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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Outlining Outlines

March 30, 2010

Last Tuesday I delved into some common questions new writers ask on critique groups.  One I held back was:  Do you use an outline?  This is because I wanted to get more in depth on it.

Surprisingly this can be a contentious issue.  Some people will insist that flying by the seat of your pants is the only way to write.  Others say that you have to use an outline.

You probably don’t think it should be all that contentious.  What makes it so is that some people will insist that outlines constrict creativity and expression and thus aren’t for “true” writers.  When you start throwing stuff like that around it’s easy to see why someone would get annoyed.

Like a lot of things, I’ve mellowed on this subject over time.  My attitude, as it is with most writing things, is that you can do what you want and I’ll do what I want.  If you want to write by the seat of the pants, knock yourself out.  If you want to use an outline, knock yourself out.  I’ve actually done it both ways, so I can provide some perspective on both sides of the argument.

Seat of the Pants Writing

Pros:

  • Spontaneity:  since you don’t really have any idea what’s going to happen before you get started, that means anything can happen.  And I mean anything.  That lets your creativity run wild.
  • Freedom:  Since you haven’t planned the whole thing out, you can make changes easily to the story in your head.  Maybe you decide to focus on one character instead of another or make a character a villain instead of a hero.  You’re not locked into any sort of plan, so you can keep changing your mental blueprint.

Cons:

  • Messy:  All that freedom and spontaneity means that you can end up with huge plot holes.  If you dare to go back and read it the story might not make any sense at all.  Or if you’re so inclined you might have to go back at the end of every day and keep correcting the story.  That means you aren’t moving forward very quickly.

Outline Writing

Pros:

  • Structure:  If you already know what you’re going to do, it’s easier to figure out what you need to do every time you sit down to write.  You don’t have to go back reading through everything because in theory your outline should already tell you what’s happened and what needs to happen.
  • Discipline:  Some people like to go by just words per day, but if you’re using an outline it’s easy to plan things by your bullet points.  So if you’re the type who isn’t very disciplined usually it might help to think “Today I’m going to write this chapter with these scenes” and that way stay on track.
  • Not Messy:  Generally unless you’ve made a bad outline you’re not going to have huge plot holes to contend with by using an outline.  You should already know what’s going to happen and what characters are good or evil or whatever.

Cons:

  • Too Robotic:  Sometimes you can get too structured and disciplined.  It’s easy to fall into the bad habit of just grinding out bullet points and not really thinking about the story.
  • Poor Planning:  If your outline sucks and you follow it exactly, then your story is going to suck too.  Then you have no one to blame but yourself.

Which is right for me?

Overall I think seat of the pants writing is great if you’re trying to be arty and you’re not working on a deadline.  The best story I’ve written, Where You Belong, was written without a formal outline.  I actually wrote the first draft in third person and then rewrote it entirely in first person, making significant changes to the plot based on where I thought it got bogged down previously.  That’s not to say I was flying completely blind, because I never am.  I always have a mental blueprint.  We’ll get into that shortly.

Outline writing I think is great for genre writing and especially if you’re on a deadline.  For the more action/adventure type stories I sometimes write I always use an outline.  That’s because it gives me focus and helps to make sure there aren’t plot holes.  And since I’m not aiming for Pulitzers there I’m not concerned as much about the “art” and creativity of it.  If you’re doing a mystery it might help to have an outline of the clues and whodunit instead of stumbling through blind and then realizing you missed something.  (I’d say something about romances but that would just enrage the romance authors out there.)

I don’t have any actual experience, but definitely if you’re on a tight deadline I’d say an outline is a good thing.  If you only have a couple of months to pull something together you don’t have time to write by a first draft that’s going to be full of holes and wind up being tossed away.  (Unless you’re someone like me who types fast and has no life and thus could churn out a 100,000-word book every month if I so chose.)  So if there’s a tight schedule then you’re probably better off with a solid game plan going in and really it’s probably not going to be the kind of thing that anyone would describe as “art” anyway.

