Outlining – First Thoughts

I have been thinking a lot about Outlining recently… (yes, I’m cheating with today’s title since I am already anticipating talking more about it in the future) and I think part of it started with this post… One of the sites I frequently check out is Magical Words, and it’s a great location for conversation and perspective, especially for those in the process of breaking into the game.

For the sake of catching up those not used to the writing game, here’s some brief background info. In the writing world there are two extreme camps of technique:  “Plotters” and “Pantsers.” Just in case the distinction isn’t clear by labels alone, here’s a distinction. For “Pantsers” think “Seat of their Pants” as their approach to work. The Improv type in theatre, just making it us as they go. “Plotters” are the other end, working things out in advance and knowing how the core of the story will work before they start logging the text. Plotters are usually identified by their outlines and (potentially) copius amounts of notes generated in the development stage of a project – think Tolkein and the reams of posthumous publications from his Middle Earth world building notes.

Despite identifying more, at least conceptually, with one extreme or the other most writers (my opinion) fall somewhere in the middle. At least, once they’ve been at it for a while.

When I started, I was more of a pantser and could manage that approach for a short story, but not so much when I tried anything longer than a few thousand words. I attempted to blend the two, starting a project by pantsing then providing carrots to lead my efforts for the next writing session, then adding more carrots at the end of future sessions. Using that approach, I found that I could extend my reach by several thousand words, but it was still, at heart, a pantsing approach.

It’s taken a lot of reflection and self-evaluation to realize that my way hasn’t worked – I may be able to get away with the “carrot” approach in the future, or for smallish/novella length pieces. The fundamental reason for faiure to work, though, stems from not knowing the story well enough to know where I am trying to write to. Something that plotting should help with, and often involves summoning that oft dreaded, evil beast.

The Outline.

My 9th-grade self cringes at the thought of an outline and the rigid form that was practically beaten into us during the “This-is-how-you-write-a-researh-paper-and-the-only-way-I-will-accept-it” portion of the class, so much so that it stunted my thought process on what it meant to “outline” a creative project. I outlined a fantasy trilogy (as envisioned, but it could just be a long book in three parts) using the Roman numeral and subheading approach, then shelved it because I thought I killed the motivation behind it (read: I pantsed the outline which told me the basic story, but I didn’t actually show said story).

The revelation I’ve had in the last year is to take “Formal Outline” idea and toss it, and think in terms of a Synopsis approach – something that tells the story events. Sketch out a watercooler conversation version of the story, the kind of thing you might hear when telling someone about a movie or tv episode – “Dude goes here, this happens. Becuase of that, he decides to do this.” Hit the highlights, maybe with a shade of details, but without too much emphasis on the finer details of dialogue, mood, character depth and the like.

Thinking of an outline in this sense feels more natural since it involves ultimately ironing out the basic beats of the story, allowing the act of writing to become an exercise in guided pantsing.

Short version: Figure out what the story is and how you want to tell it, then endeavor to show the story.

For the record, I do still have the fantsy outline, and now that I’ve had this epiphany I am planning on ressurecting it as a project to see if my ideas from twelve years ago are still viable or if it would need serious revision work.

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