The reason many people don’t find outlines helpful isn’t because they’re not an outlining sort of writer, it’s because they don’t know how to write a good outline. You’ll also hate toast if you only ever make it burnt to a crisp. With NaNoWriMo on the horizon I thought I’d take the opportunity to go over a few basics.
1. Jacki McLonli, recent divorcee, is at home climbing the walls. Her best friend Debbie calls her up and invites her out to lunch.
2. At a cool restaurant, over a delicious meal, Debbie tells Jacki that Mark, Jacki’s old high school sweetheart is back in town. He’s doing very well, still has his own hair, and is single.
3. Jacki “accidentally” bumps into Mark outside his place of work.
I think you can see the kind of story this is developing into, and each scene has an indication of what needs to happen were I to write it up as a first draft. But this is NOT an outline—at least not a good one.
The point of an outline is not to provide an idea of what is achieved in each scene. Not that you couldn’t use the above as a framework for a story, but the actual writing of the story wouldn’t benefit much from having the kind of blueprint I’ve provided—you would still have to come up with the actual story. In fact it might just hamper you more than it helps as it forces you to arbitrarily get your characters into a specific situation for no good reason.
I should point out, for some people the kind of scene summary outline I’ve written above is useful. Those are people that have the story in their head already and are just using the outline as a memory aid to help them remember where everything goes. But for people who are trying to use outlining as a step in the process to working out a story, the problem with this kind of outline is it tells you what happens but not why, and more importantly, it doesn’t tell you why you should care.
The outline is best used as a way of making sure you have an interesting story that builds in suspense, tension, drama or whatever it is you’re interested in writing. Knowing scene one is in a park and scene two is at the zoo has no real bearing on that.
1. Jacki McLonli is at home with a burst water pipe and doesn’t know where the stopcock is. She could phone her newly ex-husband and ask him, but she’d rather drown. She calls best friend Debbie, a glamorous divorcee who knows every hunky plumber, gardener and builder in town.
2. Jacki treats Debbie to lunch as a thank you. Debbie mentions that Jacki’s old high school sweetheart is back in town—Jacki is thrilled. He’s doing very well, still has his own hair, and is single. And Debbie has a date with him. Jacki talks Debbi out of the date by telling her a bunch of outrageous lies about him.
3. Jacki “accidentally” bumps into Mark outside his place of work, but he doesn’t recognise her. Even after she reminds him of their many dates at school, he has no idea who she is.
Now, ignore the actual story here (it could be any bunch of stuff that happens to Jacki), the reason this is a better outline isn’t because it’s a better story with more details as to what happens. The thing that makes it a better outline is that I’ve identified in each scene what it is I’m going to find interesting to write about when I flesh it out. NOT what the reader will find interesting, what will be interesting for ME.
Because, when you follow an outline you better damn well be excited by what that outline is telling you to do. In this case—and bear in mind I’m designing this to suit my personal tastes, you would have to gear it to your own particular preferences—chapter one starts with what being divorced means to her. The point of the scene may be to establish she’s divorced and you could let the reader know that very simply, but the interesting thing is how it affects her life. And the more of a problem it poses, the more fun it is to write about.
I also made sure Jacki called Debbie (instead of the other way round) and that she has a reason to do so, rather than Debbie randomly happening to call up. Of course, in real life people do just call and ask people out to lunch, but arbitrary behaviour sucks the momentum out of a narrative and you’ll find yourself dragging your feet through the story. You have to make yourself care about what happens the same way you make the reader care. You need an imperative to drive you through the outline to first draft process. Event A means the character has to do something right now to deal with it, which leads to Event B...
If your outline doesn’t contain that imperative (doesn’t have to be end of the world dramatic, can just be she’s run out of milk for coffee, and she needs her coffee) you will get bored and frustrated while writing the first draft from the outline. And even if you do manage to stubbornly force yourself to write it, you’ll just end up boring anyone who reads it.
In scene two we find out the old flame is back in town. The information is important but it is secondary. The main thing is how to make the scene fun. Fun to write. For me it’s giving Jacki a rather devious task, to trick her best friend into giving up her date. That of course says something about the competitive nature of their friendship which will probably be a feature of this story (that I’m never going to write). I don’t know how she’s going to do it, what lies she’ll tell, but it’s the sort of thing I like writing and working out. You might take a different approach. The point is I know at this stage what it is about the scene I’m looking forward to. And I also know, from experience, that whatever horrible thing she makes up about the old flame, later on in the story I can have it come back and bite her in the ass (You told her I did WHAT?).
There’s still a lot to work out and I’m going to have to be quite creative in making it convincing, nothing is set in stone, but the outline is helping me identify the highlights, not the scene settings (although it can do that too).
In scene three I take the accidental meeting and then I make it the opposite of what she wants to happen. Putting a character in a hole is often an easy way to make things more interesting as it forces you to think up ways out of the predicament you’ve put them in.
Now I have to spend some time thinking of interesting things that could come out of this scene. Doesn’t mean I have to work out specifics, but I need to know there’s going to be something cool for me to write about. And that’s going to take some serious daydreaming and head-scratching and drinking, er, I mean cogitating.
If you can jot down an outline in half an hour on a single page, chances are what you’ve got is a boring outline.
Writing an outline is hard, it takes a lot of thinking. Putting down a few random details about where characters go and what they might do there isn’t going to make for a particularly enjoyable writing process. Of course, it can work out okay, you can struggle through it and produce a first draft, and that’s always a move forward, but you could randomly pull out scrabble letters from a bag and get something on the page that way too.
It isn’t the outcome that’s going to make a scene interesting to write, it’s how you get to that outcome. If I tell you Dave met a girl and now they’re getting married, would that make a good story? You can’t tell, not from that description. If I say Dave met a girl already engaged to a horribly jealous and violent champion MMA fighter, and now Dave and the girl are getting married, would you like to know how scrawny Dave managed that?
That’s the info the outline needs, the thing that will make you think, “I’d like to know how that happened.” First you have to be eager to write how it happened. Then people will be eager to read it.
Good luck to all you NaNo's.
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