Monday, 8 April 2013

Guidelines Not Outlines

Some people like to have detailed outlines before they start writing. Others prefer to wing it and enjoy the process of finding out what the story’s about as they go.

Both styles are perfectly fine and workable, it comes down to a question preference.

If you have a method that works for you, that’s the one you should use.

The problem for some people is that working it all out beforehand is too constricting AND leaving it all to inspiration is too vague. Neither approach works.



Slavishly following a blueprint leaves little room for working in things that only occur to you while writing. And free writing hundreds of pages only to discover you’ve gone down a dead end can be soul destroying.

What might help is to have enough of an outline so you aren’t going to waste loads of time, but without pinning down all the details of what happens to whom.

Bear in mind that whatever approach you take, eventually you will have a complete draft that is roughly the story you want to tell. From then on it’s a matter of revision and refinement. That means the grind of being creatively locked into a set storyline with only tedious redrafting is unavoidable. That’s what writing is. So if you are totally against that, stick to short stories and poems.

But as long as you are prepared for the hard work, you can help yourself by having a rough idea of where you are going by not working out what happens in a scene, but by working out what gets in the way.

If you can spend a little time thinking about the obstacles your characters will be facing, and invest enough time to make them interesting, hard to deal with problems, then there’s a good chance you will have enough of a guide to know which direction to go, but also enough to keep your brain engaged when you get there.

So, for example, if I was writing a story about a hot air balloonist who decides to use his skills to rob a bank (don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along), then I might decide to start with him taking customers up for a sightseeing tour, but they get caught in a tornado (no idea how they’ll survive—maybe some won’t). Next scene is him deciding give up the glamorous world of ballooning but his boss blackmails him into staying, no idea how. Then he meets his new team who he has to train, but they’re high school children...

My  point is that I can spend time working out each scene in plenty of detail (and I’m suggesting taking your time to come up with some interesting obstacles—certainly more time than I'm taking coming up with my example). Not just a difficult predicament, but one that you'd be interested in seeing played out. 

But because the focus is on problems not solutions, you can spend as much time as you want on details and when it comes to writing out the full version there’ll still be plenty to do.

Now, you may feel that finding out what each scene is about is something you enjoy discovering with your characters, in which case that’s perfectly okay. But for those looking for something in between this may offer a third way.

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26 comments:

Heidi Mannan said...

I outline sometimes and not others. It depends on my grasp of the story before I start. Sometimes I'll outline in great detail while other times I'll very loosely outline. It's always just to get a better handle on things. I usually tend to veer from the outline once I start writing. Great post!

Sarah Foster said...

I can't stand outlining. It seems to put a complete block on my creativity. But I do like to think ahead and mentally plan out what will happen, and often write out these ideas out of order. I might end up scrapping some ideas as the story progresses, but it helps me figure out what works and what doesn't.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I spend months preparing an outline. Not because it's detailed, but because I take my time planning the storyline in my head. Once I have something plausible, I start writing down key scenes, usually resulting in about three four pages typed of short paragraphs. But I don't let it restrict me - one of the best characters I created for my upcoming book came from a character that just appeared in one scene, but as I wrote, I hit a new idea and his scenes kept going.

J Keith said...

I hate outlines. Never use them, at least not to write. I've written them for a query but never actually used one myself. I like to write and go where the writing takes me. Sometimes that leads to trouble on the wandering and too much distance from original storyline but it works out eventually.

T. Drecker said...

I usually work the entire story out in my head first - a mental outline - and then type it. That doesn't mean it doesn't change. Putting something on a screen/paper doesn't always work as neatly as hoped, but I like to know where everything is basically going before I start.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I tend to do more of guideline/list/note kind of thing more than an outline. I'm still figuring out what works best for me, and I'm finding it varies project by project.

Nancy Thompson said...

I prepare extensive outlines, but although all the major plot points are worked out, the details are not, so I get the both of both worlds, having a clear map to follow, but with enough room to be creative. It's the best!

Sharon Himsl said...

I have a brief chapter by chapter sketch of a book I hope to write next. I'd like to try inputting it into yWriter, a neat software tool that allows more organization. Outlines in general are boring and too restricting.

Karen S. said...

One of my odd little quirks is going to sleep thinking and hashing ideas in my thoughts, (and it doesn't keep me awake either!) and very often I have the perfect answer in my dreams, or perhaps in my half slumber? It's not a sure thing, but it happens often, and has been for the most part quite useful, for me.

Sarah Chafin said...

I'm still trying to figure out how I work best. I tried an outline and the book I wrote barely resembled it but I think it is better for it. Once I knew my characters better some things I had planned just didn't work anymore. I like what you said about planning the obstacles. That made a lot of sense. Simply Sarah

mooderino said...

@Heidi - I find it's the middle where the story loses momentum, for me anyway. All my inspiration seems to sink into the soles of my shoes. That's when a little pre-thought helps.

