On Outlining

I’m back!

My recent tangles with a particular writing problem have made me rethink, to some extent, my ideas about outlining. Many authors say that they don’t like outlining because it restricts their creativity, and can make the story seem flat and boring. Professor Robbins advocates what he calls “baseball writing,” wherein the writer knows how the story begins, one or two points it will reach in the middle (“bases”), and how it ends, but then just drops the character into this frame and runs with him/her. I’ve always done some outlining, but it never covered everything – it mostly follows the baseball writing principle, though sometimes I write down some bit of dialogue I know someone will have to use at that this or that juncture, or some specific description I want to use for a person or place.

Backing up to the beginning, my recent problem did not actually come from overzealous outlining as such. While editing Rabbit and Cougar, I reached a chapter that needed serious rewriting now that Cougar has a new source of motivation. The basic outcome of the chapter, in terms of where the characters travel next, needed to be the same. It made sense, as far as the characters were concerned, but I was having a heck of a time getting them to that conclusion. If some other plan had arisen organically, I might have gone with it, but the characters just sort of floundered slowly in the right direction.

I sometimes wonder how people who don’t write fiction feel about those vaguely mystical statements: “The character ran away with me,” “She said something I didn’t expect,” and so on. I used to think it sounded a little silly, but it does happen. And this is exactly where outlining comes in: With novels, at least (in short stories there’s less room), I tend to get a basic plot idea, then try to craft a character who will react in about the right way to situations. Once I drop the character into the story, though, it’s like letting go of an arrow and hoping it was well aimed. The story may have to change if your protagonist runs up against something that would have been good for the plot but simply wouldn’t work for the character.

This, I suppose, is where writers differ. Some people do long and detailed outlines. Some people, too, will change the character rather than the plot – I just finished a book on writing fantasy that included one author’s statement that she doesn’t change her plots for anything, and will adjust characters’ backstories instead to change their motivations until their actions make sense. The important thing is that something gets changed so that the pieces fit together. Again, it may sound mystical when someone says “the story was dead on the page” or “it just wasn’t working,” but I think the basic fact is that a writer senses when his or her own work has become inconsistent. Inconsistency bothers us on a deep level – thus the human problem of cognitive dissonance – and can make a writer want to stop working.

Outlines, if too detailed, can also present the problem of making the story seem finished. It’s often difficult to work on something you feel like you’ve already done. Rewriting isn’t the same, because it’s an improvement; writing from a detailed outline is an expansion, and may even seem artificial, like you’re just padding the story you’ve already written in the outline.

Happily, I got through the problem bit in Rabbit and Cougar. Some editing should get it sorted out. The story will need some more editing anyway, after the rewritten parts and the integration of new conflicts.

Four of my graduate school applications are finished and submitted! That leaves, um, only seven more . . .

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