Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action. — William James 

What Is An Outline, Anyway?

Over the years, I’ve had a number of people ask me if I outline my work. When I say yes, these people almost invariably ask, “What goes in the outline? What does it look like?” For years, I would explain that it was a concentrated version of the story. Each paragraph boiled down to a scene. People would then ask, “Can I see one?” I would send one along. My friend Gayle summed it up when she said, “Oh, I get it. It’s like the whole book...on speed.” Yes. That’s kind of it. But even when I have explained it and showed an example, people didn’t seem to be able to do it. It took me fifteen years to understand what people were really asking. When people ask what should go in an outline or on a notecard, they were actually asking, “What are the essential elements of a scene?”

Scene Essentials

The most important thing to understand a scene is that it is a unit of emotional time.

The most important thing to understand a scene is that it is a unit of emotional time. The ancient Greeks called this kairos, which is defined as, “a propitious moment for decision or action”. It’s a moment when things change, and that change has emotional importance. Something is revealed or takes place that has meaning for the character. This means that, at the beginning of the scene, the character is in a specific emotional state and has a certain expectation for what will happen. If the emotional state is “happy” and the expectation is “breakfast as usual”, something will happen that will cause a change in the character’s expectation and, therefore, their the emotional state. What that event or revelation will be depends on the story you’re telling. But the beat in the outline needs to capture the setting, the characters involved, the emotional state at the start, the expectation, the event that changes that state, and the new emotional state at the end. It should hint at the decision or action to come. Usually, that decision or action will take place in the next scene. The character will take the action with a certain expectation, and...guess what? Once again, things will not go according to the expectation. This is the essence of scenes. It is also the essence of life.

This Emotional Moment

Right now, we are all living in a moment of kairos. We had certain emotions and expectations that are being radically upended, and we are all having an emotional response. Now, we have to make decisions and take action. Invariably, whatever actions we take will lead to their own frustrations, and how we respond to those frustrations will be its own moment of kairos. Simply stopping and being aware of the fact that this is what’s happening, and that we have choices about how we respond, can help us make better decisions.