Outlines: learning to love the bomb

I recently crossed into Act 3 of The Shadow of the Sun. Shortly thereafter I crossed the 150K-words border. All told, I’m a good long way into this rewrite: by last week I believed I had all my major plot twists behind me, had crested the top of the roller coaster, and all that was left was the screaming descent to the end. After all, I had an outline, which was based on the plot-replanning I did before I began this draft, encompassing all the plot points I had discovered in writing previous drafts as well as plot points I developed in order to make the story better. And by Act 3 the outline was really just a laundry list of continued bombs to be dropped upon the characters as they tried to reach their latest and (at least within the confines of this novel) final goal. A simple skid into home plate.

I was, of course, wrong. None of what lies before me will be simple, outline or no. I am not an Outline Person by nature: I discover stories by dropping interesting-seeming characters into the middle of puzzles and following them around, trying to figure out who they are and why they’re doing those things and what the truth of the puzzle may be. I find that style of writing thrilling, and love what results when I let my subconscious dip into the perilous waters of the collective unconscious with nothing but a snorkel and a net.

That’s art, at the end of the day. But I have learned, over the course of beating my head against this series which will finally begin going to press next spring, that what I do using only the tools of Art only takes a story 80% of the way to where it needs to be. The last 20%, at least for me, comes from Craft.

On this (hopefully final) draft of The Beast, I began with Craft. I reworked my plot, with an eye towards using plot as a vehicle for character. I built a robust outline with the plot that arose when I just wrote by instinct as a framework, adding plot points that would allow me to flesh in things I wanted readers to understand when they became important, develop character motivations, set up devices I would call on at critical moments, replace plot points I had invented on the fly with others that I expected to accomplish the same things in more satisfying fashion. And I started my rewrite, reserving the right to re-use scenes from previous drafts but expecting that I would write more than 75% new material. After all, I am a much better writer than I was when I wrote the previous drafts. All this wearing out of keyboards should count for something.

Even though I had an outline, I started at the beginning and wrote straight through. I know there are no rules for writing, because we each have our own process, but this is as close as I get to declaring something a Rule: I find it’s critically important to write through rather than drop in on what’s interesting, because a good novel is about character rather than about plot, and the character will develop during every scene. (And if he doesn’t, the writer needs to rip out that scene and try again.) And each of those developments shifts the next scene, and so on.

I will admit that I found writing the first act, the first 40K words or so, less than compelling. It was like buying a coloring book, or more accurately drawing my own comic, and then staying inside the lines as I colored: all the design decisions were mine, but I’d made them in advance, and most of what went on during that part of the novel was setup: establishing the characters and situation, laying in all the stuff I would spend the rest of the novel tearing apart. Because I’d worked with these characters before, there were few surprises. But what landed on the pages was good, in my admittedly less than objective opinion: I stayed with it, waded through to the part where I could begin developing the material that was truly new.

That got much more interesting. By this point I was already seeing some interesting changes in my characters, and they were beginning to surprise me: not enough to drag things off track, but enough to make writing scenes the kind of fun that results from seat-of-the-pants writing. And I was writing more compact, direct scenes and chapters, because I knew where I was going: there was no wandering around as characters tried to figure things out, only the things I had decided they needed to experience and their (frequently surprising) reactions to them.

I also found that, because I knew in advance what conflicts I was setting up, scenes zeroed in on them without hesitation, deepening both the characters and the conflicts much more rapidly than in previous drafts. Characters who had previously been reasonably interesting became compelling; my protag, who had previously been a very together guy with an interesting past, rapidly grew into a high-functioning train wreck. Every plot development, purposefully chosen as they were, coaxed both higher performance and greater risk of total meltdown from him–and from the story as a whole. This outlining thing, I now saw, might be a good tool for writers who thrive on plot–but it is high-grade plutonium for writers who work from character.

But, as I noted earlier, every change in the character shifts the next scene, at least a little. By the time I reached Act 3, my plot was still absolutely on track–but the depth at which it was operating and the people my characters were becoming were so much more than what I had conceived during the plotting phase that the remaining plot points in my outline, while still exactly the things that need to happen between now and the end, are taking on completely different meanings than anticipated; and those few scenes that I had thought I’d be able to re-use are so weak compared to what I’m writing now that I can’t even use them for reference in developing their successors.

There are, of course, worse problems than a plot and characters that have outstripped your original plans. But I find that now I must treat my outline in much the same way I handle road maps in Ireland: as general indicators, but containing points of interest which must be perceived and interpreted as true in right-brain rather than left-brain sense. The distances between them are subject to change without notice (as anyone who has ever driven in Ireland, and paid attention to the total lack of correspondence between distance markers on the roads there knows) and the terrain will turn out to be completely different from what I anticipated. That, as always, the old man was right: The Map is Not the Territory.

I am very pleased with the fact that I developed a map for this trip: it made the journey much richer. I will use an outline again next time I dig back into something of which I already have one or more drafts. I will probably even sketch notes in advance next time I start a novel from scratch. But I reserve the right to ignore those notes completely: ultimately, it will be the characters who decide what any new novel will be, and–at least for this entirely character-driven writer–outlining  only becomes powerful once I’ve established a framework.

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One Comment on “Outlines: learning to love the bomb”


  1. […] Alas, this feels like talking about oneself in the third person–but it occurs to me that this post on outlining and the surprising value I’ve found in it, from my personal blog, would likely be of interest […]


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