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The Unapologetic Geek

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Writing Your Novel: The Pros and Cons of Outlines

Too many notes

So you've decided to ignore my advice about how difficult it is to publish your novel, but you haven't started writing yet. If you have an idea for a novel and are serious about putting it to paper, this is the point at which you have to make an important decision: how much planning are you going to do? On one hand, you could skip the planning stages and just start writing, and though this can produce good results, it is a treacherous path, full of fatal pitfalls and several unnecessary roadblocks. On the other hand, you could make an incredibly detailed outline, a chapter-by-chapter list of plot points and character descriptions that gives you specific guidelines for what you should do and when you should do it, but this technique can be frought with just as many problems.

Without resorting to self-evident and unhelpful platitudes like "it depends on the story you're trying to tell" or "every writer is different," I'll share my experiences with both methods in the hopes that I can help you predict and solve the problems you will inevitably face. Naturally, the best way to proceed is likely to be in the middle ground between these two extremes, but you shouldn't underestimate the potential stumbling blocks. As any writer who believes in writer's block knows, it only takes a tiny setback to stop you dead in your tracks. Just as important is understanding the potential benefits of each extreme, because taking one course over another might make the creative process much, much easier.

Let's start with the traditional method--the one advocated by many self-help books on writing--in which you carefully plot out your story before you start writing it. The benefits are obvious, in that you organize your thoughts and exert control over your characters. If you have a theme in mind, this will help you say exactly what you want to say, and if you are dealing with a complex plot, this will minimize plot holes.

I've done this for two of my three finished novels (and one fairly long short story) and continue to do it more often than not, but the way I organize my notes is different every time. In general, there are three things you might want to outline: backstory, characters, and plot. Though all three of these things are important and can't be completely ignored, the genre of your story might benefit from a heavy focus on just one. If you're writing speculative fiction, for example, you should probably devote most of your time to backstory, since that's where you'll have to work out the rules of your fictional universe. If you're writing something more dramatic or literary, however, your notes will be weighted heavily in favor of character. Lastly, you'll want to make sure you fully iron out the plot if your story is a twisty mystery.

A Black Hole
Where dreams go to die: the place where you worry about the dietary habits of your protagonist's great great great grandfather's gardner

Each of these elements presents its own unique challenges. For backstory, you have to be careful not to get carried away. It is absolutely essential for some stories to have a well developed history, but it is easy for a writer to get so involved in creating a past that he or she loses sight of the present. If the backstory gets too large and detailed, it will overwhelm the story you're trying to write, and you'll wind up with a universe in which the characters spend more time reflecting on what has already happened than on what they think of the current situation. It can also be a black hole for some writers, in that the gravitational force of your created universe can suck you in forever, forcing you to dig deeper and deeper and deeper, never figuring out how you can crawl back out to write the story you originally wanted to. A lot of sci-fi and fantasy is prone to this, and it's a problem I'm intimately familiar with.

What you have to remember is that these details aren't as important to the reader as they are to the writer. Once the stage is reasonably set, you can stop building behind the scenes, because the reader shouldn't see everything you've created. If there's no reason in your main story for the characters to recall something in your backstory, then that piece of backstory doesn't need to exist. I know how difficult it is to let go of these things, but as a screenwriting professor once taught me, it is important to learn how to kill your babies.

This rule doesn't necessarily apply to character, however, where seemingly insignificant bits of personal backstory or psychological idiosyncracy can be enormously important for the writer, even though they never get specifically discussed within the story itself. It can be easily argued that character is the most important thing in any kind of story, even non-fiction, which is why it is critical for the writer to learn how to create fully fleshed-out, multi-dimensional human beings (or aliens, as the case may be). As a general rule, the more you understand your character, the better that character will be on the page, which is why a story can benefit from detailed character outlines, replete with individual histories, physical appearance, quirks of dialogue, job descriptions, personal relationships, musical preferences, and more.

