The Outline’s the Thing to Catch a King (or, in this case, a story)

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Here is a slide that I found online that is super-relevant to my topic today: THE OUTLINE.  I have been in a fugue for the past 2 months in terms of creative writing and here is the reason.  I HAVE NOT BEEN OUTLINING MY STORIES.  It is as simple as that.  I’ve been trying to do what Brandon Sanderson and the crew of the “Writing Excuses” Podcast calls, “Pantsing,” (aka “writing by the seat of your pants.”)  Essentially, you have a character, setting, inciting idea and you run with it.  You let your “characters” drive the narrative forward.  There are many famous writers who swear by it (Alice Walker, Toni Morrison) come quickly to mind.  Anytime you hear a writer say, “Oh, my character “speak through me” and I just record what they are telling me, you essentially have a “Pantser.”

I CAN’T DO THAT.  It’s that simple.  For me, writing is all about knowing what my characters are going to do and figuring out how the revelation at the end will affect both the character and the reader.  Everything I do starts with PLOT.  If I don’t know the plot, I can have the best character, setting, etc., but the story WON’T come together, no matter HOW HARD I TRY.  I NEED to know where I’m going and what the emotional payoff is going to be at the end for me to write effectively.  Anything else–well, that’s when my fugue starts to kick in because I don’t know what I’m trying to say/express.

I’ve even tried writing the ending first and then backtracking to the beginning and working towards the ending.  Nope, doesn’t work.  I tried working backwards, ending first then section before ending, then section before that, until I get to the beginning.  No way, that won’t work either.  Starting in the middle?  No, No, and No.  I HAVE to build my stories sequentially.  I HAVE to start with plot.  I HAVE to work from beginning to end.  I HAVE to find my characters by writing.  I HAVE to find the ending by figuring out through the course of writing what my characters want and will they be able to achieve it.  Any other way, well, “There lie madness.”

NO OUTLINE, NO NOVEL

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Outlines get a bum rap because they supposedly “inhibit spontaneity” or “are too restrictive for creativity,” but I think it is because it was something you learned to do in school for papers/essays.  Having been a 6th grade Lang. Arts teacher for the past 3 years, I know first hand how much kids hate doing papers.  Too much work is involved for their liking.  Even in college, the paper is one of the most maligned assignments that can be given to students, even though its purpose is to help you learn the information and then present what you’ve learned in a codified manner.

There is this barrier of dislike that is associated with them from school (I’ll save my post on the current wave of anti-intellectualism and the dislike of learning for another time), but I can safely say that I HAVE LEARNED SOMETHING IMPORTANT FROM MY 3 MONTH FUGUE: THE REASON I’VE NOT WRITTEN A NOVEL IS BECAUSE I’VE YET TO ACTUALLY OUTLINE ONE FROM START TO FINISH. My percentage for taking an idea for a novel and outlining it from beginning to end is 0%.  Now while I don’t actually finish EVERY short-story that I outline my percentage is closer to 85-90% on short stories.  Graphic Novel outlines (start to finish): 0%.  Screenplay outlines (start to finish): 0%. In every major category that I want to write (excepting short stories), I’ve not completely outlined a project from beginning to end.  Simple as that.  On my short stories, I outline about 95% (at least I had been up to my recent “fugue” and of those, I completed about 85-90% of the stories.  I’ve only abandoned 1 story in the past 3 years of writing.)

Pretty telling statistics, I feel.  So, while my fugue was pretty painful for me (& apparently some readers of the blog as I lost followers–c’est la vie), it was helpful in that I learned from this failure.  If I want to make this more than a hobby, I’m going to have to force myself to struggle and outline my longer works (& not just the intro) and force myself to really concentrate on getting the plot down.  Then I can go back, rewrite and dramatize the action, and then in the final draft, punch up characterization and any other problems that either beta readers or editors find in the prose.  Lesson learned–hopefully, during the summer I can report back on the progress of my outlining my longer works.

