Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing an outline

Hi there,

Aside from our current projects, it might be fun and useful to look at the way we handle writing, art, music etc. So now and then I'll try to give some tips on that :D!

The first thing you usually do (and really should too!) when creating a visual novel is writing an outline for it. Without an outline, you won't know what kind of backgrounds, sprites or music the story will need. After all, you need to know what the setting, characters and atmosphere will be like, before you can properly work on any of those. That's why today we'll start off with exactly that! I'll talk a bit about how I prefer to write an outline and the preparation work involved with it.

Prep work
Before starting on an outline, it's useful to think about the setting of the story, an interesting main character and the general idea of a plot. Not only is this a nice basis from which you can build your story, it's also a short summary you can use to inform others of your plot. The order in which you think up these elements is not important - In most cases you'll have a cool idea about one of them, and the other two aspects will be derived from it.

For example, a short summary might be 'A woman living on a tropical island is convinced that kappas really do exist. Thus she sets out on an epic journey to find one, equipped with cucumbers'. What we have here is...
  • Setting: Tropical island.
  • Main character: a woman who believes in the existence of kappas.
  • The plot: Finding a kappa.
A lot changes from the point you start plotting to the actual finished script, but these details will remain fairly consistent compared to other aspects of your story.

Now that you're done with that, start daydreaming! I mean it. Inspire yourself with places, art, music or whatever you can think of that have a connection with your project. Start thinking about what kind of scenes would definitely have to be in your story. Start thinking your characters through more: what kind of personality do they have? What's their weakness? What's their mindset? What do they enjoy? How are your characters related to each other?

Personally, I prefer a combination of taking quick notes on paper along with keeping detailed documents on the computer. You can think of everything written in the notebook as very conceptual, whereas everything you make a detailed document for (such as the setting) will be more stable.

The outline
First of all, I know some people prefer not writing an outline and just winging the story until it's done. With short stories this usually works fine, but with longer stories you have to be careful. I didn't really use an outline for the rough draft of Firefly, but afterwards I regretted it. Without an outline it's easy to get plot holes, pacing issues, and other things like that. You might discover these problems at the last moment and would have to rewrite entire chapters. In an outline you can spot these problems more easily and you'd just have to rewrite a few sentences to fix them. So, in my opinion it's better to start with an outline first.

All right, now... the first outline you write will probably suck. Chances are it won't even get finished because you start rewriting it after some new ideas and insights appeared. This is normal and good, it only improves the story. Just don't overdo it, or you'll never finish.

What I notice when writing outlines is that it's very easy to get overwhelmed by the little details. Never forget your outline is nothing more than a quick summary of events, don't include details that will make it hard to follow. For our earlier kappa story example this could be something like:

Beginning:
- Introduction of the main character - mention that today she'll go for a swim!
- The main character is saved from drowning (accident-cramp in foot) by a strange creature, it resembled a kappa.
- Her friends tell her they don't exist, she challenges them, saying she'll find the kappa who saved her.

Build-up:
- She tries to lure the kappa to her with a trail of cucumbers leading out of the sea - it fails
- She swims around the area where she got saved, trying to find the kappa - it fails
- She's down because she can't find her kappa - maybe she just washed ashore and had a strange dream?

Climax:
- Wait, what's that? Something moved in the water and she dives in after it.
- After chasing him for some time, she catches the kappa! Hooray!

Ending:
- She goes to show off the kappa to her friends - who then conclude she captured a poor man wearing a diving suit with some seaweed stuck to his head.

Tadah! You now have a simple, basic outline of the plot! It shows how the tension builds up, where the climax is and how it begins and ends. If your plot involves multiple main characters, point of views, settings and is pretty long (let's say longer than a 1-4 hour visual novel), then this structure will inevitably become more complex. In the end though, be sure you write it out in the most basic way you can think of before developing it too much.

You can now take this plot and fill in the details. If your story is going to be long, it might be useful to start dividing it into chapters and then write down what happens each chapter. You'll basically work on your story until it's saturated.

And finally, please let someone proofread it! It's so easy to overlook something.


Surely, this didn't cover everything there is to know about writing an outline and there are tons of other ways to do it, but now you have a general idea of how I do it.

~Anna





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