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

How I Used Power Writing Sessions to Multiply My Manuscript Output

Even though I’m quite satisfied with where I am as a writer, I can’t help by envy those folk who seem to pump out page after page of writing each day. Now I know I don’t have the luxury of writing everyday, all day. I do have a job. Plus, when I get the opportunity, I spend time with my family first. That’s what it’s about.

Yet, I am a writer. And I commit myself to this endeavor daily. Why the heck else would I wake up every day at 4:45? Certainly not for the perks. No, I trudge to my computer in a crepuscular haze to indulge my joy of writing.

That was me last week. Then everything changed.

On Friday I ran across this article: 10,000 words in one day? No way…WAY! I read it and felt mesmerized. I instantly knew it was possible. The author, PD Martin, broke down the day. It consisted of four two-hour blocks, with tiny, fifteen-minute breaks in between.  I knew a whole day wasn’t feasible. I think writers who do this don’t have kids. My five-year-old girl is incredibly patient, but this would break the bank for waiting.

So an all day writing session was out. But I could shoot for one of the two-hour blocks. I’ve certainly written for this length of time before without any earth-shattering word outputs. But the way the author described the technique was similar to the outlining method I’d used before (see Write the Way Vermeer Paints).

Additionally, the author spoke of having no breaks whatsoever. Shutting of the Internet. Muting the phone. Etcetera. (Actually, the Internet is rarely a problem, but I do journey downstairs for coffee refills and stretches.)

I was intrigued. I wanted to try it, and soon. Saturday morning I found another article How to Write a Book in Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock which details another writer using a speed method to shortcut his way to a novel. In these snippets of an interview with Moorcock, he admits to using a formula. Also, he supposed his form would work best for epic and fantasy fiction.

The gist of both systems was to write and without looking back. Don’t worry about formatting, dialogue tags, spelling or punctuation. Just write. And I’ve done this before, but only for forty-five minutes at a time. And it was rather draining.

The first hurtle I came up against was one of planning. This style of writing—pedal to the metal, damn the torpedoes—suits those who write with no end in sight. The type of author who has little notion where a book will go from page to page. That’s not me. I like structure and to know where my manuscript is headed.

Typically, I do what I call scene building. I map out scenes based on the character’s goals, complications, and frustrations. Often these change as I write the actual chapter, but having a direction helps me get over those spots where the inner critic stomps all over my creativity. (Even Moorcock recommends having a plan.)

My solution was to take a day (Saturday morning, in fact) and map out as far as I could go. I jotted down three pages of notes.

Sunday arrived and the alarm rang at 3:47 in the morning. (I have something of a fixation for numbers. Evens are bad and odds are good. Prime numbers are the best. They just feel right.) I bypassed the snooze and got the coffee on. I knew, that in order to have a solid two-hours, I needed to start no later than 4:15. This is because my daughter usually rouses between 6:15 and 6:25.

I actually got to the keyboard at 4:17. (I scarfed down a bowl of cereal.) To avoid extra breaks, I brought up my thermos of coffee. Then I went to work.

Using the print out of the scene mapping I did the day before, I crashed through the first hour with little problem. Then the distractions nudged at me. My brain began asking questions.

What time is it?
How many words have you written so far?
Should I take a break?

I should explain that I set my word processor (Pages) to full-screen mode, so I can’t see the time or menus or anything but the page. Yet for the next ten to fifteen minutes my gaze wandered everywhere. My body wasn’t used to this sort of output past the one-hour mark.

Yet I persevered. Once I got over the hump, I plowed through another hour of writing. I actually found a reasonable stopping point right around 6:20 (my daughter slept till 6:24 this morning).

In order to keep up the pace, I blew past anything that even hinted at stalling. I would simply write the word “description” for new people or rooms. I wrote dialogue closer to theater-style, with only a name and a colon, no quotes. Sometimes I skipped any indication of a speaker when it was obvious.

I’ve always found that dialogue comes out much better this way. To get the flow correct, you can’t pause. You must have it match the natural rhythm of a real conversation. I add the word “beat” when I want a pause in the speaking. I know, when I go back to edit, that I’ll add in plenty of  details.

My final output, for two hours, was 2550 words spread over 14 pages. Typically I write between 300 and 500 words, so this was about a week’s worth in one day. Of course it was pretty rough on y body. I yearned for a nap all day. And the words I did write are fairly rough. They need some serious editing and revision.

But still, I took my output and quintupled it. At least. Any further revisions will only add to the word count.

Power Writing may not be for everyone. But the rewards are amazing. You get words on the page. Your mind finally snaps free of the inner critic.

Try it. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Tim Kane