Outlining Fiction: Necessary or Too Much Work?


After much contemplation, I have decided to address a topic that garners a significant amount of negative response and argument, mostly due to a complete misunderstanding of the facts.  Yes, I am going to explain the importance of outlining a work of fiction before you start writing.  Don’t hate me yet, let me explain.

I am not talking about that dreaded academic style of:
1.
2.
3.
_____A.
_____B.
_____C.
_________i.
_________II.
_________III.

No, that form of outlining is reserved for academic theses wherein you were supposed to hypothesize a conclusion, present five to seven arguments backed by multiple scholarly citations, explain your assumptions and deduced postulates, and finally prove your initial hypothesis.  Ugh, remember those nights staring at the glow of a computer wondering what you did with that essential citation you wrote longhand at the library and now has disappeared into your stack of research?

That is not an outline for creative writing.

First, a story/novel outline does not necessarily need to be written, as long as you have a mind capable of capturing and ordering a multitude of important facts.  Mine are mostly mental, but I do tend to put little notes to myself, either at the end of the manuscript file, or in an orphaned side-file, and delete the notes as I employ the necessary events, anchors and elemental plot situations.

Second, an outline does NOT include every scene or nuance of the story.  Most of that will unfold as your creative juices start flowing and you begin to write.  It is not unusual for a character to animate and change direction in your plot, nor is it rare that unthought-of nuances arise from the depths of your mind that add flavor and texture to the story.  Don’t fret, the secret to outlining is you know where you are heading, anything that happens along the way is incidental.

The simplest way to understand outlining is to understand the essential structure of storytelling.  There is a hard and fast formula; you need a setting, primary characters, a final crux or crisis, a multitude of conflicts or situations that lead to that crisis, and a dénouement, which if well-constructed will tell, or better yet, hint at the lessons or moral to be learned from the actions in the story.  The secret is tying all of those components together in a comprehensive and coherent style that adheres to a formulated continuity.  Yes, there are all those other little gems like circular plot lines, foreshadowing, stories within stories, literary allusions, word coloration, and of course, character evolution, but none of those matter until you have a story.

In what order these elements germinate in your imagination is not germane to the writing exercise.  As often as not, I will start with the main crisis and then create the characters to get me there.  Sometimes I will dream up a character, and in the process of developing their personality, background and idiom, they will lead me to their own crisis.  I have, on occasion, created the dénouement first and planned everything backwards, all the way to the beginning.

The important thing is that in every case, I have a plan.  I know my characters inside and out, I know what they are eventually going to be involved in, I know where it is going to happen and why, and I know what they did, right or wrong, that spurred the story into action and readability.

Without disclosing the entire context of a novel not yet written, I want to use my latest blog post, Gabriella, to demonstrate the power of planning.  It might help if you did a split-screen or open a new browser window/tab and have both this and Gabriella open to follow along.

The idea for this story was hatched as a betrayal of love and the ruination of a man of wealth.  Knowing that, I had to contrive a female character capable to drive the plot.  I realized that she needed to be fairly well-educated, exotically beautiful, alien to the setting, and isolated in a certain degree of secrecy.  As I extrapolated that, I realized that she needed to be South American, but raised in the U.S.; I settled on New Mexico with her heritage being Columbian.  The reason for this will become apparent later in the novel, but for now, you will be able to use that information to understand the reason that I outline.

The male character had to be a Gatsby-esque man of social and financial wealth, but vulnerable to the wiles of the femme fatale.  Herm is sophisticated, cultured, very formal, and confident to the point of arrogance in his decisions.  To avoid the obvious comparisons to Fitzgerald’s life in the “Eggs,” I set the story in my adopted hometown of Waynesville, North Carolina.  This gave me an instrument of introduction, as Waynesville is the headquarters of the annual international folk dance festival known as Folkmoot.

The final crisis will be a manipulation through trust that results in an unlawful “act” that robs Herm of his wealth, stature and freedom, but not his love for his angel, Gabriella.

That is the basis of my outline.  Now, without boring you with my entire plotline, I do also have multiple scenes and conflicts mapped out, as well as the details of the final crisis.  Additionally, I have my denouement planned, but let’s keep the horse in front of the cart.

