Monday, September 20, 2010

To outline or not to outline, that is the question

My stories always start out in my head, but I do need to outline before I write. It's the map to my story. Without it, I don't really know where I'm going, and I find that not knowing wastes too much time. My outlines are flexible, not written in stone. If I see where something can be made better, I'll, adjust the outline accordingly. That, in the end, is what it's all about, right? Doing everything you can to make the story the best that it can be?

You don't need a physical outline--many writers don't use them--but there are several advantages all writers might want to consider:

1. With an outline, you know where  you're going and why. This makes writer's block pretty much impossible. If you have a map and a destination, you know what roads will get you there. No map and no direction leads to indecision, and that leads to writer's block.

2. The outline can be your sh**** first draft, which means you can feel free to write whatever you want in it, no matter how ridiculous. Think of it as backstage on a Broadway show. The audience doesn't know what's going on back there, so actors and crew members can goof around as much as they like. If it helps make a better show, great. If not,  no problem. The only one who's going to see it is you, so the pressure is off.

3. Having an  outline means you can start with dessert, as in start with whatever scene you feel most inspired to write at any given time. Usually, I'll start with the beginning, the climax, and the ending. I might also work in some scenes that particularly capture my fancy, maybe because they're funny or dramatic. How fun is that?

3. Starting with dessert means I can connect the dots later, and usually this means I don't waste too much time on boring, connecting scenes. I mean, if they bore me, they're going to bore the reader. Writers who don't outline usually can't start with dessert, and they don't always know what the boring connecting scenes are, so they tend to waste too much time on them. I think this was less of a problem in the past, but writing tends to be a lot tighter nowadays. TV and the Internet has led to shorter attention spans. We're used to storytelling that moves along quickly. Outlining can help your writing keep pace with the times.

4. In the same vein, write-as-you-go writers are more likely to go off on a tangent, which can be fun, but it can also mean scenes that will later have to be cut, cut, cut. Not only have you wasted time on these scenes, but you might have poured your heart and soul into them. You might think, "But that scene with the falling cherry blossoms was so beautiful, and I described it so perfectly!" Sure, but does it advance your story in any way? If not, cut it! As the writing advice goes, "kill your darlings." Outlining means fewer darlings you'll feel pained to cut. And it's not just scenes.  Knowing exactly what your story needs in advance means knowing what it doesn't need in all areas. No wasting time on anything that will need to be cut later, whether it's a scene, a description, or a character. This lets you write and edit faster and with less effort.

5. You know that feeling you get at the start of a writing day? That feeling of excitement filled with a bit of dread, because you don't know what you're going to write? Well, here's the way I like to end each writing day: I start the beginning of the next scene I'm going to work on, and I outline the rest of that scene. Yes, I outline individual scenes. This way I know exactly where I'm going the next time I sit down to write. At the start of every writing session, I have in front of me the beginning of that scene, and a kind of "to-do" list for that scene. For example, "X and Y are walking along Broadway at night. It's cold. Y is pensive. X is suspicious. They enter a pizza place. X eats a slice, but Y just sits there at the counter, the slice in her hands. Finally Y confesses to X about Z. X seems to take it well at first, but then he walks off in a huff, leaving Y scared and alone, wondering if she was wrong to tell X the truth." It's not much, but now all I have to do is follow that check list to get that chapter written. I might also have a more detailed outline, with snippets of dialogue or some point I want to get across. It might say, for example, "Remember, this scene is all about X breaking up with Y, forcing Y go to back to Z, which will eventually lead to X having to rescue Y from Z." Now I know exactly where I was planning on going today, and how to get there.

6. Outlining means you know in advance what your story is ABOUT. This helps you focus. After all, you're story isn't about this character and that character and how this and that happens to them. It's about SOMETHING much bigger, like undying love, or sacrifice, or sibling rivalry. You can't really connect with the reader unless you know what your story is about. A well outlined story will usually be focused and mostly be about one thing, which makes it easier for the reader to follow. If you're focused, your story will be focused, and so will the reader. If you're not, the end result is a reader who isn't focused, who might just put your book down and move onto something else, maybe another book that's clearly ABOUT something.

7. And finally, sooner or later, you're going to need an outline to sell your story. You're going to need to be able to communicate to an agent or editor what your story is about. If you created the story based on an outline, that job is going to be a lot easier.It'll make it easier to sell your story at every stage, from the agent and editor, to the bookstore and the reader.What's a book blurb, after all, if not the hook of a really good, tight, focused outline?

Again, outlining isn't for every writer. Give it a try. If you find that it makes thing easier, faster, more focused and more fun, do it! But if you discover you just don't like that sense of knowing where you're going--if you write because you love that feeling you get when your characters surprise you, and you just can't get that with an outline--don't do it. In the end, each writer has to do what works best for him or her. What works for me, might not be right for you.