The Onion Method: Building Better Stories by Talking to Yourself

Reimena Yee’s Onion Method For Outlining Graphic Novels is one of the more interesting approaches I’ve seen to planning a story in a while. At first I thought it was going to be another take on the Snowflake Method, but I quickly discovered her approach is something very different. Not only that, it’s a more character-centered approach to planning a story than most of what you see online.

In essence, she explains this method as follows:

The Onion Method is a outline method that consists of two major elements (Character-Driven Plot, and Thematic Thesis) riffing off each other. One informs the other, vice versa, creating multiple alternating layers in conversation.

Image copyright Reimena Yee.

Now you see where the onion metaphor came from.

These two elements together will create an Onion Story – a character-based story that when cut open, reveals layers upon layers of character motivation and story themes, ideas, topics, messages in conversation with each other.

In actual practice, as she lays out in her long post about this method, this is basically a method where plot/theme stuff happens and then character responds to it. You could almost call it the Call and Response Method or the Socractic Dialogue method, since basically the idea is that the plot and theme become characters who talk to each other. Through this “conversation” the writer figures out the story and how plot/character and theme are going to interact with each other.

As I understand it, it would would work a little like this:

Plot/Character (P/C): A weapons engineer from our world wakes up one morning to find he’s in the body of a prince in a magical fantasy setting.

Theme: Cool idea. Is he going to use his skills to change that world? This story is about taking responsibility for your actions.

P/C: Heck no! He’s going to use them to make himself richer by building and selling modern-ish weapons to the lords of the kingdom.

Theme: Whoa there! That might make him rich, but won’t that destabilize the kingdom? He’s basically setting things up for a civil war.

P/C: Yeah. When they start using those weapons, a lot of people will die. He’s going to feel really scared.

Theme: So he’ll try to clean up the mess he’s made?

P/C: LOL. No, he’ll move to a new kingdom using all the gold he’s made and live a high life as a rich merchant while letting the old kingdom fall apart. He’s not a responsible type of guy.

Theme: But, he needs to take responsibility.

P/C: Well, when the old kingdom falls apart, a warlord rises up and takes over using the weapons the main character made. After that, the warlord sets his sights on the new kingdom the MC is living in.

Theme: So, he’ll have to decide whether to run again or arm the new kingdom to fight the Warlord.

P/C: Exactly, in the new kingdom he found people he really cares about, and they’ll all die if he doesn’t man up and fix his mistakes. They’re willing to run away with him, but he realizes that eventually the warlord will keep coming and destroying his newfound happiness unless he gets serious and takes a stand.

Theme: Sounds like he’s maturing and learning a hard truth.

P/C: Pretty much. But is isn’t so simple. He doesn’t want the new kingdom to suffer the fate of the old one, and he’s afraid that will happen if he just arms the local lords with machine guns.

Theme: So what does he do to avoid problems?

P/C: He creates a special mercenary force just loyal to him and turns them into a special forces commando unit. Introducing big changes is bad, but small surgical changes won’t be as harmful. Then he uses them to attack the weapons factories of the warlords and stop the production of weapons. Then they capture the Warlord and stop the war.

Theme: But what about the old country? Won’t the new one invade it? Isn’t it a mess? That’s his fault too.

P/C: Well, about that… (and the dialogue continues)

The best way to think of this is that the Plot/Character is trying to tell their story, but their “friend” the Theme is constantly asking questions and making comments related to that theme or idea. It’s job is to drag the story back to being about that theme and keep the theme front and center as the story plays out.

If you put the focus on plot, like I did above, it becomes a dance between the plot/character and theme as they negotiate with each other. If you did it with a character and theme, it would come out a little different as the focus would be more about how the character develops related to the theme. You end up with a story about how the character’s flaws are brought into the light by having to confront the elements of the theme.

Character: The MC is a shy 15 year old Canadian girl with no friends.

Theme: But making friends brings out the best in people, she needs to learn to overcome her shyness and make friends.

Character: But she has no social skills and crippling anxiety.

Theme: Then she’s going to need to do something that will require her to overcome that. What could make her face her problems head-on?

Character: She needs to work after her mom gets sick. She has to take on a part-time job to feed the family, and she NEEDS to make this job work.

Theme: What job would make her confront her flaws?

Character: A job in sales. Maybe jobs are hard to get, and that’s the only one available. Her mother’s friend gets it for her.

Theme: Sales as in corner store? Sounds boring. What would be the most extreme sales situation she could face?

Character: A high-end clothing store?

Theme: Sure! She has to work at a high-end clothing store, but she has no social skills, can’t deal with people, and of course no fashion skills. Who is going to help her with that? She needs a mentor to help her overcome her challenges.

Character: Well… (and the dialogue continues)

I think it was manga creator Tetsuo Hara who said that “manga is created in the conversation” (although I might be mis-attributing this to Hara-sensei) and one of the ways to interpret this statement is that manga creation is the result of two creative people (the creator and editor in the Japanese manga system) throwing ideas back and forth. The creator has wild ideas, and the editor keeps them on track and focused.

In a real sense, that’s what’s happening here in the Onion Method. The writer is simulating a conversation between a creator and editor about the story they’re trying to develop, using their own imagination to play both parts. By doing this, a story is produced which has a theme built into it without having to laboriously think through every part of the story from a thematic perspective.

If you struggle with theme sometimes (like I often do), but are good at writing dialog, this could be a good hack to solving that problem.

Also, as Reimena says in her original post, you can then take this dialogue and develop it however you like. Whether it’s just jumping into writing the full story, turning around and breaking it down into your story structure of choice, or digging deeper into different parts of it by having separate conversations about those parts with the same theme.

There’s a lot of potential here for some writers, and it might be worth playing with and exploring the Onion Method to find out if it works for you.

Have fun!

Rob

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