Outlines: Friends or Foes?

March 27, 2011 at 12:20 pm (Writing) (, , , , )

One of the most popular debates in writing- or at least one of the most oft-resurrected ones- is whether or not to outline. The sheer amount of advice out there is staggering. Everyone does it (or doesn’t do it) a different way, for different reasons, and if you’re trying to figure things out before making the jump into your first novel, the truest and most frustrating piece of advice is: try it different ways, see what works for you, and go with that.

This is not a “here’s the right way to do it” post. Think of this as more of a tour through the possiblities of planning a novel. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, and in the end, the only way you’re going to figure out which one is for you is by trying different methods. (Sucks, but if you’re setting yourself up for a lot of work anyway to write a novel, don’t shy away from the beginning stages just because they look scary)

Whether it’s on its own or in conjuction with another method, 95% of writers will put time into brainstorming. This is usually when the idea strikes you, and you start by madly scribbling down everything you can remember before the storm passes. Think of it as fringe bands with a hurricane- the storm will cycle back, but you need to get that first good soaking. Other methods of planning are usually formalized (or organized) versions of this brainstorming, and it will happen quite frequently in both planning and writing.

Pros: This is where the ideas percolate, where you discover new things. Never ever ever be afraid of brainstorming, even if your roommates think you’re staring off into space like a drooling idiot. You know the scientific theory that all the elements of life existed in a primordial stew until BAM! LIFE! ? This is your brainstorming; you are bringing life to the muck.

Cons: It’s easy to get lost in brainstorming.The world you’re creating is so big and exciting, you know everything there is to know about its history, but keep in mind, all those extra details that inform you as the writer are probably never going to get seen by the reader. Don’t get bogged down, and don’t use it as a form of procrastination. There comes a point when you know everything you need to know, and anything else is just delaying that terrifying moment of figuring out the first word.

This is one that’s very popular for journaling or for writing exercises, but there are authors who write their entire novels this way. They brainstorm a bit, then they sit down and just go. Once they get to the end of the first draft, they can go back through to tidy up, tighten the story, check for consistency, add or excise, and all the other things second and third and infinites drafts are for. They write down everything, then sift through the pieces that work.

Pros: This is a fantastic way to find voice, especially in first person works, and can also be very useful in picking the right tense for your story. Most likely this also means you’ve successfully avided the urge to procrastinate. Removing the filter or censor button also allows for things to emerge that you otherwise might not have seen, the way one character feels about another, a hidden event, etc.

Cons:Stream-of-Consciousness isn’t particularly stream-lined. If you go this route, you need to go in understanding that you’ll have a LOT of work to do when the first draft is done. Like, more than the usual lots fs work. The other trap SoC tends to have is that it wanders. You may or may not know where you’re going (depending on your brainstorming) but this method has a way of taking the most circuitous route possible.

Story Map
We used to have to do these for book reports, complete with the diagram that looked like a kickboxing mountain. We drew it out, labeled Exposition, Rising Action, Climax (which made all the boys giggle in high school), and Resolution, and then had to determine the start of each within the story. Everyone’s map of the same book usually came out a little differently.

Pros: Gives you four points (fixed points in time, anyone?) to work towards and lets you fill in between them as you go. You know when you need to start amping it up and when to hit the high note while still leaving room for an ending.

Cons: Maybe it’s only this way for classic literature, but any book I had to story map tended to have really long plains of exposition. You know you need to get from the start of Rising Action, but unless you filled in the foothills, you might not know how to climb to the summit, so you’ll start sliding down the mountain.

Character Map
Some stories are far more about the characters than the plot; plot is just what makes things happen to the characters so they’ll do interesting things. For this kind of story, it can be very useful to create a character map. Here’s where your character starts, here’s how they change along the way, here’s where they end up.

Pros: This lets you focus on the character, which is what you want. You know the growth (or change, at any rate) that you want to happen, so you have a pretty good idea of what needs to happen to create those changes.

Cons: Sometimes those pretty good ideas don’t work out the way you thought they would, so either you have a character who’s changing in a completely different direction, or who’s unrealistically shoved in your original plan. This can put you in a pretty good pickle.

Plot Point
This is sort of another book report option, but remember how you had to hit all the important points in your report? That’s pretty much what this is. You write out a list of all the important things that have to happen and maybe a sentence or two about why they’re important or what needs to be done and then it’s an enormous dot-to-dot puzzle.

Pros: This lends itself to a fairly fluid style. You know the big things so you can let the little things come naturally, and the next dot pretty much always seems a managable distance away. Also lends itself to (slightly) shorter chapters than can keep things moving along.

Cons: Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how in hell people can see pictures in the stars? Sometimes those dots are too scattered to easily connect and you end up with something that’s at best episodic. At worst, you can get seriously stuck.

Roman Numeral Outline
This is the thing you had to turn in before you wrote a term paper in high school or college to “prove” you weren’t putting it off til last minute. Each major idea had a Roman numeral and a heading, then the major points were labeled with capital letters a few spaces indented, then important details with a regular number, then minor details with little letters. Everything was very organized and dissected, theoretically to make the writing just about wording rather than content when we reached that point.

Pros: It’s very hard to get lost when you have it all marked out, and if you know certain details in the brainstorming stage that won’t come to light until late in the draft, this is a great way not to lose them. This also lets you see at a glance if things are more or less balanced.

Cons: These can get very stiff and formulaic, and depending on how detailed the outline is, doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. Outlines this specific can be difficult to change if you have one small surprise with far-rippling consequences. This one often shows up in the writing like cue cards.

Wind Sprints, or Chapter by Chapter
This type of planning actually happens during the draft itself. You plan a little bit, write in a spurt, then plan out the next bit. Repeat ad infinitum for rest of first draft.

Pros:This lets you look at big picture and little picture at the same time. Rather than having to go back and insert clues or foreshadowing, you can add it piece by piece, keep characters consistent, and so on and so forth. You can adapt for new directions the story or characters insist on going, but you don’t feel trapped into anything.

Cons: The spurts can show, and sometimes you sit down to figure out that next sprint and realize there’s a brick wall in the way. You get excited about the spurts and only later realize that some very important characters a/o things got left behind because they simply weren’t in the front of your mind at that point.

Of course, it’s the nature of a first draft to kind of suck no matter what method (if any) you use. The whole point of multiple drafts is to go back and fix everything, to smooth out the plot and sharpen the characters, to drop the hints so we can do a facepalm later, and all the other things that gradually add up to a finished novel.

So, for those of you who are writers, do you plan? Did I forget one? Misrepresent one? Do you have a preferred style? Leave a comment and tell me how!

Until next time~

1 Comment

  1. GladElf said,

    I think I usually end up using a mutant hybrid cross between character map and plot point, which then refines itself into a loose Roman numeral outline. I find that having have all the big pieces down actually makes it easier for me when things strike me by surprise…like when I’m jogging and realize that one of my characters actually puts on a false wedding to trap another. For me it’s as simple as, insert here, cut and paste there and repeat until things feel right.
    But I also tend to be very scattered if I don’t have things organized and easily put into context, so that’s why being more specific works for me. It helps me focus on what is happening and what needs to happen.
    This was very enlightening, I didn’t even know the methods I used had a name until I read your post.

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