My Methodology

There’s no reason why you should adopt my methodology as I haven’t sold millions of books or won any awards.  But just for fun I’ll describe generally how I put a story together.  It might at least help tell you what not to do.

OK, the first thing I do is come up with a very rough overall description of the story.  It can range from maybe 2-5 pages or so and just roughly describes what all happens in the story.  I do this for a couple of reasons.  The first is so I can look at it and get everything straightened out in my head before I begin.  The second is I have a lousy memory and if I don’t write it down I’ll probably forget about it.  Coupled with that is I’m probably writing something else and I might not be able to get to that for a little bit.  Anyway, these rough notes are generally not complete and they’re never what actually turns out happening in the story.

Below is a one-page summary for what became The BPS Files:  Lost & Found Again, a young adult story based on stories my brother and I created long ago.  You’ll notice sometimes I put stupid asides to myself in parentheses.

Batpooh State Reboot

Rough Story Notes

Big symbolic thing is that most of our characters have been lost from each other and are now brought back together and in the process see what they’re missing.

So the story becomes then that a while ago there were brothers Tom and Will.  Tom is older and has the Bulldogs and Barkers and Will is younger and has the Mutts and Raccoons.  They play games based on Star Trek, Star Wars and other stuff like that.  (We were thinking for no reason maybe the dad works at a movie theater and then he dies but not before passing on his love of sci-fi movies and stuff.  But if the dad is dead then how do Tom and Will get separated?  Or maybe they don’t.)  Then they meet a girl named Jessie at school or whatever and she’s lonely and unhappy so they bring her into the fold and she adds the Catts to the mix.

Eventually they all grow apart.  Tom ends up in juvie while Jessie becomes popular while Will is the outcast.  Years go by and then one day Will comes home after a day of being picked on and shit and there’s a noise in his closet.  One of his old toys Ricky Raccoon comes to life!  Ricky tells him that the universe they created has become real, but now it’s in turmoil as the evil Black Ships are kicking ass.  As a last ditch solution, Ricky has come to get Will and company to fix things.  Will goes to see Jessie, who has since gone out of his social circle, but after some prodding reveals that she has a visitor too–Heather Catt.

Now the problem becomes that they have to spring Tom from juvie.  In the process maybe Will and Jessie are getting closer.  But then after they spring Tom she and Tom seem to be getting closer, which spurs some rivalry between he and Will.

Anyway, they go to the Bloc of Planetary States where all the cool shit they imagined is real.  Part of the problem is that there’s a rift between Buster, the head of Bulldogovia and Spot II, the head of Muttland. So part of the problem, after the kids find they can’t just wish or imagine everything better, is healing that rift and getting all sides working together.  Then the Catt planet comes under attack so Buster, Spot II, and the kids go rushing off to save the day.

But during the battle Jessie is kidnapped by the Black Ships.  Their leader turns out to be Spot I, whom was thought to be lost years ago.  Now he’s pissed off and wants to take revenge on everything by destroying the Bloc and turning the kids into dolls to keep as his personal trophies.

Tom and Will have to put aside their differences, as do the Bulldogs and Mutts, to rescue Jessie and defeat the Black Ships.  They probably end up on an icy planet of Penguins—the Penguins maybe are owned by a little brother or sister—who are total idiots.  But of course in the end our heroes prevail and save Jessie and defeat the Black Ships.  After the battle, Tom decides to stay and be an ambassador between the Bulldogs and Mutts (and Raccoons and Catts) and his life back in the real world sucks.  Will and Jessie go back and decide to just be friends.

The St. Bernards might show up in a sequel, like they’re fighting the Ratfinks or something and send a call for help that prompts Buster and Spot and so forth to show up.  Yeah baby, sequels!