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5 thoughts on “The Outline’s the Thing to Catch a King (or, in this case, a story)

  1. Personally, I don’t have much use for outlines, except perhaps in a long-form such as a book. I may be a pantser, but I find an outline tends to limit the imagination. It also tends to limit form and style. All these should work to benefit the story, rather than the reverse. The traditional inverted pyramid may work well in the newspaper business, but it won’t work so well in a mystery novel.

    For me, writing is all about the Three R’s – Read, Research and Rewrite. Good writing begins with a certain level of inspiration, inspiration that often comes from something you’ve read. You may not be left with some transcendental insight, but you should at least be left with a real desire to tell the story – fact or fiction.

    Once you have an idea about the story you want to tell, research should come next, whether you’re writing fact or fiction. Details are obviously important in a factual account, but they also provide the grounding that makes fiction believable. In my experience, writer’s block is too often a failure to do your research.

    The best advice I ever got about writing was to not edit during the creative phase; in other words, don’t let the editorial side of your brain interfere with the creative side. Just let your thoughts flow freely. This can lead to some truly surprising results. Once you’ve followed your inspiration, done your research, and put your thoughts to the page, that’s the time to rewrite, rewrite and rewrite some more.

    • You raise some interesting points and that’s the awesome thing about writing (especially creative writing) in that we all have different styles and workflows that allow us to accomplish the same thing at the end of the day (i.e., a finished work of writing). For me, I don’t just go for out for walks–I go to place A, to do thing B, to learn thing C, and to return to place A with a greater understanding of myself, my world, and/or both. Without that internal goal driving me forward, nothing in my life would get accomplished, and the same is true for my writing. It doesn’t matter whether the blueprint is in my head (academic writing), on paper or digitally (creative writing), or some combination of the two (brainstorming/invention), I NEED a level of structure to lead me through the story.

      Now, I’m not saying that every writer needs this–Seat of the Pants writers (“Pantsers”) may find this too restrictive to work for their mode of writing and that’s fine too (whatever gets the writing done). However, for me, “Pantsing” a story, no matter the amount of research just isn’t practical because my mind doesn’t just grab facts and details–my mind is an associational mind. This thing relates to this thing in this particular way, but not in this other way. I organize & structure the world in a fundamentally different way than a ‘Pantser’ does. Right now, I can tell you many facts that I’ve learned about various subjects, but the key is I can’t tell you a STORY using those same facts, not because I don’t know them, but rather because I don’t know how those facts relate to the character’s journey and how those facts are going to transform and interact with the character’s psyche as he/she goes on their journey through the story. I don’t know how all those events and interactions are going to change the character in so profound a way that both the character and the reading audience will be able to see it because I DON’T KNOW THE JOURNEY (i.e., what happens in the story). And that’s why I outline, so that I can see where the character and the details interact and create pressure points.

      At the end of the day, no matter how much I might like the idea of Seat of the Pants writing, or just going with the flow, or “Pantsing,” or whatever the current fashionable thing is to call it, it’s never going to a realistically useful technique for me (personally) because I never do anything without a purpose/goal/structure behind it. My blog post was my desire to articulate an alternative to the dominant ideology that has currently enveloped the creative writing field. Outlines have long been seen as something that “holds writers back.” In my case, it is not the outline that holds me back, but the lack of a structure. The outline is the very thing that “propels me forward.” All the Research in the world can’t help you, if you can’t apply it to the character and plot in a meaningful way in order to show the character’s growth during the story.

      I wrote an article for a magazine called The Writer’s Journal (which has unfortunately succumbed to the ravages of the internet and is no longer published), but the article was entitled, “The (Lost) Art of the Rough Draft.” In the article, I articulated the idea that it is important, nay imperative, to tell yourself the story first and then during your next successive drafts, try to show the audience the story rather than trying to tell the audience the story before you yourself even knew all of it.

