I know, I know. The title seems a little silly. But when you learn that David Farland taught the likes of Brandon Sanderson and Stephenie Meyer, and that Farland pushed Scholastic to bid on the Harry Potter series, you realize why Farland called his book MILLION DOLLAR OUTLINES. His goal is to teach writers how to fully develop their stories, such that it will find success with the widest audience possible.
While this idea might bother the “art for art’s sake” crowd, I didn’t really have a problem with it. To me, a big part of being a writer is finding an audience. I want my stuff to be read; I want my stories to sell; I don’t want to shout into the void. And I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the books that I (and millions of others) love are the ones that are the most richly detailed, that have the most well defined worlds, that have the most interesting characters, and that have the most elegant plots. So yes, Farland’s approach to outlining is very aware of marketing. But I also think it’s one of the more specific books on story pre-planning out there.
In fact, the bulk of MILLION DOLLAR OUTLINES is about answering questions before you write a single word of your outline. Farland advises writers to first answer questions about their fictional world, their characters, backstories, conflicts, character arcs, a target audience, the emotions they want to arouse, reversals, twists, themes, and more. Only with that information on hand, Farland says, can you properly begin to structure your story. Only then does Farland show readers how to build an outline based on a series of plot charts or plot diagrams.
In my opinion, this was the one weakness of MILLION DOLLAR OUTLINES. Although the logic behind these diagrams is sound, Farland assumes his readers know how to create them. I don’t. I can create try-fail cycles of increasing scope and intensity, but I don’t know how to graph it onto a chart. That being said, I think if I went through all of the exercises Farland offers, this is a minor concern. I could probably put the pieces together into an outline despite the lack of diagrams. But I think I’d still miss having that final visual checkpoint before I start writing.
There is a moment at the very end of MILLION DOLLAR OUTLINES when David Farland says something along the lines of beginner writers are sometimes too eager to start writing, and they begin writing before doing adequate planning. The result is a thin book that doesn’t live up to its potential. I found myself nodding. My first novel–perhaps never to rise from the trunk–suffered from just such a problem. It felt thin and disappointing, as if the colors were pale, washed out. I won’t make the same mistake on my next novel, thanks to Farland and MILLION DOLLAR OUTLINES.
There is a lot to be said about working in a goal oriented fashion. Any project should start that way, else they bloat and rarely end where you want them.
Having watched Brandon’s videos you can see that at work. The book starts with a set of Goals, X,Y,Z. Then, each chapter starts with a goal that pushes the book towards X,Y,Z.
The Goals may need to change as the story develops, but they always need to be clear and each chapter needs to contribute to them. It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tip 4: “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”
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