Spinning Webs and the Art of the Outline

Yesterday, I briefly touched on outlining. Time constraints did not allow me the opportunity to fully explore what I was talking about, so let’s get down to it. ┬áThese observations are the result of a conversation I had with someone yesterday who had some salient questions about how I structure things. When you get the chance to talk about your craft and educate others, it serves as a whetstone for reflection and introspection. I may have touched on some of these sorts of things in the past, but I do hope to offer some new insights.

1. First off–and this should seem obvious–understand structure. You can’t make a cake if you don’t know what goes into a cake. Though you’re guesstimate could be close: eggs, milk, flour, sugar, you need to understand the proportions and make sure you’re not leaving anything out (like a touch of vanilla or a pinch of salt). How do you do this? You read books of things you’re wanting to model them after. Even if they taught RPG design in classes (which I don’t think they do, yet), you would still want to see what the real world is doing. After you’ve dissected a number of books, by breaking them down into its rough, component parts, you’ll also want to read books on design theory, screenwriting books, books on plot, and anything which deals with structure. You may not find all of it applicable, but this kind of knowledge can serve you in good stead. Some of the best books I’ve read have nothing to do directly with RPG design, but rather good writing practices and how to craft scenes, story, and plot. If you can master the fundamentals, you can then move on to master the craft of writing and elevate it to an art.

2. When you’re writing an outline, you’re not doing it for a class. This means you don’t have to use any formalized structure from any dusty, old book. This is a map, a set of directions for you and you alone. It doesn’t matter if no one else can read it (though it does help), but it should have some structure. Be a barbarian and sweep across the landscape, pillaging the salient points to enable you to get where you’re going.

3. Don’t go overboard with your first outline. This can defeat its purpose. The best outline is one that is organic and can grow during the life of your project. In fact, keep it simple. Believe it or not, when I first set pen to paper for a Savage Worlds Book, I divide it out into three basic sections. I put the project name at the top of the page and then type out Player’s Section, Setting Rules, and GM’s Section. As I then proceed to refine, I’ll add in the bits like, prologue, intro, history, chargen, equipment, and so on until, viola, it’s a full-blown book. Don’t make it harder than you have to. Certainly, a running laundry list kept somewhere (usually at the front of the doc) is essential to throw things into, and then you can come back and put them where they belong.

4. Have the right tools for the job. While I am quite impressed with Microsoft Word 2010 and the introduction of the Navigation Pane which maps out the outline into a nice palatable form, I still don’t think it’s the best way to start out. I have another option. I’ve recommended Mindola’s SuperNoteCard in the past and I’m doing it again. You can get a perfectly good free version, but I have ponied up the very reasonable cost to support the guy’s development efforts. This program has helped me become ever more productive and has enabled me to better wrap my head around approaches to various structural issues. I’ve used it to model out many of the adventures for Iron Dynasty and RunePunk and I used it to great success with Echo of Dead Leaves (and continue to do so) even as I migrate it over to Microsoft Word and continue to expand it out. SuperNoteCard allows you to, essentially, create note cards and you can easily move them about, reorganize them, and even have a nice structural hierarchy pane allowing you to easily look at things at a glance. Throw in split screen mode and an easy way to dupe cards and this makes rapid proto-development a real dream.

5. Continue to Refine: I touched on this in point 3, but it’s important enough to underscore separately. Repeat after me: outlines are not absolutes. They are tools to be used and abused at the writer’s whim[1. Should you be doing something work-for-hire, that’s an entirely different story, depending upon the degree of latitude you have regarding the project. Check with your project lead. I don’t need any angry emails in my inbox.] If something looked good early on, but doesn’t work out. Cut it. Paste it into a scraps folder and move on. Maybe there is something there you can revisit later. A junk file is always handy to have at your disposal.

6. Don’t Fall in Love with the Outline: It’s easy to consider yourself doing work when you’re outline and there are some writers who use the outline as an artist might use a wire armature and continuously glob on bits and pieces of writing via the outline until it is suddenly a finished work. I respect that and have, admittedly, done that in the past on occasion. The thing is, some folks just continually tinker and do what is tantamount to busy work or the self-deluding illusion they are actually making forward momentum. Until you begin to string pearls, don’t count it as jewelry. You just have component parts and as shiny and valuable as they might be, they don’t count as the real work.

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!




2 Notes on, Spinning Webs and the Art of the Outline

  1. Great article, thank you. It is great to get a look at how professionals do it.

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