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 no
vel 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 re
quires you to know the language of Vogler's book--or perish.

Outlining ain't eas
y. 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.



  1. from Jacqueline

    I was almost scared to read this post - not that I don't outline, because I do in my funky way. My fear of advice on structure stems from the fact that, when I wrote my first novel, I had no idea such things as "three-act-structure" existed, and I still don't consciously adhere to any "rules" as such - they scare me a bit. At my first writer's conference ever (Bouchercon, just after publication of that first novel) I went along to a session where they were talking about the "rules" of writing mystery. After a while, I crept out and 'phoned my husband. "Did you know about this? Did you know there were rules about structure?" I asked him. "Yes, but I didn't want to say anything," he replied. "You were having so much fun writing your book." I decided it was all too complicated to learn, especially as I'd just finished my second book. I have a fear that, if I start working with the rules, so to speak, I'll get lost in the technique and lose sight of the story I want to tell.

    When I start a novel, I have an idea of the beginning, the middle and the end, and I depict those stages graphically on poster-sized Post-its notes. My drawing looks more like the standard mean in stats, but it's an arc all the same. Then I weave in the key scenes, and the rest is filled in along the way, as I'm writing. At some point, once I've started, I begin to make a note of key events in each chapter, but with not too much detail. Years ago, I used to design and make my own clothes, and I learned from a seamstress that when making a garment, you only ever pin the fabric in place, and not tack it together - you have to be able to move the fabric as you sew to take account of the material. The same rule works when I'm writing - I have to be able to work the story like clay on the wheel.

    Having said all that, I have Vogler's book - it's terrific - but somehow I missed that bit on structure.

    Thanks for this post - words of wisdom from a master! I think I'll re-read that book ....

  2. Wonderful post, Ridley! I have a messy history with outlining. I used The Heros Journey to structure my first novel but didn't outline per se. I've just finished a proposal for a fifth book that includes a detailed outline. It was very very difficult for me to complete, but I think writing it will be much easier this time because I know where I'm going.

  3. No one, least of all ME, is saying any of this is "right." Thanks for the posts.

  4. This was helpful to me too--The structure things I've seen have been either so regimented as to awaken my inner rebel, or not particularly helpful, but a 3 act structure seems about right.

    I'm a loosy-goosy outliner initially--start with the one-page of the major pieces, then outline maybe 3 chapters out in more detail as I go, so I know where I'm going. Not knowing the ending though, I think is the surest way to waste 6 months.

    (I can't believe you are commited to 4 books in a year. It's making me hyperventilate to think about.)

  5. Best post ever. I can see why you're an excellent teacher. Perhaps one day, Iowa will give you an endowed chair to teach crime fiction. (Actually, hold out for a endowed sofa. And now that I think of it, to hell with Iowa, come to U.C. Santa Barbara. Better restaurants).

    I love your expanding straw analogy....and Jacqueline's seamstress work. (We're all sewing, letting in and letting out...aren't we?)

    I didn't outline my first novel, "To Speak for the Dead," but unconsciously followed the 3 act structure set out by Aristotle. (He's good; get me his agent!)

    Now, I'd be lost without a detailed outline. I do it in two steps. I outline the first two acts, so I clearly know before beginning the nature of the hero's quest, the 2nd act complications, and just how and why and where he's at his lowest point. The third act then outlines itself. Unfortunately, it does not write itself.

  6. James O. Born8/12/2009 2:15 PM

    Based on Dutch Leonard, I don' outline and have only an rough idea of the ending.

    I like things switching gears mid book.

    Great post, Ridley

    Jim Born