Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Question of Outlining

So, you’ve got a great story stuck in your head. Your fingers are itching to write it and the plot twists are keeping you up at night. Of course, there’s also the characters who’ve brought their suitcases and pets and have taken up residence in your brain. You’re so ready to start this story that your bones ache.

And then you sit down with your torture device of preference (a laptop or a pen or whatever).

Nothing happens.

Or, maybe you grit your teeth and push out a few lines, but, oh hell, they’re awful and completely not what you were going for at all and—repeat this process until mind is lost or fingers are raw.

Don’t despair. This is a common issue that writers have, and one of the causes for your trouble is that you’re not prepared enough. Many writers like to open up a document and just write to the end, discovering the story as they go, and then make all the necessary revisions after. They might have some idea what they’re getting into, but the process is still mostly a discovery.

Some of us need to know a bit more about where we’re going first. Outlines can help.

Here are some pros for outlines:

  • Discovering and strengthening the plot arc in the outline can aid in proper foreshadowing.
  • Predicting plot holes in advance means we can make changes before we’ve even started writing.
  • If you do something to the latter half of the outline that requires changes in the first half, those changes are a whole lot easier to make than rewriting.
  • Similarly, with any mystery elements, we can carefully plant clues in advance and see how each clue affects the story. If something doesn’t work, it’s much easier to backtrack than rewrite.
  • Outlines can help with planning pacing and the right amount of tension, conflict, and necessary exposition.
  • In the case of multiple POVs, outlines can help balance the spotlight, or screen time, for each character to make sure they’re all carrying their weight.
  • Especially with planning a series, subplots are often like herding kittens (or like herding all your drunken friends, y’know) and can get away very easily. Outlines can help with maintaining boss mom oversight on all the baby plots.
  • Outlines allow us to see the whole story from an aerial viewpoint, and then we can see how everything runs together. We can look for repetitious patterns, lagging aftermath scenes, problematic scene bridges, and so forth.
  • Some of us have surprisingly terrible memory, and having an outline makes looking for a particular scene or tidbit easier to find instead of trying to guess which chapter and skim until we lose all our hair.
  • For those who so choose, having an outline makes it easier for scenes to be written out of order and then connected later.

Here are some cons:

  • An outline can remove or hamper the thrill of discovery a writer has with writing the story.
  • Micromanaging details can bring the focus away from enjoying the writing, stressing instead that a story must go according to plan. Plans don’t always work the way we plan.
  • Characters can develop beyond our expectations, altering the course of the plot and effectively voiding most or all of the outline. Characters enjoy ruining things like that.
  • Good, effective outlines take a lot of time. And even then, outlines are subject to change during the process of writing, which means a lot more work needs to be done with the outline.
  • Writing an outline is not writing. Outlines are a lot like building a skeleton and making sure all the molars are in place in the jaw before we start applying muscle and sinew and flesh.
  • Sometimes outlines just don’t effectively predict the story like actually writing the story does.

Some of us are really good planners, some of us enjoy spontaneity a bit more, some of us are a bit of both. But if you’re not a good planner, you can become a better planner through learning and practice.

I used to “pants” all my stories and went wherever the story took me. I learned pacing through sensing when scenes were lagging and needed an injection of adrenaline—but, oftentimes, this led to directions I didn’t want to take and characters developing in ways that answered “the big question” of the story too soon. Subplots were also left hanging all over the place, and when I’d come back to revise, I often stopped and tapped my head like, “What the heck was I going to do with this?”

But I’ve also experience with outlines that were incredibly too strict, where I jotted down bits of conversation that couldn’t always be organically included, and when I forced the characters to constrain to the outline, I impaired their development.

Here are some of my personal methods with outlining:

  • I write my outlines knowing I’m going to alter them somewhere, somehow. This helps me distance myself from any awesome scenes I have planned, so if I have to cut them, I can without mercy (or at least move them or set them aside, just in case the scene can be recycled).
  • I leave endings vague, or open, until after I’m well into writing. I might create a list of things that need to happen by the end as I write, especially as characters develop and do what they need to do. By a certain point, I can more aptly finish the outline and draw all the arcs together (especially if I have a particularly large cast with many character arcs).
  • When I make changes as I write, I cross out unused material and add changes with a different color. This way I can keep track of what was put in and what was scrapped.
  • Sometimes, vagueness is fine. Rather frequently throughout the outline I have details like, “I have no idea what will happen here” when I bring two characters together, because I honestly don’t.
  • I’ll make notes along the outline of such things like “remember the character thinks this” or “remember this is happening too” or “remember the character broke their cell phone” (which happens a lot, let me tell you, my characters sit down way too hard).
  • Some scenes might have a ton of intricate details in the outline, and I might carry on about it for an enormous paragraph that takes up half the page. Other scenes might be single lines. It all depends on how many pieces of the plot I’m throwing at the characters, and some scenes might only deal with one piece, and that’s okay.
  • I keep just enough details in the outline that I have to flip back to it only a few times while writing a scene, and not constantly. If I have to flip back too many times, I’m stopping the flow of writing, and too much of that can break concentration, and then I’m on tumblr, writing a post about outlines.
  • After I finish an outline, I let it sit. I let the sediment settle like I would after I finish the last word of the last chapter of a manuscript. The process of airing things out lets me see my thoughts and ideas clearly and objectively so I can make any tweaks I need to.
  • Sometimes outlines drive me crazy. This is okay. Being a writer means I’m not all there anyway.

I didn’t always outline. I started out pantsing my way through manuscripts because outlines destroyed my need to tell the story. As I started telling more stories, I started using little bulleted lists, and those little lists grew into huge outlines, and then I found something in the middle that worked for me.

The key is finding what works for you. And how you find that depends on how you test your chemistry with different outlining strategies. Sometimes different stories require different types of outlines, because some stories might need meticulous planning and some might need exploring. It all depends on the writer.

Here are some links:

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

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