How to Lift Your Story Beyond Its Outline

1 May

Tom Hart is the bestselling author of the memoir Rosalie Lightning and founder of the Sequential Arts Workshop. How to Say Everything is his book about the craft of storytelling.

Sometimes you discover a pearl of wisdom about writing so great that it forever transforms how you think about craft. I found one recently in How to Say Everything by cartoonist and graphic memoirist Tom Hart. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while and met him at the AWP conference, where I picked up a copy of his book. It’s great, full of practical information meant for graphic storytellers but applicable to narratives of any kind. The part that really struck me was about that feeling you get sometimes when reading a book or manuscript-in-progress, the sense that it’s flat and boring and uninspired. It can be hard to figure out what’s wrong. Hart zeroes in on what might be the problem.

You can get the book as a free download at Hart’s website. (He also teaches some terrific online classes through the Sequential Arts Workshop.)

The Brilliant Idea

It’s in a chapter titled “Shooting the Outline.” Here’s what Hart writes:

My wife Leela and I were trying various episodic TV shows from HBO, and we watched our first episode of Rome. Hundreds of Caesar’s troops on horseback are trading through the woods towards the Capitol. They come to a river. One centurion looks to another and says, “What river are we crossing? It’s the Rubicon, isn’t it?” The troops cross it.

Leela looked at me and scowled, “They’re just shooting the outline!”

You can imagine the dramatic outline of the story here: Caesar makes his decision. The troops prepare. The march starts. They cross the Rubicon, marking the first act of war in Caesar’s civil war.

What’s missing in the producer’s execution is some grace, some evocation of emotion, some decorative element, some genuine grubby humanity.

I love this, in part because it states such a clear, simply truth. Bad writing states the obvious. But “shooting the outline” is more than that. It’s artlessness, the difference between a story and an itinerary. Even in a thriller, nobody actually cares what happens in the story. Instead, they care about the way the thing that happens makes them feel.

It’s an excellent exercise, then, to read through your manuscript-in-progress and ask yourself if any of the lines, especially in dialogue, sound like they could have been copied and pasted from the outline or from an unseen itinerary that your characters are following. If so, take the line out of dialogue. State it as simply as possible. In the HBO show, it would be easy to show an army massed against a river. What’s more important is the human element that Hart talks about. Now that you’ve parked the army on the literal physical edge of a decision, how can you dig into the details of life on that edge to reveal the characters’ hopes and fears?

If you want help with this, pick up a (free, seriously) copy of Hart’s book, where he talks about adorning the outline.

Good luck.

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