      This was the impetus of the blog post—a call to action for myself and all those who think like me and who cannot find a way to complete a story by just “jumping in.” Again, that might work for others, but I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t work as effectively as perhaps taking a moment to consider a possible structure/container for their creative endeavors. The Three R’s are something that all creative writers should be doing (be they “Pantsers” or outliners), and while helpful, they are in no way the panacea for “Writer’s Block.” The panacea for writer’s block (for me) is to find a story that I really want to do, to find a character that can exist inside the story’s world, and finally to know enough about the story’s events so that I can begin writing it (and critically, for me, FINISH it). After that’s done, I can do all of the rewriting in the world to make it a better story, but I can do nothing with a blank page. And the best illustration of this is a screenwriter, who upon hearing that a famous director said that the “secret sauce” that made his movies great was his own unique “style,” promptly sent that director a screenplay made up entirely of BLANK pages and said, “put you unique ‘style’ on this.”

      Lastly, writing is an individual endeavor. Whatever works for you, works. However, I can tell you that without an outline, I do NOT finish stories (no matter how much I’ve Read, Researched, or Rewritten the piece—which the wasteland of file folders full of partial drafts of projects and bulging bookcases that are so overfilled with books that the books are now in an “overflow” area made up of ever-growing towers of milk cartons will attest). Without an outline, I can’t finish works, without finishing the works, I can’t rewrite them to make them better, I can’t send them out to publishers/readers for feedback, I can’t be published, and essentially, I can’t BE a writer. So my outlining will remain in place as that is the only reliable option that I have to practice the profession that I love.

      And while I acknowledge that “Pantsing” is currently the dominant mode of thought to the creation of creative writing, I will continue to suggest to those who do not feel that they are as successful as they think they should be in their writing or are having problems in finishing drafts, or having blocks where they can’t write, to try their hand at writing with an outline as a liberating experience rather than a constraining one. Some people jump at the chance to just get up and go to a new place and love to explore and make up their itinerary as they go—no rules, no restrictions, no problem. But other people need a map and tour guide so that they don’t miss the important things and come away with a new understanding of the place they just visited. You seem like the freedom that “Pantsing” provides while I, on the other hand, want the “map & tour” that Outlining provides.

      I hope this doesn’t come across as an attack because it isn’t one (its so hard to have a serious discussion without it seeming like an attack because of the lack of emotional cues in a piece of writing). This is only supposed to a considered response to why the “Pantsing” technique that is so heavily favored and promoted is detrimental to MY success as a writer. I’ll close with this final point: to each his own—and that’s what makes creative writing, and indeed art itself, so timeless.

      • Obviously, this discussion – not argument – could continue indefinitely. My rule of thumb? If you and I always agree, one of us isn’t necessary.

        As a student, I was taught the value of an outline, and I tried to write that way. But I found it much easier to write and rewrite my piece as usual, and then make up an outline afterward just to satisfy my instructor.

        I freely admit that isn’t always the quickest way to an end product, and there are times and subject material that require more structure. Certainly, it’s a good idea to have some sort of preliminary structure in mind when writing a book. But one should always be prepared to abandon that structure in the cold light of day.

        Indeed, that’s exactly what happened with my book The Disappearing Cemetery. It’s a painful process to start over once you believe you’ve finished a book.

        For me, creative endeavors are generally best served by letting the creative juices flow, and then engaging in the hard work of rewriting and editing.

        To illustrate, I’m also a songwriter, and the best of my songs usually are born of a single line or phrase. Sometimes the birthing takes a few minutes, and sometimes a simple song takes days. And sometimes the song dies a-borning. But that isn’t because of a lack of structure; it’s because somewhere along the way the idea didn’t seem to be worth the effort.

        To expand on that a bit more, my latest CD is a tribute to the movie Cool Hand Luke, which came out fifty years ago. Obviously, the songs had to conform to a preconceived structure, that is to say, they had to reflect the feel and tone of the movie, and they had to relate to the subject matter.

        I guess what I’m saying is that even when we fly by the seat of our pants, we have to have some idea where we’d like to go; and to get there, we have to keep our hands firmly on the controls.

  2. You’re right, we could discuss this ad infinitum. I’m going to let my original blog entry and my response serve as the definitive expressions of the benefits that I see of using outlining to create a structure for creative works.

    I’m also going to leave this discussion up so that future readers might be able to read both my thoughts on the matter and your thoughts and then decide for themselves which works best in their own writing lives/creative projects.

    Thank you for commenting and I wish you success in your creative endeavors (just as I hope to find success in mine). Be Well!

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