I once had a student in a fiction workshop that outlined with a vengeance. Her outlines were detailed and thorough. She also had a well-organized notebook filled with character descriptions, charts, plot lines, story arcs, and minute-by-minute timelines.
She came to class every week with a freshly updated outline. The other students were dazzled.
I was a constant thorn in her side. I wasn’t interested in her outline. I didn’t want to look at her story arc. I refused to comment on either her notebook or her neatly drafted ideas.
Instead, I questioned her about her characters. I asked why such and such a person was the main character and whether or not he would really do, think or say the things she had him doing, thinking and saying.
I once asked her what would happen if her main character refused to do what she had outlined for him to do. She looked at me like I was crazy.
She believed she had control over her story and her outlines proved it. I believe great stories come from creating strong characters and letting them take control. I call it my bad parent/good parent theory.
This is how it goes. The Bad Parent wants to control the child, saying, “My grandfather was a doctor, my father was a doctor, I’m a doctor, therefore you will be a doctor.”
In contrast, the Good Parent looks at their child and says: You are my child and I love you and who you are and can’t wait to see who you will become and what you will do when you grow up. I am there for you and support you no matter what.
Likewise, the bad writer creates a story line and forces the characters to do what they want them to do and what needs to be done to get to the end of that story the writer has so carefully outlined. Caught in the web of the writer’s outline, these characters are not allowed to grow and become three-dimensional. They are not allowed to stray off the path of the outline. They are not allowed to have emotions or ideas of their own. They are doomed to a life of pre-prescribed flat lines and lackluster interactions.
Like the good parent, the good writer on starting to work each day, asks, “I wonder what my characters are going to do today?” The good writer lets the characters define the story, and does not allow the story to define the characters.
In case you’re getting nervous, or are beginning to hear the voice of your old high school English teacher in your dreams demanding that you turn in your outline before you turn in your story or you’ll get a zero on the assignment, I want to be clear about something: I’m not against outlining. Not totally, that is.
What I’m against is creating rigid constraints on the development of your characters and your story. I am leery of the false sense the outline gives a writer that they are in total control of what is happening in their story.
First and foremost, writing should have a sense of adventure and discovery to it. If you, as the writer, don’t feel excited and surprised by how your story is developing, I can pretty much guarantee that your reader won’t find your writing exciting and engaging.
If you outline something down to the very last detail BEFORE you begin to write, i.e., you already know how the story ends before you put the first word on paper, then your chances of writing a fresh and exciting story are just about zero. Plus, you’ve just ruined your own chances of having fun discovering what happens next in your own story.
Speaking of that zero. I always turned in my outline in high school before I turned in my story. (That’s what the teacher required.) However, I wrote and polished the story first, then create the outline. I needed to know where the story was going before I could tell you how it got there.
When I asked fellow writer, Peggy Payne (author of three novels and two books of non-fiction) if she outlined her books before she wrote them, she said: “You must be joking.”
Then she backed up and said that when she wrote her first non-fiction book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, she figured out how the book would flow and roughed out the flow of the chapters on a piece of scrap paper. Not exactly an outline worthy of an A, but a workable guide to getting through the book.
I did the same with my non-fiction book, The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s. Non-fiction makes a somewhat different set of demands on a writer than fiction. In non-fiction, which presents an argument, it’s important to have a plan for the argument that tells you how to put that argument together, how to order it. Some kind of outline helps. However, you should keep the door open to discovery and surprises when you’re researching and writing non-fiction.
In non-fiction, as in fiction, be open to what you might not know. Be ready to wrestle with questions you hadn’t considered. Be prepared to dig more deeply than your pre-prescribed chapter headings might have suggested.
It’s never any fun if you know all the answers before you start writing.