So I’ve spent quite a bit of time now planning my new novel, Shadow of Death. I came up with a basic plot, the romantic subplots, a few strong character arcs and another dozen background characters, and of course I’m working on creating the world.
Having done all that, this week it was time to write the outline.
From what I’ve seen in the creative writing circles I play in, there’s a bit of a divide sometimes about the importance of an outline. Some writers prefer to jump into stories and let them come out organically. Others swear by the outline.
As I mentioned when it comes to planning, I’ve learned from experience to use outlines. Without it, without a basic guideline to follow during my writing, I flounder partway through, unsure where the story is going. I end up with no arc.
Because that’s what an outline is, or what it does. It’s a rough sketch of the entire story, start to finish. How does it start? Where are the characters introduced? What are their starting relationships? What happens next? Where do they go? What do they do? How do their relationships develop? What’s the climax? What’s the plot arc? What are the character arcs? How does everyone end up?
For me, an outline accomplishes a number of things. 1) It tells me where to go next, so I never get really stuck while writing. 2) It outlines the story arc, the Hero’s Journey I’m going on, so I can make sure I include all of the important bits. 3) It outlines the characters’ inner journeys, so I can make sure the important characters have some change. 4) It helps me string all of this together — at what point in the plot do characters begin to change? When do they resist change? What are the character defining moments within the larger exterior story?
When I have an outline, I can compare it to the Hero’s Journey and make sure it basically follows and I have a viable story. I can compare it to my list of random ideas, see where I can fit those ideas in, and which ones might not work. It also gives me a basic sense of the Whole — I can see where it’s all going, I can envision a finished product. I have an end goal, rather than just writing into infinity or until I run out of steam.
But I also want to emphasize that the outline isn’t th be-all and end-all of the story. As I found with The Nexus, half the fun during the actual writing process is figuring out how to fix problems, what exactly the characters will do next, how I can integrate a plot twist or an interesting scene. I don’t want to detail everything that happens in the novel in the outline, because that takes away a lot of the fun of the creation process when I’m actually writing the thing.
Plus, no outline survives first contact with writing. As I write, things are going to change — characters are going to take on lives of their own, and not always do what I want them to do. Story elements are going to prove impossible or inorganic. So things will change as I go — which is good, great, it’s what helps make a story organic and realistic. But it means I’ll stray from the outline. It means I may have to rework some things.
But that’s fine. When I make the outline, I’m not setting things in stone — I’m just sketching a basic battle plan. If things don’t go as planned — I adapt. I stick to my outline where I can, and mould the story as I go.
But at least it’s there to go back to when I need it. It’s a guiding light, a wall to brace myself against.
Now I’m almost ready to start writing. But not quite. Unfortunately, a couple of my characters are giving me trouble. I have backgrounds for them, I have story arcs and development and love interests all lined up. But I haven’t found their voices yet, in my mind. Maybe it’s because I haven’t started writing them yet. But I want some sense of their voice. So next up: some character development.