The Dreaded Outline

I have months and months and months of material I’ve generated on this story that kind of gets out of sight, out of mind, and I wanted to sift through it before I really started to draw a picture of what my plot was going to look like.

So that’s what I did this week–I started going back over it all, pulling out the bits I like and gathering them up with the intention, when I’m done, of organizing them into something resembling an outline. I say “something resembling” because of the previously mentioned unmixy-ness of me and outlines.

Let me backtrack here. I have been writing fiction since I was eleven. And, in a more or less serious way, since I was 29, which I will admit was one 16 year(s) ago. I know a fair bit about my own process, and while I will also admit not outlining can lead to meandering story lines (::cough::myoldnovel::cough::), I also know that the best ideas come to me when I’m actually writing, and not before hand, and that outlining–at least, an initial outline–is going to get utterly trashed by the end of the first draft, which will resemble it very little when it is finished.

I’m going off on this a little because I went to a seminar Wednesday night at Good ol’ Changing Hands bookstore, which is really handy to me and offers inexpensive writing seminars taught by real published authors. This one was better than the last one, in which the guy just lectured. The woman who taught this week’s workshop (who incidentally, is the sister of fantasy author Terry Brooks, and a published novelist and playwright in her own right) actually had us do right-brain idea-triggering exercises and invited people to share the results.

The topic of the workshop was “the dreaded outline”, and she spoke some about the advantages of outlines, which were extensive. And to be honest, I could not have written two seasons of The Destroyer without outlining. But I never outlined the whole season before hand. That would have been mega-boring. What I did was have an idea about where I wanted to take Connor by the end of the season, and a few “episode ideas” I thought might be fun, but I didn’t know ahead of time how the season would play out at all. I made it up as I went along, outlining individual episodes before I wrote *them*, and getting my ideas for the next episode from what was suggested by the previous one, but really, I only had a clear idea what an episode would be about maybe one, or two episodes in advance.

I went to the outline workshop hoping to pick up some pointers as I segue into planning my new novel. I am totally willing to change my ways and do an outline. I just was not convinced, and am now even less convinced, that using one is going to be all that useful for me. Certainly not as a “blueprint” for the story.

Before I start having the appearance of protesting too much, I will state that I still do fully intend to do something resembling an outline, but it will be tentative and vague at best, and I will keep revising it as the writing the actual story gives me better ideas. ‘Cause you know, getting “off track,” that’s when the real story-telling happens.

9 thoughts on “The Dreaded Outline

  1. I don’t think an outline is quite right for you. I think you’d adjust better to a plot diagram with flexible moving parts — I do mine on a big cork board with index cards, and it seems like it would be much more compatible with the way you work when you do fanfic.
    Shall I elaborate?
    (To be clear, I’m not saying it’s better because it’s my way and I’m attached to it, I’m just suggesting that you might really like the flexibility and find it a good match.)

  2. i take happiness in that a lot of top shelf authors don’t outline much either, Stephen King, Tony Hillerman, Mike Connolly among others. A little outline, random notes on what should happen are helpful. Like you i get bored if there’s too much outline

  3. Yeah, and it goes beyond boredom. I don’t want to know how it’s all going to play out before hand, because that just makes me lose interest in it and quit.

  4. Okay, what I do is establish the main plot question (the simple, surface question, like can Character X accomplish Goal Y?) and write it on an index card. Then I try for a short answer to the question on a second index card. Really short, like a single sentence (Yes, but there’s Obstacle Z) — the point isn’t to write the end, it’s just to clearly know whether ultimate success or failure lies in the character’s future, in the vaguest terms.
    I put those two cards on the very top corners of the cork board. If I have a title in mind, I put that on a card in the middle. If I don’t, I don’t worry about it.
    Then I write every idea I have on an index card, as well as list obstacles the character needs to face, and really vague concepts that the type of plot requires, and specific events that need to happen to allow other events to happen. These can be anything from very specific lines of dialog I’m keen to use, to really vague, like Character X’s second failure at Y. I’ll think up how she fails for the second time after I’ve written quite a bit of the story, probably.
    Anyway, some cards naturally fall early in the story, and others late in the story, so I put them on the board in something resembling an order. Anything that doesn’t have a specific place hangs beneath the board in a little bag until it falls into place, or gets pulled and stuck in an index card box for a different story. (I got that bit from you, I think.)
    The beauty of the whole system is the flexibility. I have placeholder cards I reuse, too — “comic relief” or “fight scene” or whatever, which during the writing get replaced with cards containing actual ideas. Sometimes characters will pull me in a different direction, but that’s okay, because by rearranging a few cards, I can keep the elements of my story in play, and use some unexpected action from the antagonist to force the characters back on track if necessary. It’s all very fluid, and the only thing you really can’t change during the course of the story is the type of ending — yes or no to the surface question — and the basic type of plot (character driven or quest driven).
    The one obstacle I run into using this method is that sometimes I’ll have a really great bit of dialog on a card weeks in advance of writing the scene for it, and then I’ll fall into a trap of writing the scene to the line, which means one character ends up sounding bloody unnatural as they spend half the scene setting the other character up for the allegedly great line, which then falls flat because the rest of the scene is a mess. That’s when I’ll find myself rewriting the same scene sixteen times, longer each time, until finally I make myself let the characters have their own voices.
    So I guess what I’m saying is to let the flexible outline-replacement be flexible. Then it’s great.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s