Saturday, June 15, 2013

I’m In Line With the Outline

Ah, the bane of every writer’s existence, you.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but I’m willing to bet there are at least a few of you reading this right now who loathe the very idea of writing a story outline. Show of hands: are you the deliberate, methodical sort who prefers to draft an outline, synopsis, or at least a scribbled list of bullet points before they set out to write a new story? Do you consider yourself more of a free spirit when it comes to your writing, daring to throw caution to the winds by slinging words and seeing what happens? There is no “right” or “wrong” approach, of course; just what’s “right” for the individual writer, and a lot of us even jump back and forth, depending on the situation.

Based on years of talking to new writers at conventions and book signings, the word “outline” apparently carries with it all sorts of soul-eating nightmares. I can certainly understand that to a point. The term conjures visions of Roman numerals and headings and indenting and upper-case letters and more headings and more indents....MOMMY! MAKE IT STOP!

:: Ahem. ::

As a writer of fiction for licensed properties, providing my editor and the licensor an outline for my proposed story is a necessary aspect of the job. Most work-for-hire projects of this sort begin life with an outline or, in this case, a synopsis laying out the plot’s broad strokes. My outlines/proposals for these types of projects usually run ten to fifteen pages, as that’s the maximum the licensor normally wants to see. The version I keep for myself often runs longer, and I insert bits of detail here and there for my own use. Then I augment that with a collage of Post-It notes, cocktail napkins and other scraps of paper along with texts and eMails I send myself as I begin working to transform my proposal into a full-blown story.

And not a Roman numeral in sight. Hey, it works for me.

Over the years, I’ve become so accustomed to writing a synopsis before starting a new story that it’s now an ingrained habit. While I’ve written my share of stories where I just start typing and let things work themselves out as I go, more often than not I at least jot down some high level plot points and maybe a twist or two, which serve as a rough roadmap for the tale I’m trying to tell.

Some people might think that having any sort of outline hampers their creativity or somehow locks them in to a particular story path, but the key at this stage of story development—for me, at least—is to keep things loose in the beginning. I tend not to dwell on too many details early on, preferring instead to let those things grow and evolve as I write, and if things change along the way, then so be it. Even when I have a vague notion of how a story will progress, I still love that kick I get when the characters and plot take off on their own and I’m just pounding keys as fast as my fingers will fly while trying to keep up. As Jack Sparrow might say, I treat my outlines as a guideline, rather than an actual rule.

All right, then, you who’ve been reading this: What are your thoughts on outlines? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Necessary evil, nuisance, or life saver?


Charles Gramlich said...

I don't do formal outlines. I do a lot of experiments. I start writing a scene, and sometimes scenes take off for me. They take off because suddenly I can see a bigger story. Once that happens, I spend a fair amount of time taking walks and thinking about the story so that I have the basic concept down and know essentially where it's going to end. Then I go for it.

Liane Spicer said...

I'm an outliner. It helps me to organize my thoughts before I begin the story. (Usually. I wrote one outline one third of the way into a novel.) My outlines are more of the bullet point and scribbled notes type, though. The formal synopsis always, always comes last.

For short stories, I'm a pantser. Those stories tend to come to me in their entirety and I just take dictation.

G. B. Miller said...

Run away, run away, run away!

I use either a modified version, in which I print out pages as I complete them, thus it becomes my working outline; or if I'm redoing an old short story, the short story itself becomes my outline.