These details, though, can also be a story's undoing. Exerting too much control over your characters is just as dangerous as not understanding them. In theory, if you know exactly what every character needs to do and think for your plot to unravel the way you want it to, you should be able to create each character's backstory and psychology to fit it. Doing this, however, is never a good idea. Your characters should dictate your plot, and not the other way around. It's tough, because for most writers, the plot is imagined first. What you need to make sure you do, therefore, is start to create your characters before you start outlining your plot, even if you're writing genre fiction that is only designed to entertain. Then you can let the two things grow organically together, being careful not to stress out too much when your imagined plot begins to change. Don't be afraid to let your characters take on a life of their own, because that's what you should want them to do. With practice, you'll learn the ironic truth that your characters tend to understand your story better than you do.

Eragon screenshot
At the very least, a plot outline might help you realize that your story is virtually identical to Star Wars

This is not to say that plot is unimportant. Once you have created your universe and your characters, you still need a compelling story to tell, and readers will respond badly if your plot doesn't make sense or doesn't go anywhere interesting. If you're going to make notes, you'd better at least have a basic outline of the plot, of how event "A" leads to event "B" and where it is eventually going to end. For something really complex, your story might need an outline so detailed that you know what will happen in each and every chapter. This way, you can study the plot very carefully and scrub it clean of holes and inconsistencies. Of course, at a certain point and with a certain level of detail, you won't be creating an outline so much as you will be writing your novel. If you find this happening, write a more general plot synopsis (one page, max), and then start writing, because your brain is obviously ready.

Sometimes, you see, it is actually better to just buckle up and go, to let your mind spill out the story without worrying about copious notes, detailed backstories, or character profiles. Of course there are dangers--which I will discuss--but there are also many important benefits to this method. For one thing, it's more fun to write without a safety net. You won't get bored of your story, and the joy you take as a writer will translate itself to the reader. The problem many creative people have after creating outlines and plans is that, once you've written a story in your mind, writing it down on paper becomes drudgery; it becomes work. Then, while you're writing down what you've already imagined in its fullest detail, your mind is free to roam and come up with other stories, making the current task seem all the more tedious. This won't happen much if you skip the outlines altogether.

I know what you're thinking. If you improvise your entire story, it will be full of plot holes, your characters will be weak and inconsistent, and it will feel sloppy to the reader. Though this can happen, it's not as bad as you think. For one thing, you can fix all but the most extraordinary plot holes and character inconsistencies in editing, and if you choose the improv method over the planning stages, you will have to spend more time editing than you otherwise would. For another thing, it's easy to underestimate your brain. Though you may not write down a plot outline, one will exist in your mind. It could be dynamic and ever-changing, but it will be there, as will your characters and the backstory.

A human brain
There's a story in there somewhere

Consider, for instance, a novel I wrote called Thesea. I wrote it without any real plan whatsoever in a three month period of creative intensity. Despite how quickly I wrote it and the fact that it relies on a significant narrative twist in the third act, deep psychology for its characters, and a distinct theme that requires a specific ending, the novel is a success. I haven't been able to publish it yet, but Thesea did win an award and is probably the work I am most proud of. Coincidentally, one of the main ideas of the story is the power of the unconscious mind, and the way I was able to write it testifies to that point. I can therefore speak from experience and tell you that, when you write, your unconscious mind is always at work; it will attend to the characters and plot a lot more than you expect.

Granted, flying by the seat of your pants is a terrible idea if your story relies on mystery or intrigue (or time travel). Readers will never forgive you if you present a compelling mystery without any explanation or, worse, with a poor and unsatisfying one. It won't matter if your characters are excellent, your writing is poetic, or your universe is interesting; if you create something that can't be adequately accounted for, your story will fail. You need to understand that, when you choose to write from the hip, there is a distinct possibility of failure. If you can't accept that risk, write an outline before you begin.

Regardless of how you decide to proceed, don't be perplexed if your story doesn't turn out the way you expect. Outlines can be incredibly useful tools, but don't treat them like gospel or assume that they are necessary. After all, if your story doesn't have the capacity to surprise its writer, it won't surprise its readers either. I'm not here to advocate one method over another, but if I had to choose, I would argue for outlining, for reasons unrelated to the final product. When you have a set of notes for a work, you can peruse them after the fact and witness your own creative process, which will teach you more than I ever could. Besides, for me, I like knowing that, if I should die before finishing my novel, at least they'll have an outline to work with once they realize what an unrecognized genius I was.

-e. magill 8/30/2011

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