Outline and outliners

How do you measure the progress you’re making on writing a book? Do you think in terms of the word-count you’ve written or the number of scenes you’ve completed? The answer possibly lies in the type of writer you are. If you’re an organic writer (or ‘pantser’) that believes that any form of outlining is too restrictive and waste of time, you’ll probably focus entirely on word count. If you’re a writer that uses some kind of scene outline then you may prefer the latter. But what is an outline?

In my school/college/university days outlining an essay was simple. You made a list of points you needed to cover in the essay, and then you started writing the essay, crossing off the points as you went along. You could write a novel the same way, although I suspect it would take a lot more time to come up with the list of points. In practice, most writers use notebooks or files to collate their notes and research and it may take a considerable period of time before the author is ready to commence. But some writers will go further and organise their research and information into some form of story structure or scene outline that will form the skeleton for their novel. But even here, practices vary enormously.

One of my favourite books on writing is James V. Smith Jr’s ‘The writers little helper’. Smith covers a whole range of topics on writing, but when it comes to outlining he advocates you don’t bother. He argues that outlines can become a mission in themselves without adding to the creative aspects of writing. Instead he suggest a Ten-Scene Tool to sketch in the ten most important scenes (or master scenes) in your novel. These include, the opening scene, the point of no return complication, other pivotal complications, the climax and the ending. His rationale is that the Ten-Scene Tool forces you to simplify your central story line. This is not to say that the other scenes you will have to write are not important; but that they are less pivotal and are there to set up the master scenes and provide texture. In my mind, this is still an outline albeit at a helicopter level of detail.

Contrast this approach with that of Karen S Weisner’s in ‘First draft if 30 days’, where she sets out a six stage structured approach to produce a scene by scene outline of 50 pages or so. Far from believing an outline restricts creative development, Weisner believes that the brainstorming process continues throughout the writing process and that it is easier to modify an outline of fifty pages than it is to modify a manuscript of 200–400 pages. Considering she is an award winning novelist of more than twenty books, the system clearly works for her. Whether you agree with producing this level of detail or not (which for me came as a bit of a shock) you will find her approach fascinating. She uses some twenty different worksheets, which are set out in the Appendix C to her book. Even if you are the most ardent pantser writer in the world there is probably something you can take away from this book. She has also written ‘From first draft to Finished Novel’, which picks up from where her earlier book finished. Both books in my view contain a great deal of good practical advice for a newbie novelist.

For the current novel I am working on I have an outline currently consisting of 46 planned scenes, which are summarised on scene cards in my Scrivener file. The amount of detail on each card is relatively high level: a heading and couple of sentences of explanation. As I continue to write, I expect the number of scenes will increase, because I have a tendency to split scenes into smaller units, and new scenes will be necessary as transitional scenes are incorporated and more detail is fleshed out. On the spectrum of outlining, I probably currently fit somewhere between the two extremes of Smith and Weisner.

Which approach is right for you? Only you can tell, but for me it is worth experimenting with to find out.

Story forming

In my last blog , I mentioned I had eight ideas to develop a new storyline for my second novel, but didn’t know which one to choose. After teasing out these ideas further into rough outlines of about three-quarters of a page each, I narrowed the story choice down to three.  Then using some mind mapping software to flush out my ideas further (I tend to think visually), I made my choice.

At that point, it was difficult to resist the urge to fire up my computer and start writing my second novel.  But I didn’t want to repeat the large number of re-writes that I had with my first novel. Therefore I was determined to take the outlining process a stage further and produce  a story board of the principal scenes of the book.  Some authors who like to plot, use scene cards and pin boards to produce a visual representation of the story line.  Unfortunately a pin board is not a particularly attractive feature in a dining room that has to double as my office. So I decided to experiment using story boarding software. The software I chose was Storybook Pro. The principal benefit from this approach was that the story scene structure could be viewed on screen and a detailed outline of the story (about 16 pages in my case) could be produced in hard copy by printing out the scenes. The software was relatively easy to use and did not disappoint.

Most of the storyboarding was completed within a week. But when I read  the outline,  I realised the storyline I had produced just didn’t work. There was something missing.  If I had not gone through the story-boarding route and started writing I am sure that sooner or later I would have recognised what the problem was, but I would have probably wasted 25,000-50,000 words to find it.

So what was my problem you might ask.  The story just wasn’t exciting enough;  and the reason was I had a light weight antagonist. Not all stories or genres need a strong antagonist.  But my story definitely needed one.  And if you have a bad guy, he has to have his own story; he can’t just turn up in the final battle scene to make the hero look good. Story forming is therefore not just about a plot-line, but it is also about the characters and how that plot-line affects them.  In my case, I had casted the hero and heroine and threw them into the plot, but had forgotten about one of the most important characters of all – the antagonist.

In some genres, particularly action stories or horror stories, the antagonist is absolutely vital. For example, in the action movie Die Hard, what would John McClane (Bruce Willis) have been without the evil Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman)? In the Dark knight where would Batman (Christian Bale) be without the Joker (Heath ledger)? In other genres, the antagonist may be not be a character but something more abstract like the elements or environment.

So I have learnt and important lesson, and still have some work to do on character development before I can start writing in earnest.