WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres in a continuously changing landscape. Remember, opinions mentioned here are just that, opinions. I’m no expert, but I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel there is a lot I can pass on to my fellow writers. Lively discussion is highly encouraged.
Figured that would get your attention. Nothing like the title of a good ‘ole Johnny Cash song to pop a buzzword in your head, right? Today I’m going to discuss a topic most writers despise: Outlining. To some extent, there are some writers that enjoy outlining. For some, the real thrill is not in creating worlds and characters and getting the story down on the page, but in the plotting and researching, and outlining, then plotting some more. Then more plotting and outlining.
When do they ever get any writing done?
Usually never. They are too bogged down in the mechanics of the story to let it live a little, to let it have a life of its own. Trust me, I know this all too well. I have a project on the back-burner right now because I plotted it out too completely, too thoroughly.
So, if outlines are so bad, why use them at all? If you are thinking about the standard Roman numeral, Alphabetical, Numerical Outline, then yes, that form is bad, in my opinion. Of course, that may be what you use, and if it works for you, then great, keep using it. To me, that form of outline is great for research papers and such, where form, structure, and organization mean just as much as the content of the article. When I started writing longer stories, that was the only form of outline I knew, so I used it constantly. Back then I felt a need to know every aspect of the story, not just the Beginning, Middle and End, but all the parts and characters in between. I felt it was necessary to know exactly, to the detail, how the story was going to end. Using the Standard Outline format allowed me to track that progression to the very end, and made for some boring stories that read flat and dry.
Every story, no matter the scope or setting, needs organization. Even if your story doesn’t follow any linear path, you do need to know where you are going with the characters. Surely they will guide you in the story as their situations progress, but what happens when Vincent Vega doesn’t take Mia to Jack Rabbit Slims, and Captain Koons never delivers the gold watch to Butch? Without these seemingly unrelated events, you would never get to see Butch kill a very surprised Vincent when he went back to get his gold watch in the hotel room. There’s no doubt in my mind that Quintin Tarantino originally wrote Pulp Fiction in chronological order, then rearranged the scenes to the order we are more accustomed too. To do this, he used a form of outlining to make sure each and every motivation aligned not just with the specific character but also with the story he wanted to tell.
The form of outlining screenwriters use is called Beat Pages. Each beat, or scene, is briefly sketched out on a page in chronological order. By chronological order, I mean scenes that possibly began long before your actual story starts. You may never use those scenes in the story, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. As a matter of fact, the best writers rarely use those beats, because they’re not necessary to tell the story. They are necessary in most cases for the writer to write the story, and shouldn’t be overlooked. This is the form of outlining I use, and it is much more effective than the Standard Outline. It is a much looser outline, and more open to change in character and structure.
David Morrell, author of First Blood, Totem, The Brotherhood of The Rose, and many more novels and short-stories, uses a little different outlining method. Starting with a blank piece of paper, he writes a conversation with himself about the project he’s thinking about. It starts with something as innocent as:
“Hello David, how are you today?”
“What is on your mind?”
“I was driving home and saw this…”
He then goes on to talk about what he saw. He will usually ask himself why that particular thing made an impression on him, why does he feel it is so important. Always asking why, why why. The good thing about this form of outlining is that if you ever get stuck, you can go back to that conversation and reread what you wrote. You can even write to yourself again, asking why you feel like you are stuck in the story, what you might be able to do to get around it, whatever. It’s all about connecting with the characters and their story, reliving the emotions you felt when you first thought of the idea, sometimes long before that idea is a story.
One thing I learned from outlining is to never plot your scenes out too far in advance. Sometimes the whole story will come to you at once, prompting you to outline it all out. That’s fine, some writers work best that way. But if you are anything like me, you’ll soon find yourself at odds with the outline you so meticulously constructed. You will feel imprisoned by the twists and turns of the story characters. As you struggle through the words you realize that the perfect ending is not exactly what your story people have in mind. Conflicted, you push away from the project, unable to break through the walls of the world you created.
There is hope. Stepping away from the project is a good idea. Sometimes the distance makes us fonder. If you are that far gone and trapped by the outline, then do yourself a favor and find the outline pages with the ending of the story and separate those pages from the outline. Take those ending pages, fold them up, and hide them. You might need them later, but for right now, you just need to forget about them. Work on another project, maybe a short-story, perhaps another novel. Just occupy yourself with another project, something different, even in a different writing style than what you are accustomed. The whole idea is to forget that perfect ending, or at least make its details fuzzy and out of focus. Eventually, if the story is meant to be told, you will come back to the project refreshened and open to new suggestions from your story people about how to resolve their plight.
This can certainly be done at the beginning stages as well. My latest project, Sirens, suffers from the same fate as mentioned above. I’m working on another project now to make myself forget the ending I trapped myself into. When outlining a story now, I purposely don’t write the ending. Sure I may write a couple of notes, but I do not write out the ending scenes. If you can get away with not outlining the last act of the novel, then by all means try it. Don’t confine yourself before you start pounding out the words.
Finally, it’s best to think of an outline as just that; An outline, a chalk line, a panty line, designed to merely give us an idea what it is we want to write about. A hint of the story is what we’re after. Nothing in an outline is etched in stone. Remember, the best way to remember something is to write it down. So practice writing your outline down once, try to leave off the ending if you can, and use the outline as a road map to your imagination.