Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Scarab Outlining

Last night, after rescuing a ladybug trapped on the porch -- yes, I occasionally do insect search and rescue -- I got an idea for a quick way to outline a scene or story. I then went in search of my ancient Egyptian coloring book (what, you expected Dora the Explorer?) and found what I wanted:

This is a scarab, a symbol inspired by a common black beetle (Scarabeus sacer) which was held in high regard by the Egyptians. To them the scarab represented the sun god Khepera (also known as Kheper, Khephri and a couple other names) who represented renewal and eternity; both very important themes in their culture.

For our purposes this elegant creature is going to help prepare a micro-outline for writing, and to do that I'm going to borrow the letters from its name: SCARAB.

Each letter of its name represents an idea prompt to help you think about what you need to know in order to write your story:

Situation: Here's your main premise. What is it?
Characters: Decide on your cast. Who is involved?
Action: These are the main events. What happens?
Reason: Determine the motivating factor. Why does it happen?
Ambiance: The type of story this is. What's the mood, theme or genre?
Building: The world of your story. Where/when does it happen?

Be brief when you answer these questions, as you don't want to write a synopsis. This is a very basic outline, the sort of thing you'd scribble down in a pocket notebook. I have a story I'm writing based on my story card prompt for January, so I'll use that as an example:

Situation: a lady delivering flowers is trapped inside a haunted house and must befriend (the thing?) haunting it in order to survive.
Characters: the lady, her business partner, the thing.
Action: lady delivers flowers to haunted house, is trapped inside by homicidal business partner, discovers the thing. The thing protects the lady in exchange for her promise to stay. The lady discovers the thing's real motives, must choose to escape or stay/risk her life to protect it (from business partner? Public discovery? Whatever made it a thing?)
Reason: the thing has been secretly watching the lady for some time, wants her for itself, and manipulated business partner into bringing her there.
Ambiance: dark fantasy, scary, erotic, ironic
Building: modern day northern California (rural, city?)

At this point you don't have to chisel in stone all the story details, either. As you can see I've included in my scarab micro-outline a couple of questions for myself; these are elements I haven't yet decided on, like exactly what the thing is, what the final threat is, and where the story takes place.

I think the scarab approach can help you nail down an idea for a scene as well as a full story, or even rough out the main premise for a novel. Adapt it to suit your needs. It may also prove easier to deal with for writers who would like to play with the basic framework but don't want to work out a lot of detail ahead of time.

Scarab image credit: Ancient Egyptian Design Coloring Book by Ed Sibbett, Jr., ISBN# 048623746X, published by Dover Publications


  1. O.o Yes. I absolutely expected you to have a Dora the Explorer Coloring Book.

    I'm kinda amazed that you can look at ladybugs and see outlines.

    But again, that word still gives me hives.

  2. Well, this is perfect for me, thankyouverymuch.

  3. Thank you - I am always surprised when I read your blog. Plus it is always useful for my next story.

    Cyn ;-)

  4. This is a nifty and clever little visual outline that I'm going to play with. Thanks for posting it!


  5. This looks great for on-the-fly NaNoWriMo seat-of-your-pants outlining. I may actually try that this November.

    Makes me wonder what I can do with my Unicorn coloring book...

  6. Brilliant acrostic! This is a very creative idea.


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