Sunday, February 24, 2013

How and Why I Write a Story Outline

Geekwif was kind enough to give me an idea for a blog post a few days ago, and rather than run the risk of forgetting to actually write that post, I thought I would do it now - there's no better time than the present.

As many have said or written before me, there seem to be two kinds of writers in the world: those who outline, and those who don't.  The ones who don't outline are often said to "write by the seat of their pants", and as the Geekwif mentioned, she is one of those "pantsers". On the other end of the spectrum there are those who outline their story before they actually start writing. Now clearly this a spectrum, not just an on/off switch. Some writers will use a very loose outline, or one that is not very detailed, and they probably lean toward being pantsers. The writers who create a very detailed outline, and/or who structure their story and then stick very closely to that structure, obviously lean toward being "outliners" - like me.

I'm not going to claim to be a hardcore outliner, but I definitely fall in the outliner camp. I have tried writing by the seat of my pants, especially during National Novel Writing Month (which I've successfully completed several times), but I have to admit that I don't really like doing it. Even when I'm writing this way, I generally have a bare outline in my head, and an idea of how the story will end. In other words, even when I'm pantsing, I cheat a little bit. And when I'm writing a longer work, such as the current novel about Balfrith, I depend heavily on an outline.

Before I get too much further into this, I need to define an outline. Many of you may recall from school that an outline is a skeletal structure for a written work such as a research paper or essay. It looks something like this:
  1. Introduction
  2. Body
    1. Point #1
      1. Supporting fact #1
      2. Supporting fact #2
    2. Point #2
...etc.

But this isn't anything like the outline I'm talking about for a novel. Or rather, it's nothing like the final outline that I then turn into a novel. Instead, the kind of outline I'm talking about is really more of a detailed plot synopsis, written in the form of an essay, with section headers marking off the approximate chapter breaks. So whenever you hear me say "outline," just think of an essay that lays out the plot, with copious notes scattered throughout, indicating special points that I want to emphasize, character quirks, plot hooks, and whatnot. Now, backing up a step, I often do start with a skeletal outline like the one above. But that's just to get me started in laying out some of the major steps of the plot. After it's done, I may play around with it a little bit until I have it just right, and then I will begin writing the synopsis - the plot outline that I actually use during the novel writing process.

Now, back to the point of this post - why do I outline? Well, I get several advantages from it. First, it lets me flesh out my story in a detailed manner, without actually being locked into anything before I start writing. In other words, I may have a detailed plot synopsis, but I retain the freedom to make changes as I go, ignore entire scenes, add new scenes, and effectively make improvements to the story as I'm writing it. The outline gives me the structure and main plot and character points, but if I find that something's not working, I either figure out a better solution, or I just rip it right out of the story.

I realize that some pantsers are reading this and thinking, "But why would I want to plan it out at all? Half the fun is finding out what the characters will do when I throw them into a crazy situation." All I can say to that is, you may prefer to write that way, but I do not. I like to have the story planned out, so that I can focus on the act of writing without having to make up the story as I go along. And that's the second advantage that I get from outlining: the actual writing of the story becomes much easier for me because I have already done a lot of the creative work in the making of the outline. I don't have the stress of trying to come up with interesting or exciting situations, since they are already baked into the outline, and I know when, how and why they are there.

Which brings me to my third advantage: outlining lets me establish an internal logic and flow to the story, so that each event flows from the previous one and into the next one, and I don't have unanswered questions or loose threads by the end, unless I specifically want to leave them there. Then, when I'm writing the story, once again I don't need to worry about making sure my scenes flow logically from one to the next - it's all there in the outline, and the work has already been done.

I will admit that there are times when I'm writing, that I find that one scene does NOT flow easily into another, and I am struggling to make any progress at all. In fact, I am at such a point right now in my Balfrith story. But the solution is fairly simple: I take that piece of the outline, and I give it even more detail than it already has. So, for example, since I'm going on a business trip this week, I have printed a few pages of the story outline, reflecting the current part that I'm struggling with. While I'm in the air, I'll pull out those pages and start adding hand-written notes to them, asking questions that need answers, or making suggestions to myself. Or if I get really inspired, I might even write whole paragraphs in the margins, describing how I think the story should flow. And once that's all done, I will re-type it into my outline document, so that I have it available for easy reference as I'm writing. And that will, almost every time, help me overcome my writer's block. I fully expect it to do so for me this week.

And that brings me to the last outlining advantage I want to mention: having a detailed outline helps me to avoid writer's block entirely. And when I can't avoid it, I dig into the outline and add in even more details, and like magic, my writer's block will go away. So the outline is a powerful tool for both avoiding and overcoming writer's block.

And that's about all I wanted to say about outlining today. I hope this helps some other writers out there - I'd love to hear from you if it does!