It’s an outline, not your spouse

You would think that writers, being a sedentary sort of people, wouldn’t get into too many fights, but that isn’t the case. Writing is a dangerous business, and battles are fought constantly over things like first-person narratives versus third-person, past tense and present tense, whether prologues really work, and character-centric plots versus story-centric. But, one of the most brutal battlefields in all of Literaryland is the one between those who outline and those who write by the seat of their pants. The liters of scotch, not to mention blood, that have been spilled over this issue could fill rivers, and it probably won’t end any time soon. But, in the interest of making this blog of mine more interesting and perhaps informative, I will attempt to do what I can to heal the divide. And, if not accomplishing that, perhaps I can at least bring some understanding. So, here I go…

And, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to go with the shorthand of calling people who outline “plotters,” and people who write without them “pantsers.”

When I first started writing, I was a pantser. It made sense. I mean, writing is about discovery, finding the story and bringing it word by word into the world. So, for me to discover it in much the same way as the eventual reader will discover it seemed only natural. Along the way teachers tried to show me the value of outlines, but the process seemed so boring and technical that I never gave it any thought outside the classroom. That sort of thing might work in the sterile environment of school, but at home I needed more freedom, more room to work my magic. That was how I went on for a long while.

When I tried to turn writing from a hobby into an actual artistic pursuit, though, things started to change. They changed even more when I moved from writing short stories to novels. But, before I get into that, let me detour for just a moment into another aspect of writing, one that isn’t often discussed outside the cloistered confines of author discussion groups.

A book, whether short or long, is the result of several iterations and revisions, editing pass after editing pass. A lot of young writers make the mistake of thinking that the first draft of a book needs to be perfect, so they’ll go over every sentence and paragraph with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it sparkles. The problem with that is sometimes you’ll discover a problem down the line in a later chapter, and to fix it you’ll have to go back a ways and change something. Stories are much like ponds, in that disturbances — even minor ones — will have ripples. So, all those sentences and paragraphs that were shined to a high polish suddenly have to be edited, or perhaps even thrown out entirely. It took me a long time to realize that first drafts, where the story’s clay is at its lumpiest and has to be hammered into shape, doesn’t need to be perfect. The first draft is where you paint with the widest brush, getting the broad strokes of the story worked out. That way any changes that have to be made are far less painful. Then, once that first draft is finished, the editing passes to follow are where the story finally gets cut and polished until it shimmers. Whether people know it or not, the book they read and loved, the book that seemed so perfectly written, was actually a Frankenstein’s monster of cut paragraphs, sutured chapters, and slashed words. If you never noticed, that means the writer (and perhaps their editor if they had one) did their job(s) right.

Now, back to outlines…

It only took a few times of having to completely toss out ten-thousand-plus words because of plot problems before I knew there had to be a better way of writing a novel. The act of discovery is a wonderful thing, and in the heat of pantser writing a new idea can seem like the greatest idea ever conceived of by man, but when a great idea in chapter ten means that the ideas in chapters three and four no longer make sense, that’s not so wonderful. The number of words I had to kill back then would make World War II pale. There had to be a better way. But what?

And that’s when I returned to the idea I’d disregarded so easily in my youth — outlines. But, this wasn’t going to be my dad’s outlines, lists that went from I to A to 1 to a. No no, that would never work. I needed something that had more of the flow of a novel, but not so… novelly. Short, perhaps in bullet points, chapter by chapter, something that would let me see the overall structure of the story so I could fix any plot problems there might be long before the actual writing began. I also needed it to be flexible. I didn’t want to be locked down to anything. Room always had to be made for inspiration. Was such a thing possible? Absolutely. It just took a little while and some trial and error to work out. Here is how I craft outlines, and if you’re a writer who’s been having trouble, this might help you too.

First, realize that an outline isn’t your spouse. You’re not married to it. Outlines are guides, nothing more. A way for you to work out what the story is you want to tell, and in such a way that you can see problems before they materialize and require mass word murder. Outlines can be changed at any point. If it helps, think of them like blueprints. Someone building a house doesn’t just start hammering as the mood hits them, do they? No, they have a set of plans, and they work off those plans so it all fits together. But those plans were worked over and worked over well in advance, with all sorts of erased lines and moved walls. It’s safer, not to mention cheaper, to do it when it’s just pencil marks. Same thing with a story. It’s easier to fix plot holes and add new ideas when you’re dealing with a few thousand words in an outline versus tens of thousands.

Second, don’t be rigid in the structure of your outline. For every plotter I know, there are different ways to outline. They’re like snowflakes — no two are alike. Make it work for you. My outlines look like a few pages of paragraphs, each one numbered and in order. I start with CHAPTER 1 (or PROLOGUE, but don’t get me started on that one), and then I write out a brief, quick sketch of what that chapter should be about. If I have a particular line of dialogue already in mind, I’ll put it in there. Then I move on to CHAPTER 2, CHAPTER 3, and so on, until I have a high-level map of the novel. By the time I’m done with it I’ve worked out the general plot, made sure it made sense (in as much as good fiction can), and that I hit the beats I meant to hit. Then, if I have someone I like to bounce things off of, I’ll have them look at it to make sure I didn’t miss anything. If they say I’m good, then I motor on. If that sort of outline works for you, go for it. If not, chart your own path.

Third, don’t be afraid to be inspired. Just because your outline said that chapter three had go one way doesn’t mean you can’t go another way. If heading in a different direction doesn’t change the overall flow, great. Your outline is preserved. If it does, then go back to the outline and look for where alterations further down the line need to be made. In my experience I rarely make big changes from my outlines. The story I worked out is nearly always the story I end up with. But, I’m often making small changes, little tweaks here and there to add more drama and character moments. And I love doing that. One big complaint or argument that pantsers have against outlining is that it takes all the surprise and sense of discovery out of writing. To them I say, “Feh!” I’m constantly surprised at the things I come up with while writing, the discoveries I make. For example, in my current work-in-progress, chapter five is described as starting with my point of view character being taken into a city and put before one of the book’s antagonists. But, when I sat down to write, it didn’t make sense to jump that character right to the city. There was a good distance he had to get through to be there, so why not create a scene where he is forced into a cramped space and treated like livestock until the city came into things? It wouldn’t necessitate any changes in my outline, and it would let me get some information out in a way that made sense and was natural. My outline was preserved, it still worked, but I still had room to write and be creative.

So you see, outlining doesn’t have to be boring or spirit crushing. Not in the least. In fact, when done right, it can let your writer’s spirit really soar, because you have confidence in the story you’re going to tell before you start telling it, and you know you still have room to fly around and see what else is out there to discover along the way. I’ve found the process to be rewarding and very fulfilling. If you give it a shot, maybe you will too.

Okay, that’s it from me. I hope all that made sense, and that you got something out of it.