Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Outlining (at the risk of being dry)
Some of us do. Some of us don't.
But I happen to be a writer who outlines my novels. There are benefits to both camps, and in fact my only #1 NYTimes best seller for adults came from a novel I did not outline, so who's to say if it's the right thing to do or not? But, as I find myself outlining two novels that are due in the spring and summer of next year, and facing the outlining of two more, also on deadline within the next twelve months, I thought I might write about the process briefly.
We all read novels and see movies that fail to deliver. A great story, terrific characters and a less-than-workable ending that disappoints. My guess is: no outline. The huge benefit of an outline is that the writer knows where the story is going. This is also the detriment. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard: "Why would I write the book if I knew the ending?"
To that one could say, "How can I write the book if I don't know the ending?" It's never hurt "Dutch" Leonard -- his books are far better than mine -- but I also have no idea how many drafts he does (I write 2-4 full drafts of each novel). Dutch may write 8 for all I know. Outlining definitely cuts down on the need for Richter Scale rewrites.
For three thousand years story telling has followed a three act form. This, thanks to the Greeks. (This is what I taught at Fudan University last year: Mythic Three Act Structure in Contemporary Fiction -- a mouthful).
(Not this kind of Greek)
If you want a concise explanation of why your (and everyone else's) dreams and stories probably do/and should follow a three act structure, read Christopher Vogler's wonderful book: A Writer's Journey. He picks up where Joseph Campbell left off, and every Hollywood pitch requires you to know the language of Vogler's book--or perish.
Outlining ain't easy. You need to establish four or five "big" emotional/sometimes-action scenes that the story turns on (thresholds). Then, piece by piece, you fill in between these thresholds with more important scenes/moments for your characters or story, and bit-by-bit your full story reveals itself. Character arcs form. Dramatic moments reveal themselves. When my kids were little we used to crush the wrapper on a straw taking it off, and then add a drop or two to the crushed wrapper and watch it expand like a snake: outlining is like that. Your brain adds the drops of water and your story begins to expand and grow.
When you write without an outline the same thing happens. Don't get me wrong. And it has more time to "grow" because the writing goes so slowly. There's a real benefit to that. But two things can happen: one, you can end up writing for weeks or even months having taken a fork in the road that leads nowhere. Now, that's all right if you're willing to tear it up, but far too often the writer tries to keep these sub-plots and passages simply because of the time invested, and that can kill a story. Two: it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to "wrap" the story, to finish the story, without a structure that allows you to see where and when various threads need to be tied-off. This, I think, is one of the great pitfalls of no outline: no ending. Or a rushed ending. Or an ending that makes very little sense. Or one that leaves four other sub-plots dangling and never resolved.
But ultimately, it's anybody's guess as to which is better. There are many hugely successful writers that scoff at the idea of outlining--and even though an outliner myself, I get that.