is often where the final battle starts. The stage is finally set for the dueling parties to meet and the cat-and-mouse game evolves into a full frontal assault: the clash of wills throughout the story til now becomes a clash of fisticuffs. If the next step will play out in favor of the hero, generally the showdown stage leans toward the antagonist’s side at the outset. Doom seems assured. Conversely, and particularly true in the case of those stories that will be closely followed by a sequel, all may appear to go well for the hero until…

7) Reversal/fortunes in the Showdown switch to a different party: Wherein I leave to get reinforcements (a cup of coffee), and come back to find my work space infiltrated once again. Directly on top of my pretty new grid.

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The Hound returns to take revenge on the source of his exile, and Continuity Cat waits in the shadows…

The whims of Fate shift and a victor emerges. The victor is not always the hero, and in these cases, a sequel often follows on the heels of the main character’s defeat. The losing party may fall back to regroup, or barrel forward in pursuit of the victor as the victor leaves for home or a new goal.

8) Resolution/New Stasis Achieved/Cliffhanger: Wherein I either learn to work around my meddlesome beasts and complete my outline, or start a blog post instead.

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And those who have been scorned band together…For now.

Whatever the outcome of the final showdown and reversal, the central characters must reconcile themselves with new circumstances, and either return home with a new perspective, or fully accept and pursue the lifestyle they were forced to adopt over the course of the story. New, perhaps uneasy, allegiances settle and move forward, and new goals are outlined.

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Despite the obvious distress inflicted on my beasties, I’m pretty excited that the outline is more or less squared. That means I can devote more time to reading and practicing up for NaNoWrimo a few months from now. Bring on the flash fiction challenges! 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Outlining with Continuity Cat and the Hound

  1. Marie Anne says:

    Picture #4 really made me laugh; it’s expected that a cat will get in the way, but the dog just couldn’t be left out of the fun 🙂 I do all my work at a nice big desk, so my dog settles for curling up under it. The cats think it’s just their place to sunbathe.

  2. Proseia says:

    Yeah, since I was working on the floor, I couldn’t even be upset with them. When I turn away from my lunch for five seconds and come back to find my cat eating my broccoli-cheese soup, however…=P

    Thanks for reading!

    • Proseia says:

      Thanks =P I wasn’t always–used to take a very opposite approach: “Oh, I have one character, better sit down and write a whole story RIGHT NOW.” I do perhaps overdo it nowadays, but I like feeling like a have a good base to work from. It gets me a lot farther than I used to get just flying by the seat of my pants.

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