@Sarah - even though outlining is a creative endeavour (you have to come up with interesting ideas), some people have to work on it in real time (only when you know what happened can you know what happens next). But you can trick your brain into doing a bit of both. The advantage is avoiding dead-ends. Of course, if that's not a common problem then no need.

@Alex - it can be a lot of fun writing an outline, especially if it's an idea you're really excited about.

Elise Fallson said...

At first I was a total spontaneous writer, writing what ever came out without planning or thinking ahead. And that worked for a while . . . and then I hit all kinds of mental road blocks. Now I try to plan ahead a bit more but can't bring myself to create outlines. I guess I wouldn't mind writing from an outline as long as someone else did the work for me. But since I don't have that kind of money, I outline in my head, for better or worse. I think as I grow as a writer, I'm becoming a bit of both, a planner and a let's-just-see-what-the-hell-happens-next, kinda gal.

mooderino said...

@J Keith - for some people the wandering off where you didn't expect it the bit they like.

@T. Drecker - I know people who consider an idea they forget as one that can't have been that good in the first place, so they never write them down. I could never do that, my memory is terrible, no matter how good the idea.


@Madeline - a lot of people do the short outline or notes. The problem with that is that often the jotted down summary isn't very inspiring. If you are going to pre-think a scene you should try to pre-think something attention grabbing.

mooderino said...

@Nancy - I think people need different amounts of space to work in. Some can just jot down the location and the rest flies out of them, others need a detailed breakdown. I find I need something problematic for the character.

@Sharon - that depends entirely on the outline. If you do use an outline and it's not very interesting, then it's more likely it just isn't a good outline.

@Sarah - possibly a lot of people who have tried outlines and not found them useful aren't really tailoring them to their own tastes. There's a lot of room for variation in how you do an outline.

@Elise - I think the mental outline can be very helpful. However, it's easy to fall into the trap of only thinking through the eyes of the main character. Helps to get into the head of the antagonists too.

LD Masterson said...

I need my beginning and my ending and at least an idea of how I'm going to get from one to the other before I start. Then I firm up the road map as I go, staying ahead of where I'm writing, so I know what's coming next but still have wiggle room to go somewhere else.

Sarah said...

I used to hate outlines because I would make them overly detailed and by the time I was finished, a scene would change or a new idea would come into play decimating most of the original outline. Keeping an outline short, like a list of things to do, is a great guide -- keep the writer on track yet with enough structure to keep him/her from falling off the story.

jesstopper said...

Good to see you on the A to Z again, Mood! I tend outline/plot, and sometimes if I am too tired/not in the mood to actually write, I just brainstorm on my outline doc, adding snippets of ideas, dialogue, etc to come back to in future. That doc sits there as a safety net while I "wing" most of the actual writing.
Jess / Blogging on the Brink

Sarah Allen said...

This is so, so true. This is exactly what I've been trying to teach myself for this novel.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah With Joy)

Ingrid Engen said...

Great points. I never used to outline at all, and then experienced the soul crushing realization of several holes in said novel. Now, I outline--if not on paper, at least in my head. As you say, I need a couple plot points and a few characters.

Ingrid
http://tantusamorscribendi.blogspot.com

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great points. I try to outline the book (get the main plot points down) that way I know where the story is moving. Without a basic outline I am lost. I am a panster where individual scenes are concerned.

Lynda R Young said...

The middle ground is a good way to go, but I personally love thrashing out my ideas in a quick outline and seeing if it works first before I have to do major rewrites. But that's me ;)

mooderino said...

@LD - I think that's quite a popular approach, looking ahead but not too far.

@sarah - the short list can be a little uninspiring. Good to jot down something provocative for each scene to keep it interesting.

@Jess - Hi! I don't think it's really a safety net, more a practice run so you can stock up on ideas for the writing phase.

@Sarah Allen - like most craft ideas it all comes down to the execution.

mooderino said...

@Ingrid - help to have a few ideas beforehand, I think.

@Rachna - a good combination.

@Lynda - me too. Horrible to set off at full speed only too find you've come to a dead end, but even worse if you're 200 pages in.

Jenelle Leanne said...

I do the rough "guideline" format myself. I start with an overall who are the main characters and what are they doing? question. Then I move on to "Who is the bad guy?" "What do the heroes need to accomplish?" There's a lot of "storyboarding" and I'll create a semi-detailed (not scene/by scene, but the major events) outline.

Then I start writing. If I stick to the outline, great! More often than not, however, I deviate from the outline at some point and have to re-draft it about half-way through the story.

I used to not outline at all... but the extra work that generates on the back end of writing is such a major headache, so now I outline a bit :) and do a lot more brainstorming on the front end before I ever start writing.

Excellent post! I'm just swinging by to say "hi" from A-Z!
http://jenelleschmidt.com/blog

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I used to try and just run with a small outline and found the time revising because there wasn't a plot structure wasn't worth it. I now create fairly detailed outlines and find I'm so much happier for it.

mooderino said...

@Jenelle - when things go well any system is fine, when things go bad not realising until you've already written half the book is very painful.

@Tasha - it's a big relief when you find the system that works for you.

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