Sunday, October 23, 2011

Zette's Take: How Outlines Work

We are not all the same and neither we do not all work the same.  Nothing is as simple as 'this' or 'that' when it comes to writing and that includes working with outlines.  People approach them in different ways and create different types of outlines.  I don't expect people who dislike working with outlines to suddenly jump up and embrace them.  However, I do think outlines are often misunderstood. 

People who don't work with an outline seem to assume that creating one is the same as telling the story, all planned out and complete, and there's nothing more to it.  This isn't true: An outline is almost always little more than a series of plot points.  There might be a few notes and even something that says 'Tom is mad' at some point.  Creating one is just as much an act of discovery as writing a first draft without one.  Outlines also often include questions on the trouble areas which might be fuzzy -- you know something is going to happen, but until you get to that spot, you can't tell how the forces are going to come together.

The story itself only occurs when the characters interact with those plot points.  Until the characters come alive on the story page, it's little more than a set of stage directions.  In other words, an outline is all about tell; the story is about show. 

Having an outline does not mean I won't discover other interesting things along the way as I write the story.  For me, in fact, an outline means I am more open to discovery.  With an outline, I'm not focusing all my creativity on discovering what happens next in the big plot or what I have to change earlier based on a new direction -- or change back when the new direction doesn't work.  With an outline, I've experimented with those things already and (I hope) worked out the problems so the plot movement is set.  If something didn't work in the outline, I cut a couple hundred words instead of several thousand. My focus is now far wider than merely moving the plot along.  Knowing the direction I'm going means I get to look at all the odd little bits and pieces around the main events and create even more interesting links into the story plot. 

My stories are richer since I began outlining.  I also have far less revision to do later because I make certain the basic plot is going to work from start to finish before I begin writing.  This doesn't mean everything will always work perfectly, but I have stacked the deck in my favor.

Having worked both with and without outlines, I can tell you that for me there is no difference in the actual writing.  It's always exciting because the story starts to come alive once the real writing begins.  With an outline in hand, I can move in the flow of the story just by glancing at my little 'cue cards' to keep going.  I don't step back out of writing until I have hit the time constraints of real life.

And, of course, the story will change as the characters grow.  No outline should ever be 'this and nothing else' to an author.  You might drop whole sections, add new things, change a character's direction, and all without destroying the overall plot line.  By having worked out the outline, I know the story I want to tell.  I am not going to diverge too much from the basic storyline to tell a different story that suddenly comes to me.  That's what other books are for.

To be honest, if I wrote an outline and then wasn't interested enough to write the story, I'd think the story wasn't very good to begin with.  (It's like people telling me they hate to edit because they already know the story.  Ack.  If you're so uninterested in your story that you can't even look at it a second time to make it better, how can you expect the reader to like it at all?)  If the outline plot is so boring I don't want to make it into a real story, then it's just as well it never goes any farther.  I do have one outline that has been holding off for years because I know there is some basic 'magic' that is still missing from the storyline and I haven't happened on what it needs yet.  I'll get to it eventually.

In the meantime, I'm just finishing one outline and really looking forward to writing the story.  I can see the path I'm going to take, and I can't wait to find the adventures there.

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