The Slings and Arrows: Outline Plotting

Last night I was lying in bed at the end of a long, draining day, picking yet again through The Art of War for Readers, when I came across the section regarding the differences between writers who don’t use outlines to plot and those who do.  At first, I felt some twinges of panic; I know that I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a non-outliner, then became an outliner, and am now practicing some sort of hybrid of the two, but something about reading their reasoning made me a little anxious, because I felt like the pro-outline side reflected more of what I wanted from storytelling. Spirit Authors has a comprehensive list of why you should outline, but these are the ones that resonated for me:

It makes writing easier. When you go to sit down to work, you know exactly what parts of your book need to get done. And remember, just because you have an ordered outline, you are NOT committed to writing it in order. You can start anywhere.

Yeah. This is definitely true, and part of why I’m still creating an outline for the next novel, even as I try to build in some wiggle room for the characters. It absolutely avoids the blank page syndrome that a lot of us suffer.

It makes your message memorable. Readers can remember your message when there is a structure attached to it. It makes abstract concepts more memorable, and enables readers to feel they have gained something they can take away from the book, after they have finished it.

This was a big piece of why I took up the practice in the first place. I was interested in weaving complex story structures together with some abstract concepts, as the idea of imposing a rigid structure upon some of the more airy ideas that float through my head seemed appealing. The problem is that I soon learned it wasn’t that easy for me. I have to let those airy ideas float in and out of the story.

It helps ensure you are thorough. If you have an outline, you won’t accidentally omit something vital to your message or storyline.

Big concern of mine, as you could probably tell from some of the items that I’ve discussed here. I worry about continuity and consistency, as one missing piece in the story machine that should suspend the reader’s disbelief can cause the whole mechanism to come crashing down when it’s time to do the heavy lifting. Was that a tortured enough metaphor, or do I need to go on?

It helps ensure your book has balance. A good outline can help you see if some parts of your book are less substantial than others. A well-balanced book is organised in such a way that the ideas are balanced both in quantity and in quality against each other.

This wasn’t a topic that I had considered before last night, but it has a lot of merit. One of the biggest challenges as a writer is trying to avoid an uneven pace that jumps and jerks, and outline plotting is a great way to do it.

So I started panicking as I read this. Was I doing this all wrong by allowing my characters to have rein over the story?

For the other side of the equation, let’s take a look at some of the disadvantages of outlining as listed at Daily Writing Tips:

1. Spoils the mystery and the fun…for fiction writers, some don’t want to outline because they feel they cannot use their creativity and it takes away all the fun if you just fill it up. To solve this problem, Randy Ingermanson revealed a new method – the Snowflake method. It does let you outline, but doesn’t let it spoil your story.

I’m of two minds about this particular topic. One is that it’s not the writer’s place to experience the mystery and fun; if you want to experience that, read and then figure out how another writer did it so that you can apply that to your own work on how to best recreate that mystery and fun. I’m not saying that writing shouldn’t be fun, but that there shouldn’t be too much mystery to what you’re writing or you’re going to create all kinds of internal problems. On the other hand, I do like seeing what a character can bring to the table, and how things can follow down an entirely different path. That can be good fun, and can lead you to new facets of the story that you may not have considered. So I guess my overall view here is that mystery and fun is good, but it also serves well to have some sort of map ready in advance.

2. May not be as good as you first thought. If you get a complete different idea for your story later, your outline is pretty much useless work. Therefore, you should try to get all the best ideas from your brain and commit them down to paper to avoid this problem.

This has happened to me twice already. Not much more to say about it – sometimes you find that the path your left brain maps out may not be the one that your right brain finds the most intriguing, and you end up with something boring and flat. But the big one…

3. Just doesn’t seem to agree with your writing style. Some people find it hard to write from an outline. They want their writing to be creative: as creative as possible. I’m one of those writers, although I sometimes write few of my ideas so that I don’t forget it. Lengthy outlining doesn’t work for some, although it does for others. It’s useless to find a one-size-fit-all outlining method, simply because there’s no such thing.

This pretty much sums it up, and I think this is the in-between method that I’ve been developing of late. Write out the ideas, map out the general direction of the story (even down to a simple outline form), get to know the characters, and set them loose. When things seem a little unclear, go back to the outline.

I just don’t think there’s a simple way to do this, or a right or wrong answer. It’s all up to the individual style and preference of the writer in question. That realization eased a lot of my anxiety and helped me to see that I’m moving in the right direction. Always a boon!

Oh, and I was intrigued by the Snowflake Method. We’ll take a peek at that one tomorrow.

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  1. Pingback: Guest Post – John Hansen – The Outline « alchemyofscrawl

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