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

The Age of Miracles Has Put This Reader on Edge

This is the strangest book I’ve read so far. It has me on the verge of a panic attack. Why? Because it details an end of the world scenario so plausibly, I can imagine it happening. The premise of the book is that the world is slowing. The spin of the Earth is slowing down. Each day adds minutes, and soon that trickle becomes a flood. As I read, I found myself thinking what I would do in this situation. The prospects became grimmer as the story unfolded: birds fell out of the sky, slowing sickness afflicted the population, tens of thousands of whales were beached, and gradually—as the days lengthened to 72 hours—all the world’s vegetation died out.

I admired how the author, Karen Thompson Walker, weaved the scientific effects into dramatic plot points. For example, instead of simply having someone suffer from the slowing sickness (a sort of dizziness and weakness), she had the mother of the main character faint while driving and run down a man in the street. Likewise, as trees began to die, she could simply have stated that thy fell over. Instead, she used to underscore the political division between the clock timers (those who stick to the 24 clock) and the real timers (those who try to sleep longer to match the growing days). A tree falls through the only real timer left on the block. People suspect it might have been cut.

One interesting aspect of the book is that the Earth is one of the central characters in the story. It is obviously sick. We all know, as we read, what will happen to this sick patient in the end, yet we can’t leave her bedside. Even I, as I read, was fascinated with the next disaster. How could things get worse.

Some things that bothered were were how the main character, 11-year-old Julia, was handled. Walker attempted to give her a poignant coming of age story in a dying world. Somehow she felt hollow. Walker clearly details what happens to her. How her loneliness spins out from her. Her thoughts seem clinical in a way. I wanted a visceral reaction. I think some of the problem stemmed from the narrator, Julia, telling the story from the future (when she’s in her twenties).

A few other inconsistencies bugged me. The first was the random insertion of profanity. It’s almost as if Walker felt she needed to add a few cuss words to qualify it for young adult status. Mostly, these got in the way. Also, she made a point of stating that the price of grapes had risen to $100 per pound. Yet after that, there were several instances of characters macking out on ice cream. Surely the price for that would have shot through the roof.

Overall, I recommend this book. The central concept of the Earth slowing are worth the read alone.

Tim Kane