Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Don’t carve your outline in stone

Of all the tools and techniques for writers that I have written or spoken about, the outline gets the most resistance. Students, bloggers, aspiring writers and tweetmates argue “I like to write by the seat of my pants” or “I can’t use an outline.”

But I have yet to find a professional writer, one who has been published and earned a living from it, who objects to outlines.

Remember, you’re writing your outline on paper or a computer, not carving it in stone. You can change it after you write it. The idea is to get all your ideas onto paper (or screen). Then you can move them around, change them, add some, take others out—whatever makes sense to you.

Once it’s written down, the outline will show you the logic of your argument, proposal or story—or the lack of it. An invisible outline, one that’s only in your head, just doesn’t make these errors visible.

Don’t like the order? Change it! Even after you start writing the draft, you can change the order of ideas. It’s your work, after all.

I do this all the time, with every document. In fact, I did it with this blog post. I jotted down a scratch outline of words, short phrases and the occasional full sentence. I thought about my outline, moved some ideas around, then started adding words to turn those phrases into full sentences and paragraphs. Even while I was writing these paragraphs, I reordered the ideas and moved a couple of paragraphs around.

I cannot imagine writing something as long as a novel without an outline. How else can you make sure you get your hero from the introduction to the conclusion without skipping over something important? Especially with the current trend to non-linear storytelling, where the plot is not chronological but rather thematic, I cannot see how anyone could tell a coherent story without following an outline. There’s just no way to make sure you’ve covered everything you have to cover.

I know this is still going to raise some objections, and I invite you to argue with me. You know you want to. Yes, you do!

Post your objections or different perspective in the Comment box. Tell me about your outline.

And you “pantsers” out there: tell me all about your novel written without the outline. How long did it take you?

Hieroglyphics image courtesy www.copyright-free-images.com

17 comments:

  1. No argument here, sorry. :D For me to write without a plan is to invite writers' block. But I also totally agree that it has to be flexible!

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  2. I believe in a combination of plotting and winging it. I start with a rough outline. Must know how it starts, how it ends and a few key points in between. Then I let my characters fill in the rest.

    You make great points!

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  3. I use different types of outlines depending on where I'm at in a story. Generally I start with a general overview. "I want this to happen in the beginning, this to happen in the middle, and I want it to end...maybe like this?" and then at the very end I've found reverse outlining to be VERY helpful. Victoria Mixon wrote about it in her book "The Art & Craft of Story" Very helpful

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  4. Isis, your approach makes a lot of sense, especially for a fiction writer.

    Danielle, your backward plotting system sounds very interesting. I've often imagined something like that would be the only way to write a mystery. If Colonel Mustard did it, then how? Where? And how did he hide his guilt?

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  5. I like the idea of pantsing it. But I find I can't do that for the long haul. Outlining in some form does give me a direction, and more importantly, outlining helps me write faster and avoid writers block (which for me is almost always about something that has me stumped, because it isn't working).

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  6. I usually have a destination that I want to get to and scenes that I want to see. I build outlines between them as I go along. I'm not afraid to ditch whole chunks of it (or of the prose for that matter). I couldn't imagine writing without some sort of outline. Having a sketch of a plan allows me to jump around, drop in details early on that will tie into something bigger later. Outlines are good things.

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  7. I often "pants" the first fifty pages or so, to get a feel for my characters and setting, then take a break to plot the rest.
    But even that is not set in stone, because the characters sometimes surprise me along the way, and then I have to go edit my outline before I can continue.
    And that first fifty pages of "pantsing" often ends up in the trash bin, or cut up and sprinkled through the rest of the story, because it tends to be pure backstory.

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    1. I like that approach, Tam. It seems it addresses two challenges that writers face: figuring out the plot, and working essential back-story in where it's needed, without boring the readers.

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    2. I totally agree. A couple of other points. when I check my outline I can see at a glance how frequently a character in my story has appeared or not appeared. I can see my storyline and make sure that it is progressing towards a satisfying end. My ouline is flexible but vital.

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  8. The best creative writing class I ever took was a year long screenwriting class. There I learned about backstory, treatments and plot points. Having that outline does help, but as mentioned it's not set in stone. It is, however, a stepping stone. It helps to have that but like I've said before allow whatever is being dictated to you from your muse, the Spirit or wherever to help you hone that backstory and those plotpoints. They can all work in conjunction together, but I reiterate that by following your muse/spirit/whatever can turn a good story into a great one.

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  9. I'm an incredibly inconsistent writer. My first novel (more of a novella, actually) I wrote with no plan whatsoever. I just wrote and wrote and it all came out for better or worse. But I'm not arrogant enough to believe this will work for every story I want to write, so now I'm taking my time with the sequel - planning events, encounters, dialogue and plot - and I find it makes writing vastly easier.

    I once thought writing a plan before writing the story would do nothing more than bog me down as I attempted to fit the story to the plan. Now I realize, and your post really hammered it home, that a plan can be as organic and malleable as the story itself. Thanks for the post!

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  10. Great post. Best plotting advice I ever got was to plot from the ending backwards. ;)

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  11. I like to outline! Usually I write out the larger sections in a lined paper notebook, then I type it out and revise as I go along. Eventually the whole story appears, and then--I revise again. And again...and AGAIN! When it is ready, I submit it, put myself on the line and see what happens! :) Great post!

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  12. So much agreement, especially about shifting plot points around. I write my plot points out on paper and cut them out, then shuffle them around to see if they make more sense in a different order. Also, I try to explain the story to friends. Often they say, "but what about...?" and I find a gaping plot hole. Good to know before I start writing!

    I like to visualize the outline as a trellis: there's definitely a framework and a structure, but the story grows around the trellis, taking on its own life and sometimes making detours.

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    1. During a re-write of my first novel, I realized I had to cut stuff, but there were passages that I wanted to keep in the sections I decided to cut. I wrote the major points on colour-coded Post-It notes and rearranged them. I ended up sticking various colours of notes on larger sheets of paper, just to keep track.

      It's not easy to be organized!

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  13. I wonder sometimes if it isn't more of a definition problem than anything else. I consider myself a discovery writer (a more PC term than "pantser!" :) ), but I do have the shape of the story in mind before I start writing. I don't have a formal outline, but it wouldn't be true to say I have no idea where I'm going when I start, I just don't have every single step of the trip planned.

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  14. I completely agree with the need for an outline. There's always an exception though... I did write one novel without one... 50k in three months... I just followed the idea train... Thanks for this insightful article.

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