Saturday, October 6, 2007

Exercise: Outlining, Getting Down to Business

Outlining, is the key to literary success. But how do you learn to outline? For some people (of course!), it comes naturally. For others, it's a bear.

Here's one way to brush up on your outlining skills.

Take a five-to-ten-page piece of literature. It can be something you wrote or something you like (a magazine article, a short story, a segment of a novel). Then outline in reverse. In other words, start with the finished product and create the outline from that. Although the premise is not quite the same as starting with an outline and ending with the finished product, the techniques of outlining are identical--reducing a story to its most basic terms.

Take the story of The Three Little Pigs, for example. It breaks down quite comfortably into five sections. The first we'll call the introduction. The second is the pig that built his house of straw. The third is the pig that built his house of twigs. The fourth is the pig that built his house of bricks. The fifth is the conclusion.

The outline would look something like this:


Three pigs set out to build houses to provide protection from the Big Bad Wolf.

Pig One

The first pig decided to build his house of straw. Straw was easy to come by, inexpensive, and easy to work with. In no time at all, the pig had completed his house, and he moved in before any of his brothers had finished their houses. He danced around and chided his brothers for not having had the same stroke of brilliance.

Pig Two

The second pig decided to build his house of twigs. Twigs were stronger than straw, inexpensive, and easy to work with. Twigs did take longer to build with, but, still, in little more time than his straw-building brother, he, too, had built a house and moved in.

Pig Three

The third pig decided to take more time, evaluate the situation, and react accordingly. The wolf, this pig realized, was shrewd and cunning. He was strong and resourceful. Besides that, he had a fondness for the taste of pig flesh. So this pig decided to build a house that no wolf anywhere could defeat--a house made of bricks. While the pig labored away, sweating beneath the weight of his own tenacity, his two brothers danced and frolicked and cajoled their older brother for his foolishness. Why spend so much time building a house of bricks, they argued, when he could accomplish the same feat more quickly and easily using straw or twigs?


When at last the third Pig had completed his house of bricks, the Big Bad Wolf made his rounds. When he arrived a the house of the first little pig, he smiled. With a huff and a puff, he blew the house in, and the pig went scurrying for his life to the house of his twig-building brother.

When the wolf succeeded in destroying the house of twigs, as well, the two little pigs scurried to the only place they knew to take refuge--the house that their brother had built with bricks. As the wolf appeared, the two foolish pigs trembled behind the closed door, fearing that the brick house, too, would be blown away.

But the wolf, try as he might, failed to damage the house made of bricks and, in complete exhaustion, finally gave up and wandered away, never to be seen again.

"You see," said the brother who had built his house of bricks. "Sometimes, the quickest and easiest way is not the best."

Naturally, this is an oversimplification of an age-old tale reduced to its main elements. But it serves a point about outlining: Include the story line (plot) and any critical dialogue (very little) and some of the personalities of the characters (the pigs) so that you can go back later and flesh in the details.

The results? Well, hey, if you'd written the story of the three little pigs, you'd have Walt Disney Studios knocking on your door right now! Get the picture?

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