For Writers – Rant #57 – The Outline

“How did your new book get done so quickly?”

I had a Friend.

Do you want to meet him?

You very well might … if you struggle to finish a novel, or if finding the next scene is a hardship, or if your story meanders like molasses through a molehill, or if you are on your fifth rewrite and wondering if you have enough heartbeats left in your ticker to really finish. The solution: the lowly, much maligned Outline, my good friend.

We’ve all heard of him at parties. He’s often introduced with a whisper as if he’s done some time behind bars, or hung with a bad crowd. He’s been compared to a building’s blueprint, an essential tool for an architect, but when he’s in your house drinking your Hennessey, suddenly he does not feel so welcome. If you’re a writer that likes to get dirty and just see what grows, then having Outline around seems downright blasphemous.

Don’t fear Outline just because he brings strange rules to your garden. He might not mention organic love or left-handed tobacco, but he wants to free your mind by providing Structure. He wants to let your creative side focus on the muscle and flesh of your manuscript because you’re done with the skeleton. But you don’t want that cage of bone? My characters and my world change as the story progresses, you insist. Relax. Outline knows this. If his bones can’t flex enough, he’ll leave out the back door with a smile, and come ‘round the front all shiny and new to fit your new direction. He just needs a few days to find clothes that fit.

Abby uses Outline as her quick and dirty Friday Night Stud. All she wants from him is three index cards. The first sets up the story, the third ends it. The second always says the same thing: shit happens. She writes a lot on the second card. That’s not enough for Beth. She needs Outline to stay for a few weeks, maybe fix the disposal and paint some shelves. She once wrote a thirty-page outline. She didn’t use the “o” word though. She called it her Yellow Road. It had snippets of scenes, dialogue, descriptions, chapter by chapter action sets, and more. That feels like energy better spent on the book itself, but I’m not Beth.

Me, I like ten pages. A ten-page outline means a 100,000 word manuscript give or take a few epilogues. With Outline as my map, I never get lost in the swamp that so often pops up mid-book. With Outline as guidepost, I rarely lose focus and fall prey to the temptations of online poker. I power through two rewrites. No more. And I don’t remember the last time I had writer’s block, and I credit it to my friend, Outline.

But where’s the spontaneity, you ask. Where’s the mystery, the discovery, the passion? Won’t Muse desert me for so callously subjugating her comings and goings to this strange friend? Welcome to Outline Fallacy #1: a true writer does not need such a gauche tool.

For a short story, it’s perfectly fine to throw thyself into the inky shallows. Flail and dive and splash and see what happens. In fact, I remember two short stories I tried to write in college: one with an outline and one without. The “uncaged” story soared and I felt that writer’s high of zooming wordflow. The “caged” story flopped and floundered, and I hated both process and product. So, I’m being clear, right? No? Lemme ‘splain: short stories don’t need Outline, but writing a novel without my friend is like trying to swim across the ocean. Inconceivable.

Yet many do. How is that? And why can’t I have that magical power? If you’re wired that way, to jump off cliffs and grow wings, great. If not, accept that fact, and use my boy, Outline. Now some writers that disdain my friend also don’t mind doing many and massive rewrites. They often neglect to mention that or present the many rewrites as de rigueur for serious writers. Please. Measure twice, cut once, and suffer as little as you can. Wandering is a great way to discover a city, and even a story (if that’s your style), but in the meantime your characters are in the dark and being eaten by grues.

What if you discover this wild new tangent and want to explore it? Then having Outline on board makes it easier to thread back to the ending you intended. Or redo Outline with a new ending, but without forgetting your best bits from before. It’s only going to take a few days to format a new plot. Does it lead nowhere? Now you know. We all have finite resources; use them wisely. Outline only exists to get you to Climax. Once you complete the first draft, toss the bum to the curb.
But you still don’t trust Outline?

I wouldn’t marry him but he’s a fun-loving guy. He always brings Brainstorming to the party. In fact, plotting is the only part of writing that I heartily recommend drinking. Draw faces on the “authoritah.” Make the villain the hero. Change Istanbul to your parent’s basement. Why can’t there be a vampire manatee? After all, you are a savvy, playful god, full of violent wonder. It takes months to write a book, but plotting is an exercise of days.

Is Outline starting to look stale in the morning hangover gloom? Time for some hair of the dog. Keep the bestest and brightest and start the party again.

Admit it. Outline sounds like an interesting guy, but you’re unsure if you want to invest time in him?

Don’t think you need bullet points and indented sub-divisions of minor arcs and sub-plots. Just design something to hang your hat on. Start here. End there. In between, hit these things. That works fine. No one’s asking for a two-hundred bone skeleton with articulating joints.

But you worry about Muse. She’s fickle. She may resent the loss of attention. Outline’s not like that. He wants to share.

Ever gone bush-whacking through an unknown forest? I bet you have, you fabulous writer, you. You spot your mid-point destination on the horizon—that bent tree—and then you dive into the thicket of the story and start whacking. You can’t see bupkis and you’re getting snagged but you feel alive, and Muse is by your side, but you start to lose your way … you climb a tree—find the landmark—and jump back in. Just because you have a few guideposts, does not mean you can’t trail-blaze along the way. Outline wants to rub up next to Muse.

So why don’t we hear more about Outline? May I present Outline Fallacy #2: outline-derived books, that is, plot-driven books, are inferior, genre-bound, formulaic. Everyone knows that character-driven books full of wonderful description are the only path to glittering accolades from the literati and invites to all the proper orgies. But your wonderfully wrought characters must do something more than emote. That thing they do, followed by another thing, and then a complication, and then a setback, and then a U-turn … that’s the plot. And our pal, Outline? He speaks fluent plot.

So. Lemme sum up.

The best story time is an interesting character that we follow on a traumatic journey, well-described by the author. Character. Journey. Craft. If you want that Journey to ever reach an ending, and you want an ending that does not whimper or thud, then make out an invite to my friend. You don’t have to tell anyone that you did. Muse, coddled darling that she is, won’t admit she gets lonely. Outline is too proud to come over without your word. Let’s get these two crazy cats together.

Sincerely, the ScribbleNinja

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