If you’re like me, you hate outlining. You hate it because it feels unnatural — you prefer to write by the seat of your pants. You might even have a messy office like me. But I force myself to clean my office. Why? So that, as Stephen Pressfield says, “When the muse enters, she will not soil her gown.” And I force myself to outline because a sandbox only has staying power — power to provide potential sand castles — to the degree that it has a border. If the border is weak or nonexistent, eventually the sand will run away from you and you’ll have nothing but rocks and grass and kitty litter with which to build your Camelot.
This guest post is by Lancelot Schaubert. As a Brooklyn-based author and producer, Schaubert continues to cross the borders that hem in the land of tales. He started out selling poetry to small zines like SP Quill and Doxa. Then he moved on to nonfiction in Harry Potter for Nerds, The World Series Edition of Poker Pro, Occupy, Poet’s Market 2016, and McSweeney’s. Later he sold quarterly fiction to Encounter as well as to Brink, Hatch, Scars, and others. In recent years, his stories crossed into transmedia as he reinvented the photonovel via Cold Brewed and The Joplin Undercurrent, acted in short films, and recorded an album coinciding with his short stories. His first novel, Faceless, is making the rounds with agents. Oh, and his hobbit hair grows longer by the day. So there’s that. He’s also a contributor to the excellent guidebook for writers, Author in Progress. Learn more about him on his website: www.lanceschaubert.org.
But for a mind like mine — and maybe yours — not all outlines are created equal. Outlines based on set pieces and dramatic scenes, for instance, can over restrict and cause the book to feel like a hopscotch of mandatory moments. I have a better suggestion: try an outline of antagonism. An outline of antagonism is really an outline of progressive character revelation. It works well for pantsers like you and me.
Spontaneous writers, generally, focus on characters. But what is character?
Character is the inner truth about the virtues and vices within a person.
Like the blood in your veins and the sewage in the sewer lines in your backyard, character emerges only when put under stress — when an opposing force meets it head-on and it must find somewhere else to go. Goals in opposition, in other words.
THE GOAL drives your main character. You’ve heard this before, I’m sure, but let me stress this: only in a farce will a character want something insignificant. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is a farce because who really cares about whether or not they make it to the worst fast food burger joint on the planet? If your characters want something insignificant, I sure hope you’re telling a humor piece. Otherwise your audience will laugh not with you but at you.
We come to know THE GOAL through its collision with other goals.
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Antagonism is the series of goals that oppose your protagonist’s goal with deeper, finer, and more direct intensity as the story unfolds.
That antagonism reveals true character because the character, when opposed, has nowhere else to go. It must surface, blood and skin or sewage and lawn.
In Story, Robert McKee teaches us that you need multiple forms of antagonism in your narrative. Here, I am suggesting you use this as the very outline of your story. Let’s say you have a character — a monk similar to Dostoevsky’s Alyosha — whose goal is orthodoxy. You will need to create forms of antagonism that first distinguish your protagonist, then directly oppose your protagonist, and finally masquerade as helping yet still directly opposing your protagonist. We might call these forces of antagonism The Irritant, The Assailant, and The Recreant. Each can involve single or multiple parties – single or multiple persons, places, or things. The titles are simply names for these forces of antagonism.
If the hope of your protagonist is Orthodoxy, then:
The Irritant will practice Nonconformity by either ignorance or mild rebellion. Nonconformity is not directly opposed to orthodoxy. In fact, nonconformity is often what preserves orthodoxy in times of great social upheaval. St. Francis, for instance, protested the crusades and was proved right by history. Ghandi, for instance, refused to conform to the current laws of India for the sake of an Indian justice. As did Martin Luther King who said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” So The Irritant will help your protagonist distinguish between Orthodoxy and mere Status Quo. Again, the irritant may be nature, a person, a group of people, a society, and so on.
The Assailant will directly attack your protagonist’s Orthodoxy with Unbelief. Whether it’s Ivan who debated Alyosha, the policemen who beat Ghandi in Ghandi, the other black ladies who got in the way of the revelation of truth in The Help, the forces of nature in Forces of Nature or Severus Snape in almost every early Harry Potter book — The Assailant makes known its attack because it comes directly at the protagonist and so will help solidify your character’s goal. In the case of Orthodoxy, this force of antagonism will make your character sure about what is belief and what is not belief.
The Recreant will surrender the deepest goal at the last moment. He/She/It/They will pose as a friend, an ally, a benevolent force and will cow at the last second either to a deeper desire or to a lack of personal stamina. It’s the revelation of the superhero who turns out to be a supervillain at the end of Captain America: Civil War, the mentor who turns out to be a dictator in Equilibrium, the human ally who turns out to be more machine than man in The Matrix, the friendly dog that turns out to be rabid in Cujo, the Judas who turns out to be more a part of the system than a part of the revolution in the Jesus narrative. The Recreant will purge past every remaining façade and reveal what’s truly in the heart of your character by showing them how deep their goal really goes. In the case of Orthodoxy, this force of antagonism is Heresy: Unbelief posing as Orthodoxy.
Said in another way, every character is an antagonist for some other character. Arrange the contact of their relationships in emphatic order and you have your outline.
Any outline of any great story will reveal this. True character will make true decisions to first distinguish itself from, then defend itself against, and finally to deny itself to embrace those goals it does not seek. It’s a simple outline, but it will order the characters, environments, and obstacles your protagonist will encounter in order to form a progression that goes deeper and deeper into their real motivation. Shown simply, it looks like this:
- A Character seeking Orthodoxy
- …encounters an Irritant seeking Nonconformity,
- …then an Assailant seeking Unbelief,
- …and finally a Recreant seeking Heresy.
Or, as McKee had it in Story:
- A Character seeking Justice
- …encounters an Irritant seeking Indifference,
- …then an Assailant seeking Injustice,
- …and finally a Recreant seeking Tyranny.
You could do it any number of ways, for instance for a morally deplorable person:
- A character seeking Greed,
- …encounters an Irritant seeking To Squander,
- …then an Assailant seeking Generosity through a Vow of Poverty,
- …and finally a Recreant seeking Philanthropy.
Those plots tend to be about the Sauls of the world — great men who fall from such great heights like in There Will Be Blood. In the comments, make a quick outline of the forces of antagonism that progressively oppose the protagonist of your story.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.