Outlining Project Z

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen that I’ve been talking about my outline all week–and you’ve seen that it is several days behind schedule. I can’t tell you anything specific about the outline, but I can tell you about the process of creating it, and if we’re lucky it will be helpful to read about.

Project Z, it should be mentioned, is not the same Project Z that I’ve mentioned in previous posts; Nightbringer will be written eventually, but today is not that day.

Project Z is the first of a trilogy, and has a very cool story that sets up a number of mysteries for the rest of the series. The problem is, while I had some cool ideas, I wasn’t completely certain as to what those mysteries should be. Think about Battlestar: Galactica, the new one–they established a cool premise, presented some mysteries, and started every episode with the phrase “They have a plan.” Everything the bad guys did was cool, and weird, and hard to figure out, but the audience went along with it and tried to piece it all together, confident that there really was a plan and it really would all make sense…and then it didn’t. They hit a point in season three where it was horribly, blindingly obvious that they simply didn’t know what was going on or where the story was going. They did an excellent job, in my opinion, of bringing it all together in season four, patching up the holes and making it all make sense (well, most of it), but the glitches added up. With Project Z I want to tell a similarly twisty story (hitting, coincidentally, on some of the same themes), but I wanted to do it right, which meant I had to figure out beforehand what the plan really was. Before I could start the prose–before I could even start the outline, I had to figure out exactly what was going on, what the bad guys wanted, and how they intended to go about it. Like I say in my story structure presentation, I had to figure out the ending before I could begin the beginning.

So I did. I took a week, sketched out the villains, gave them all plans and methods, and made it all work. Even better, the plans are multi-layered enough that they can be confusing and filled with misdirection and still, in the end, make sense. Huzzah! But an ending does not an outline make, and there was still a lot of work to do.

I started working on the outline of the series, but decided it would be more fun to wing it a little–I knew what the bad guys were planning, so I could fill in those details as I went along. It would be more natural, and therefore more effective, to let the heroes guide the story as they saw fit. I dialed my scope down a bit and decided to just work on the first book outline.

My problem with the first book outline, as I had originally conceived it, was that it focused too heavily on revealing the mysteries. Ending with a discovery is a cool second act kind of thing–think Empire Strikes Back, which ends with the discovery that Vader is Luke’s father. That works really well, and makes you hungry for the third movie, but it would not have worked as the end of the first movie. The first act has to end with a choice and an action, not just a revelation, or it won’t feel satisfying. This gave me two choices: put the revelation later, like a second act whammy, or put it earlier and find something even bigger for book two. This choice is easy to make, and we’ve talked about it before on Writing Excuses: don’t hold back on the first book. Make it as awesome as possible, and then when that’s done find a way to make book two even more awesome. With that in mind I pushed my ending revelation forward, found a strong, active resolution for the main character, and plotted everything backward from there. The story works, the story’s cool, and it sets up a bunch of bigger, cooler stuff for books two and three.

Project Z is going to be awesome.

7 Responses to “Outlining Project Z”

  1. Rhys says:

    Hang on…so this the Schizo project Z, or a different project Z? xD

  2. Spencer Pranger says:

    Awesome congrats Dan. Can’t wait to read it.

  3. Hey Dan. It sounds cool, man. Want to take a minute to thank you again for the response on Twitter. I’ll be rooting around in here to find the posts you had about outlining. ~Shaun

  4. Kathiravan Isak Arulampalam says:

    I know this is of topic, but I was reading about Serial Killers and their pathogies, and I was wondering if Johns dad beat him, or treated him in a bad way?

  5. Sounds exciting. I can’t wait to read it. I can’t help but notice that your description of BSG sounds an awful lot like Lost only without them pulling it together in the end…oh well.

    Once you finish book one will you then sit down and outline the rest of the series before a final first book revision? How will you keep it solid while discovery-ish writing the rest of the outline?

  6. SeekingPlumb says:

    “I had to figure out the ending before I could begin the beginning.”

    Huzzah!!! THIS is what makes a good book. I absolutely LOVE when, in the end, you can see how the author new the ending & wove everything from the very beginning to get to the very end. LOVE this!! Looking forward to Project Z!

  7. Johnny says:

    When I read a book, it often flows so well that it seems so easy to write a book, but now that I’m writing a book, I realized it’s all about choices, from a single word to a major twist. It’s quite overwhelmed.

    I listen to the podcast and you’re quite a genius when it comes to plots. You can come up with great ideas in seconds. So I’m sure this trilogy will be great.

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