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Young Writers Society
Outlines Are Like Prescription Glasses
Tue Mar 22, 2011 12:41 am
Outlines are like glasses. Some people need them. Some people don't. There are a lot of different prescriptions; some people are nearsighted, some farsighted, some have astigmatism, all at varying degrees of intensity. Everyone's unique, and something that works for you probably won't work for your best friend or your science teacher.
Why I Ignore Them
I've tried a lot of kinds of outlining - topic outlining, sentence outlining, phase outlining, outlining with note cards and on Word, outlining chapter by chapter and scene by scene. But the thing is, none of them have worked for me. Some people are outliners; I'm not. And that's okay, I've realized.
Because for me, outlining squelches the things my writing rely on most - enthusiasm, creativity, progression. As I write, I get more excited about it; as I outline, the enthusiasm I start out with dwindles because I'm actually making no headway. And all those spur-of-the-moment things I just decide to do as I write? They're capped. And when outlining, I seem to take for granted that characters change as they go from your mind into the words, and they rarely follow my outline.
By the time I realize my outline is only hurting the idea and I try to get on with it and just write it, I've lost all interest in the project; that buzz I get when I first realize I have something that might be great leaves, and all that's left is a broken idea that I no longer feel the need to fix. So I don't. I move on. And I'll try a new outline, which fails same as before, and I'm back to square one.
I no longer try to outline. It's just not good for me.
How I Ignore Them
There are reasons people do outline, though. They make sense of the mess you have. They help tie up loose ends. They realize plot holes and inconsistencies. And, most importantly, they tell you where your story is going and how it's getting there. Without them, most writers would end up with a pile of fluff.
For a while, I thought I was screwed. Then I realized there are ways of herding my work without shoving it in a box. Note: these are all things that work for me. That doesn't mean they'll work for you. Maybe they will, or maybe they won't. But just like figuring out you're not an outliner, you have to figure out if this'll be something you can do instead.
What in the world...
...is going on? I usually start with something small - a title, a character, an event. Before I can write, I have to figure out where this is taking me, how it'll develop. What's my character like now, and what will he/she be like later? What's the setting? What's happening, and what is going to happen? Usually for large portions of my work, I only have vague ideas of what's going to happen, like "She's going to find out about such-and-such, and learn this skill and that skill, and realize so-and-so is her enemy, all while she's at this place, then that place."
This works because I have what I like to call Dividers.
In the beginning/middle/end...
I have where my story starts. Simple. But then it gets trickier. Where do I want it to go? I think of an ending, if I can, but if I can't the ending's right along with all the other vague things happening. Instead, I think what things are going to happen? Those things become my Dividers.
Most people call those things plot points, but I hesitate to since so many people have different definitions of plot points, and it's much easier to make up a term that is easily defined. A plot point, by certain definitions, is a major event or turning point in your story - something you build up to. But a Divider can be anything.
See, some people think that you should always have your ending so that you have something to work towards, a place to aim where the plot runs to. Dividers work in the same way.
I'm going to use my current work-in-progress as an example:
My MC starts off a banished princess who returns home after staying at a neighboring country. This is my beginning.
My first Divider is where she finds her brother, the king, has declared war on the country she was staying at. She objects, so her brother enters her in a staged war which is used to give soldiers real-life experience without the life part. She knows he's going to use this as a way to make sure she dies, because if she goes over to the other country, she's too much of an asset to them.
My second divider, the for-now ending of the first book, is where she escapes the staged war and is rescued from near-capture by her country by the neighboring country. She joins their efforts to take down her brother and regain peace between the countries.
Between the beginning and the first Divider, I know that she must become reacquainted with her country, must train to become a soldier, and must suspect her brother.
Between the two Dividers, I know she must survive the staged war while trying to think of a way out.
I have more details, more scenes, partially mapped out in my mind, but nothing's set in stone - not even the Dividers - leading to complete creative and progressive freedom. I'm already surprised by some of the things that are popping into it that I couldn't've thought of under the influence of an outline.
As for the final ending of it all, I don't have it yet. But as I write, and as I think more on the details of my story, I learn more and more about what's to come, in a natural, non-forced way. It's all staying true to the story.
Some Things To Keep In Mind
Part of plotting this way is so that I can stay true to my characters. I'm always thinking about how this affects them, how they'll react, what they might do. Think of their past and how that affects them, sometimes making up their past around their other qualities, giving a reason for their personalities and quirks. Characters are the most important thing in writing - if you're anything like me and you force them into an outline, chances are your story's going to suffer for it.
Don't be afraid to follow tangents. What's the worst that could happen, you scrap what you wrote and go back to the original? Chances are, even if you don't end up using that, you'll find out more about your characters and your world, which is never a bad thing.
Don't ignore potential problems for your characters because you don't know how to fix them. Like with the tangents, just write. Chances are, you'll figure your way out eventually and it will end up a good thing for your writing. And if not, you can always delete it.
Finally, with all my advice, you need to know when not to take it. Not everything's going to work for you. A lot of times, you do need to suppress tangents. The key is knowing whether they're worth following or not. It's a skill gained with experience.
Keep writing, and eventually you'll find out what works for you, as a unique writer with a unique glasses prescription.
"Blah blah blah. You feel trapped in your life. Here is what I am hearing: happiness isn't worth any inconvenience."
It is spiritually invigorating, says a friend, who converted at eighteen from Christianity to poetry.
— Anne Lamott
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