So you can see this gives the overall gist of the story.  A lot of times I write the “Big Symbolic Thing” as the theme-like substance for the story.  Whether that’s what it turns out to be remains to be seen.  Anyway, with this I have an idea of the characters and settings and there shouldn’t wind up being too many huge plot holes.

The next step is then to create an actual outline.  Generally I use three bullet points per chapter.  I don’t know why; I just like threes.  If a scene calls for it I’ll use more or less, but generally it’s three.  I do that for each chapter and generally each chapter will be one of these paragraphs above or maybe just part of the paragraph.

Below is a section of the outline for A Change of Heart, Tales of the Scarlet Knight, Volume 4.  (I’d have liked to have the outline for the same story, but I stupidly deleted most of the BPS Files outline.)  This does demonstrate though what I said about how I outline.

Tales of the Scarlet Knight, Volume IV

Rough Story Outline

Um, the big symbolic thing is that sometimes you gotta walk a mile (or more) in someone else’s shoes.  Or something.

Part 1

Chapter 1:

  • So it’s about a year later and because she’s had to hock her motorcycle, Emma is riding the bus to an interview at McDonald’s or somewhere but still can’t get a job because she’s still a pariah.
  • She returns to her apartment to find that she’s been evicted and the landlord won’t give her an extension, but luckily Pepe the rat helps her salvage her things
  • She goes to Becky’s, but Becky refuses to let her stay there because she’s still pissed about Steve dying

Chapter 2:

  • Emma goes to the witches and Ms. Chiostro agrees that she can stay there and suggests her sister could use some help
  • Emma goes downstairs to help Sylvia by sweeping hair or something
  • Later, against her wishes, she accompanies Ms. Chiostro to a bar to pick up dudes, but she ends up having to leave as a crisis erupts

Chapter 3:

  • The crisis is because of some weird dude in a trench coat who does something.  Emma in the scarlet armor gives chase, which would be easier if she still had her bike.  In the end the chase causes some bad property damage and Emma doesn’t get her man.  D’OH!

Chapter 4:

  • Becky is at work when Dan shows up and wants to speak with council president Napier about doing something about the Scarlet Knight
  • Captain Donovan is hard at work when she gets a call from her boss (who got a call from Napier) about turning up the heat on the Scarlet Knight
  • Emma checks her Email at the public library (having pawned her computer too) and sees one from someone about a job interview and another from Captain Donovan, so she goes to meet Donovan and gets bitched at

Chapter 5:

  • Feeling in a funk, Emma goes to the job interview she heard about though she thinks it’s a scam.  She meets some Russian dude, who offers her a short-term job in Russia for a serious amount of money.  She doesn’t accept, but keeps his card.
  • Later, when she’s out as the Scarlet Knight, she actually has the public throwing garbage at her and such, which gets her even more down
  • Escaping to the sewers, she has a chat with Jim “Sewer Rat” Rizzard and Marlin before she calls the Russian guy to accept the job

The thing is though for people who bitch about outlines being too constrictive and uncreative, you can see that my outlines aren’t that extremely detailed.  Sometimes, as with Chapter 3 there, I deliberately leave things vague.  I know roughly what I want to happen and the overall result, but I leave the exact methods up in the air.

The other important thing about my outlines is I always leave myself the option to change something if I come up with a better idea.  If you actually go read this story, then you could probably see some things that don’t line up with the outline and that’s because I “called an audible” as they say in football.  That means I decided as I was writing to change the play and do something else instead.  That I think eliminates some of the rigidity you can get with outlines.

So now I hope you’ve got your fill of outlining or not.  As I said earlier, you’re free to do what you want.  It’s your life.  Obviously some famous authors don’t outline and some do, so who’s to say what works?  Come up with your own methodology and go as far as you can with it.  Good luck!

Thursday I discuss reality in fiction versus real fiction.  Confused?  You won’t be when I’m done—I hope.  Sunday is Easter so there will be no blog entry.  I reserve the right to post something earlier if I think of something.

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