Thursday 27 October 2011

This Is Not An Outline

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. 

If you found this post vaguely interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Cheryl said...

Great post. My first outlines were always the first kind. Now they're more like the second kind but I still end up throwing stuff out and adding other things as the story develops. I think that's because no matter how I plan and outline, certain aspects of the story unfold as I write. But that's the good thing about outlines, they're flexible.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Helpful for those who struggle with the outline. I guess I am 'some people,' because I play it all in my head first and then jot down the key points in an outline. It's adjusted many times before I write, but it's just a play-by-play of what I already know will happen.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I totally outline my stories just like you have pointed out here. I just have always called it story boarding.

Nicole Pyles said...

I recently created an outline and after reading this I feel a lot better about it! I created it with the intent of knowing what happens - why - and how it impacts people.

Anonymous said...

I have an outline brewing as I work on other projects. It takes me weeks to create one, and after that I'll still change things. When I'm drafting or revising I'll tweak the outline as I come up with new things.

Ted Cross said...

Okay, I guess that makes me the kind of writer who already knows where the story is going and just needs a little something to visually keep it organized. I draw out a timeline chart for each POV character and mark down their major plot points and when they occur relative to the other characters' points. That's really all I need.

Sophia said...

This is going to sound dumb, but I never really thought about the fact that I should be making an outline that I'm actually excited to write. Clearly I need to strike a better balance between what the story demands and what I want.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all your comments.

It is perfectly okay to not have an outline at all, or to only have one as a checklist, but it also makes sense to know how to outline effectively because once you've completed a first draft what you basically have is an outline for the second draft.

And any problems you think you have with being restricted and not allowed your creative freedom will still be there, they'll just be shifted down the road.

Unknown said...

Very timely for me, thank you. I'm about to start this very process. I agree that the most important thing is that your outline entertains you, as the writer, because if you are enjoying what comes out of the process, there's a good chance your readers will too. Writing an outline is hard, agreed, but if you don't tackle those challenges of creating an interesting story and a good twisty plot early on, it only gets harder as you write your way through it. My good wishes to the Nanos, too!

Anne Gallagher said...

I loosely outline before I write. By page 100, I go back and tweak it, synopsis style, to get me better informed and keep me on track to the end. The tweaking is where I get the "details" down. Just so I don't forget.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

This was great, Moody. My outlines/story boards used to focus more on the "who, what, where and when" rather than the "why" and the "how." Even though those two bigger questions were always in my mind, for some reason I didn't include them or make them the focal point of the outline. Bookmarking and printing this post! :)

dry run said...

Do you remember that scene in 'Forrest Gump,' in which the kid breaks out of the leg braces and really sprints?

Methodologies (like outlines, no matter how you craft them) have always seemed like braces to me in the past. I don't know if maybe we need them to have something from which to break, I mean not having them at all seems kind of watery, I suppose.

What I'm trying to say is that if we have the outlines (braces) perhaps it makes for a much more dramatic moment when we finally realize we can run.

Ben said...

That was actually really helpful, man. I'm always a bit retarded when it comes to outlining, but I know how much easier it can make things. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I use a loose outline. Then I go back and start filling out the draft. I do jump around a lot. And I often paint myself into a corner. But eventually I think of something pretty cool to connect everything together.

Good luck with Nano to you! I'll be doing Nano 2012 too!

Margo Berendsen said...

Great advice, esp. that trick of thinking of the opposite outcome of what your character desires! I spend about a half hour a day on my outline, you are right, it starts out really vanilla, but each day I get another idea for a twist or a surprise. I think I will be good to go to start Nov 1! (oh wait, that might jinx me. Really, my outline sucks ;)

Beverly Diehl said...

This is extremely helpful. I'm the type whose outlines have been bare bones: location, characters, time/date, and what am I (the writer) trying to accomplish in this scene (reveal backstory or character info, etc.) I also jot down what the conflict in the scene is, BUT... I think it'll be more fun fleshing it out your way. And since I've been asked to provide outlines sometimes as my agent submits WIP, this would be much more intriguing to read.

LD Masterson said...

I got a lot out of this post. Especially since I'm working on the outline for a new project. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

Golden Eagle said...

Great points.

The first example is mostly how the outline for the novel I finished earlier this month ended up--which is a problem on my part, since I depended on the outline for writing the novel. Hopefully the one for NaNoWriMo will work out better.

Sophia Chang said...

You are the FIRST PERSON who has ever - I mean ever - made outlines sound awesome to this die-hard pantser.

In fact, I want you to write that novel because it's hilarious. You have great ideas and an inherent sense of conflict!

primrosepetals said...

Thank you *so* much for this! I started doing my outline the first way you mentioned, but I'm glad I read this before continuing on or else I would've found myself quickly hitting a brick wall!

I plan to go back through and use your second method to flesh out my story a bit more to give it more of a narrative arc. Cheers!

Rusty Carl said...

I'm a recent convert to outlining and don't know if I'll ever write again without one... well, maybe I will. But still, I appreciate the tips to avoid some mistakes in how I go about it.

mooderino said...

cheers for all these comments on this post. nice to know so many of you are finding it useful.

F said...

I think I just had an epiphany. So simple, and yet I've never seen it explained like that in the stacks of books on writing I've read.

Jen said...

I'm really impressed with this idea, mood. I don't outline and despite trying haven't yet found a way to do so that helps rather than frustrates my creativity. The idea of writing the outline for myself, not the reader, might be what I need. I might try this for NaNo. Thanks very much.

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