Outlining Methods Part 2: Finding Both Your “Big” and “Little” Story

In my last post, I showed how outlining is an important tool for plotters and pantsers alike, and explored my first outlining method: Capturing Inspiration. Immersive images and music can help you remember what made you love this book idea, even when you’re in the trenches of drafting. Now, let’s move on to the next two components. While Pinterest and playlists bring the “feel” of a book, these next two components bring to life what makes a book truly worth writing.

2. Finding the “Big” Story: A thematic question straight from the heart

I was able to attend a panel at a local writers’ conference that was all about the heart of our books. They spoke of the symbols and layers that can make a book speak to us in the intimate and lasting way that has created our favorite classics. At the end of the session, one participant raised her hand, and voiced what we all were thinking “How do we come up with these symbols and layers?” she asked.

Panelist Scott Parkin, an award-winning author and one of our panelists, leaned forward, lost in thought. “There isn’t a way you can force it,” he finally said. “If you want those to be there, your book has to come out of your genuine questions. The questions that are gnawing at you. The second you try to force it, it doesn’t work. It has to be a question you truly care about.”

This answer shook the entire way I thought about story. It isn’t just about finding fun tropes and combining them in new ways. It isn’t even about intriguing characters and a surprise-twist plot. No, it’s about the questions at the center of my heart. Because only once I am willing to face my own heart and the most vulnerable questions inside it will I be writing about something that will matter to me–and my readers.

Finding this “big” story, the thematic heart of your story, is not easy, and shouldn’t necessarily be pinned down during the outline phase. By its very nature, it will evolve as you explore it. But I have found that remembering what I am burning to write about is the most faithful guiding star I can ask for.

To find what your “big” story is, try asking yourself these questions, followed, as always, by a rabbit-hole “why”:

  1. What have I been avoiding thinking about?
  2. What have I been obsessively thinking about?
  3. What am I deeply hurt over?
  4. What am I deeply joyful over?
  5. When have I felt most misunderstood?
  6. What experiences or words have stuck with me, even though I’m not sure why?
  7. What theme have I always wished other books would address?

You may find that you are trying to figure out ideas about happiness, grief, deep differences, shaming, cultural change, or other things. As you begin to hone in on what you are burning to explore, though, remember one thing: This “big” story should be a question. Though you may have ideas of how to answer it, it cannot bloom into the powerful theme you desire if you decide it is already answered. The “big” story will not work if you move out of a place of humility and sincerity.

You must be willing, through your characters, to explore your own vulnerable heart, and then share that with your readers. Your story will not change them, hold them, or free them, unless you are first willing to be changed, held, and freed.

This “big” story can look wildly different for each book and writer. As an example, here are a few of the “big” stories that I have burned to write about. They have turned into my first books:

  • What should I do when I realize that, even though my actions are culturally applauded, they are deeply harming others?
  • How can sensitivity be both a strength and a weakness?
  • How can I balance accepting what I need to learn, without throwing out important truths I already know?

3. Finding The “Little” Story: What sounds like fun?

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Alright. Let’s suppose that you’ve taken some reflective time to find a “big” story you are burning to write about (or to find the “big” story that is already emerging in your outline or draft). This can give some powerful and immediate direction to the inspiration you captured in step one. It can give you a reason to choose one path of world- and plot- building over another as symbols and meanings begin to click.

But, I have found that pursuing this “big” story must be balanced with something else: Finding the “little” story.

I can be an overly serious person at times, and once I had latched onto my “big” story for my current outline, I pursued it like a hound. But, for some reasons, no ideas past the very large-scale plot points were coming to me. Everything remained vague, with only the major arc of the character standing out to me. Kaela Rivera, a friend from my writing group and author of the upcoming Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls with HarperCollins Children’s, finally said gently, “You’ve got the ‘big’ story figured out. But what about the ‘little’ story? What sounds like fun?”

I had to laugh. I had completely forgotten about the fun stuff–the “little” story. But it was precisely the little stuff that would create the adventure that would carry the “big” story. What would Harry Potter be without a hilariously balanced trio mucking their way through Diagon Ally, magic classes, and quidditch tournaments? What would The Lord of the Rings be without joyous hobbit mischief permeating the solemn scenes of the elves’ woods, men’s castles, and orc’s tunnels? These are the “visible” parts of our story, and they become the endearing, enduring, and essential scaffolding for speaking of what burns in our hearts.

Basically, your “little” story is the “fun tropes combined in new ways” that I unfairly mocked in the previous section. It is turning the visible story lines of your book into the most fascinating, thrilling gallop you’ve ever taken. Turns out, this part is just as important! “Little” story deals primarily with

  • Characters that you love set in your favorite situations
  • Settings and world-building that fascinate you
  • Plot goals and turns that make you cheer (or weep!)

It’s all of the elements you’ve always wanted to play with. To find your “little” story, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What do my favorite stories tend to have in common for character, setting, or plot? Have can I capitalize on that?
  2. What items or animals have I been dying to take a new spin on? (Wands? Horses? Clocks? Mirrors? Knitting? Anything.)
  3. What do I wish another author had “done right”?
  4. What type of journeys do I love reading about? (Questing after magical objects? School stories? Detective stories? This doesn’t have to determine your main genre, just the type of journey you want to see your characters go on. For example, Harry Potter has a detective approach, even though it is classified as a fantasy.) How can I maximize what I love about that journey?
  5. What are my favorite heroes? My favorite villains? What would I love to use in my own book?

You will find that a lot of the answers to these questions are plainly written all over your Pinterest boards already, so this “little” story question may be a quick answer for you. Consider writing the “little” story into a list or statement. For example, my “big” story, “How can sensitivity be both a strength and a weakness?” was paired with, “I want to tell a story of an under-dog sister who stumbles upon an ancient, emotion-based magic in an underground world that has both steampunk and mystical, ghost-like elements.” Haha, I know that’s a mouthful, but seeing all the elements together really helped me craft Soal! And notice that the emotion-based magic gives a perfect avenue to explore my “big” story question about sensitivities. The two magnify each other.

So, there is how I have found the “big” story and the “little” story to be essential partners in the outline (or draft) building process. I have found it incredibly useful to continually switch from the “big” to the “little” as I work on my outline. First, I tend to focus on “big” story (again, this goes along with my serious tendencies :D). But as soon as I feel stuck, I switch to thinking about the “little” story. By hopping back and forth, I begin to get a feel for how the two dance together, creating a story where the “little” and “big” elements naturally and powerfully enhance each other.

Alright, that’s all for today! In the next post, I will give the final component I use for my outlines. But in the meantime, here as some highly recommended readings:

Which comes easiest for you? “Big” story or “little” story? What are your favorite ways for finding it and then remembering it as you draft? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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