To see the power, and in my opinion necessity, of employing an outline, I would like to address the first installment of Gabriella (click here).  Hopefully you will see that the power of planning allows the writer to build complexity into a story without the need to retrace steps in order to bring the end back to the beginning or get the beginning to reach the end.  I will warn you that as is a usual technique of mine, I like to start with a “post-apocalyptic” introduction that foreshadows the events that will unfold.

I begin the story with a compound sentence: “The storm rolled in from the southwest; I watched it with studied disinterest, numbed by the day’s events.”  The storm is an allusion to Gabriella who hails from the Southwest; “studied disinterest” is an indication of his attitude towards his angel after his downfall; and “numbed by the day’s events” is foreshadowing of a post-crisis event at the end of the book.  The final sentence of the first paragraph, “It would be another long night of hopeless pondering and aimless planning,” begins the development of the ruined man still obsessed with a fruitless and destructive love.

The second paragraph begins with, “The once gentle roll of the thunder now became punctuated with infrequent snaps like angry cannon fire,” depicting in simile fashion, a once distant disturbance that has come near.  This is a further reference to “the day’s events” that will occur later.

The next paragraph is the emergence of the post-crisis man, so that we may know that his life and home, “in spite of its staging and décor, no longer contained the warmth of invitation and friendship,” that it once had.  We have now, a glimpse of what the man would become, “the town’s people feared my hermitage and the grizzled man and dog that resided there.”

But for the story to work we must know who he was first.  The last four sentences of that paragraph give us clues:  “The once flirtatious cashier at the grocer now turned her head when I shopped for provisions.  The jovial crowds at the cafes and taverns disavowed our former friendships, and I graciously left them to their dishonesty by eating at home and buying my whiskey from the package store.  They would argue that it was I who changed, but if I were ever so disposed to engage in such a polemic dispute, I could remind them of what once was, and how that affected everyone, not me alone.  What once was is no longer, and that is only a part of the story, but all of the truth.”

Moving on to the introduction of Gabriella, she was “a member of a South American dance troupe,” set within Folkmoot.  The importance of her education and heritage will become apparent later in the story, but the references are well documented in the outline of my story.  “She appeared to be somewhat older and certainly less graceful than her troupe mates.”  This is a hint at the unlikely inclusion of her as a troupe member and foreshadows the influence she will yield and the true purpose of her trip to Waynesville.  Gabriella traveled with an entourage, her protection and isolation, who were “later introduced as brothers and cousins,” a purposeful ambiguity hinting that their relationship may be a ruse.

With my female character revealed, I move on to building the caricature of the Herm of old.  Sitting in a public place, sipping whiskey with “the members of our Arts Council,” discussing community involvement including his “expected financial support”; this is not the grizzled man we just saw in his hermitage on the mountain.

His self-assured arrogance betrays the illogic of an enchantress who “attracted the eyes of every patron in the eatery” singling him out of the crowd to raise “her glass to acknowledge” him.  He is mesmerized to the point of distraction, ignoring his purpose, his friends, and the obvious absurdity Gabriella’s approach (without her guards) and her detailed knowledge of him so soon after her arrival in town.

The remainder of the piece, including his formal conversation style and his generosity are developmental to the character that I outlined.  The note at the end is the premise upon which their second meeting will be based.

So in less than 1500 words, I have introduced the skeletal characters on which to build the requisite personalities that will drive the story to its ending crisis, I have given you a sketch of the post-crisis results, foreshadowed the dénouement, and set the stage for my ending “day’s events.”  None of these details would be possible without a plan for the story and an outline of who, what, where and why the story is being told.

To have written the entire novel and then attempt to come back and insert this kind of detail would require so much rewriting that the story would inevitably end as an uncomplicated and quite average piece of fiction.  When I write, I want my work to be above-average, I want to engage my readers, and I want to be the best author I can be.  There is an old saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there.”  I like to have a map.  Sometimes I take days, weeks, even months to construct that map, but I would rather have a well-thought out route before I start my engine.  I outline.

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About David Kent

I promote and encourage the advancement and education of writers everywhere. I dream of a society that once again incorporated literature into the acculturation of their children, replacing the empty calories of 22 minute sitcoms and mindless reality TV. But first we write, then prod them to read, and finally hope for the best. Read more at http://writerinthemountains.blogspot.com/

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