The Obligatory “Outline” Discussion

One of the topics that’s bandied about most often among writers is outlining.  Should you do it or not, how detailed do you get with it if you do, how far should you let things stray from your original outline (if at all), is outlining the death of a story from the outset…?  Many a debate is had about outlining at writer’s workshops.

So what’s my take on it?  Do it, if it helps.  If it impedes you, don’t.  Personally, I tend not to write an outline, but I do make copious notes for myself on things I want to include in the storyline.  Sometimes it ends up looking a lot like an outline, because I try to keep it in a rough chronological order.

Generally, how I decide whether to outline or not is based entirely on whether or not I can hold all the vital plot information in my head while I’m writing.  If I can’t, I’ll stop and make reminder notes to myself, or put the book itself aside for a few days to write an outline.

The down side to having an outline is, sometimes you feel obligated to follow it to the letter, and get yourself bogged down into writer’s block.  The down side to NOT having an outline is, sometimes you write yourself into a corner–and can’t untangle the story without completely dismantling it and starting over.  Either way, the trick is to balance flexibility with clear direction.  You’ve got to be going somewhere with your story, even if you don’t know quite where until you’re done writing it.  On the other hand, you can’t make something work if it just doesn’t fit with the actual, fleshed-out story.  It may look great in the outline, but when you’re working with your characters, you may realize that they aren’t responding quite the way you expected.  That means that either (a) you need to go with what your characters are telling you or (b) you need to tweak the circumstances or add another layer to the events that WILL get your characters to react the way you need them to.  How do you know which one of those is the right solution?  Easy.  Whichever makes the story and the characters stronger and more interesting.

Now, for someone who doesn’t usually outline, it’s kind of hard for me to do it when I need to.  My husband (also a writer) passed on a method of his own to me a couple of years ago (and he’ll be very pleased to know he’s made his first “appearance” on this blog), which I’ve found very helpful.  It’s easiest done on the computer, where you can rearrange things easily and without having to use an eraser.  I use Word for it, because I can use bullet-points to organize everything.

If you have a definite beginning, middle, and end in mind, write those down as three separate points.  Anything you know for sure you want to have happen, put in semi-chronologically between those points.  Then expand on each of those points or break them down into individual events or scenes.  I’ll use, for my example, the guy from my post about One Damn Thing After Another–the guy who saved his dog from being eaten by zombies.

So let’s say that’s part of a novel.  The overall story is that this guy and his dog have to survive an outbreak of zombie football player attacks in a small Midwestern town, and you’ve decided that the source of this particular set of zombies is a spurned cheerleader who’s an expert in black magic, which she’s used to bring all these football players back from the dead.  You have an overarching plot, there.  In the most general terms, then, you have:  Beginning – main character and dog living in small town.  Middle – angry cheerleader uses black magic to raise zombies from dead, main character and dog fight off zombies.  End – main character and dog survive.

Okay, so if you know anything about your characters, that’s the first way to expand things.  Is this the main guy’s hometown?  If not, why did he move there?  Why does he live alone with his dog?  Is he divorced, not married yet, reclusive, or just happy to be a bachelor with his best pal the dog as his only responsibility?  Does he know the football players or the cheerleader?  (It’s better if he does.  In fact, I might make him the coach of the football team or something.  Get him really involved!)  Why’s the cheerleader so pissed?  And how the $&#* does she know black magic???  This is stuff you’d answer in “plot points” in between your beginning and middle.  Once you answer that stuff, I’d bet anything that more ideas for things to have happen will occur to you.  Now the middle will be easier, because you’ve got things set up and the characters are probably clearer in your mind.  You can flesh out the middle of the outline, or start working on the beginning and see what direction your characters go with your setup.  Either way, your characters should be directing the action once you’ve set things up for them.  And the end?  Well, of course, we said the main guy and his dog survive.  Whether they survive and are traumatized for life, survive and live happily ever after (vowing never to trust cheerleaders again), survive and the man marries the cheerleader’s cute algebra teacher who worked out where the zombies were coming from and saved man and dog from certain death, etc., will all come down to how you fleshed out the middle of the story.  And if you knew from the start that you wanted, say, the ending with the algebra teacher, then you’d have planned the middle accordingly.  Sometimes working backward is an excellent plotting strategy.

I like using this style of outlining, because it’s as much brainstorming as organizing–and I love brainstorming.  You also don’t have to fill in every blank, which leaves a feeling of flexibility to the process of the actual writing.  There, Luchian, you have your debut on my blog, and you have my thanks for your plotting methods, O Plotting Wizard.

3 thoughts on “The Obligatory “Outline” Discussion

  1. Is “fleshed out” really the term one wants for a book about zombie attacks…?

    I want the man to run the concession stand at the stadium. The cheerleader was thrown off the squad when the coach caught her trying to get his guys to drink before a game. She’s also sentenced to community service, as aid to her old kindergarten teacher, Frau Messerschmidt. She discovers Frau M practices black magic (the only way she could keep her job) and blackmails her (Frau M) into teaching it to her (cheerleader). The dog’s name is Jake.

  2. Pingback: Plottin’ & Schemin’ « Sara D vs. Reality

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