Swain Story Outline: Getting the Story Started

Here we are with part two of the Swain outline. Again, if you haven’t picked up this book, do so. It’s life changing as a writer. The outline here won’t make much sense unless you’ve read Swains chapter on outlining a story. In this section, we’ll discuss how to start off a story and the various ways you can open a story. That dreaded first sentence or first scene. They’re always rough. But Swain has some ideas to get you started.

If you missed the first segment, you can click back here.

Remember, everything is about The Big Picture, Desire vs. Danger. The Focal Character needs to struggle for a goal, even at the start.

 

  • Get the Story Started (The Beginning)
    • Where to open?
        1. Start with trouble
          1. Existing Situation
            1. This is the normal world (the state of affairs your focal character functions in)
          2. Enter Change
            1. Some new element makes the normal state of affairs different
            2. Something good can upset the normal world just as much as something bad
          3. Affected Character
            1. The affected character will most likely be the focal character
          4. Consequences
            1. The change must trigger continuing consequences (a chain reaction)
            2. The focal character must respond to the change, brining unanticipated results
            3. The consequence must be intolerable to the focal character (anything he/she finds too upsetting to ignore)
    • Where to start
          1. Start the story as close to the change as possible.

  • How to open
    • Uniqueness
          1. Call attention to the unique situation and make the reader wonder
            1. Examples
              1. She was the only artificial woman in the world. 
              2. He couldn’t sleep that night. 
              3. It was a different sort of town. 
              4. “It’s this week or never,” Susan said.
    • The Unanticipated 
          1. Something unanticipated to intrigue readers
            1. Examples
              1. The beautiful woman who has insectile eyes
              2. The book in Grandma’s parlor with ways to commit murder
              3. The hero starts by claiming that he/she is an idiot
    • Deviation from Routine 
          1. The focal character does something different on this day. Make your reader wonder why.
            1. Examples
              1. Instead of getting off the elevator at the normal floor, he/she gets off two floors higher and walks back down. 
              2. Instead of entering the house through the front door, the focal character goes around to the back
    • A Change About to Take Place
          1. Show an unusual event that anticipates change to come. The reader will wonder why.
            1. Examples
              1. The focal character’s lawyer calls
              2. A girl winks at a boy while sitting next to her boyfriend
              3. The sound of galloping hoofbeats coming closer and closer.
    • Inordinate Attention to the Commonplace
        1. Describe a common object with tremendous, painstaking detail. The reader will read on to find out why.
          1. A doorknob
          2. A grandmother’s gnarled hands
          3. The shabbiness of a run down house
          4. A little girl peering out from behind her bubble gum

 

The examples for different types of opening are great. For me, it’s like a pool of ideas to dive into.

Write on.

Tim Kane

Swain Story Outline: The Killer Elevator Pitch

I’ve known about Dwight Swain’s work for forever. How could I not? Everywhere I turn I bump into the Goal, Conflict, Disaster model or Motivation-Reaction Units. The man knows how to explain good fiction. But when I hunkered down to finally read his book (Techniques of the Selling Writer) I was amazing no one has touted his outstanding story outline technique. All I ever see for story structure out there is the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey. Which is great in it’s own right. But more often than not, I write a story that doesn’t quite fit the Hero Journey model and then I’m left stranded.

So what I offer to present here is a multi-post look at how to outline your story (novel, short story, screenplay, whatever) using Swain’s sixth chapter, Beginning, Middle, and End. Note, this certainly doesn’t replace the reading the book. You really should pick it up. The way Swain delves into just why certain techniques work and don’t work is worth the purchase.

So here we go…

Swain must have been very aware of Hollywood as he wrote, because he starts with a technique to create the killer elevator pitch. You know, you have a minute while riding the elevator up and you want to pitch your book. Boom. Swain has it down to two sentences. A lot of this feeds off his Goal, Conflict, Disaster technique.

My goal here is to create an outline where I could plug in the detail of whatever story I’m working on and get the notes and ideas of Swain without having to dig back through the book each time. That being said, I’ll often use shorthand and reference ideas he puts forth in the chapter. So yeah, reading the book will help you a ton.

The Big Picture: Desire vs. Danger — The Focal Character’s attempt  to attain or (retain) something.

  1. Line Up the Story Elements
    1. Focal Character
      1. How does he/she fights back against the threatening danger?
    2. Situation
      1. What forces trouble the focal character?
    3. Objective
      1. What is the focal character’s goal or desire?
      2. Whether he/she succeeds or fails, the focal character must strive for this goal
    4. Opponent
      1. What or Who stands in the way of your focal character’s objective?
    5. Disaster
      1. What utterly awful thing will threaten your focal character at the climax?
    6. TWO SENTENCE essential story
      1. Sentence 1: A statement of character, situation, and objective.
        1. When humans grow to twelve-foot height, John Storm tries to find out why.
      2. Sentence 2: A question with the opponent and disaster.
        1. But can he defeat the traitor in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?
      3. Your reader reads for emotion, with no great desire to think.

The 5 steps he outlines are essential to writing your two-sentence elevator pitch. I gave one of his examples, but he goes on for several pages with more. I just wanted one as an example to guide me when I write.

I hope this helps.

Write on.

Tim Kane

Protagonists-R-Us

We’re having a sale. Today only. Buy one protagonist, and get the antagonist at a fifty-percent discount. Such a deal. You can’t have one without the other.

I teach writing to sixth grade students. Here’s a typical plot line: Character meets another character and they talk. Then they meet a third character. They talk some more. Finally they all rush back to a) home, b) school, c) a castle. Yes, I know it matches up with a few of the Twilight books (don’t be a hater, I actually like Stephanie Meyers), but what most of my tween writers lack is an antagonist.

Or to be more specific, conflict generated by an antagonist. The two are inseparable. Yes I know that the protagonist herself can have doubts, thus generating conflict. Likewise, nature can also be an obstacle. But let’s face it, nothing beats a good ole white hat versus black hat. (If you wanted to go the Twilight route, Meyers handled that quite well.)

The antagonist defines the protagonist. He often strives for the exact same goal as the protagonist. Since only one can achieve that goal, it creates tension. I love antagonists that mirror the protagonist. For example, if I have a protagonist who hates monsters and the grotesque, I might pair him with a an antagonist who is a monster herself, yet despises it. Perhaps they’re both seeking the goal of destroying the evil beasts. Yet our hero does this out of fear and ignorance, while the villain strives for this goal from self loathing.

However you achieve it, make your antagonist linked to your protagonist. It creates a deeper bond and makes the final mano-a-mano showdown that much more interesting.

Tim Kane