Friday, July 13, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Outlining a Novel


It is likely that you are not new to receiving writing advice, considering you are reading a writing blog and we've all taken at least a basic English class. That being the case, I assume that sometime in your experience you heard the saying about how preplanning is necessary.

It’s a question of interest for all fields in the art world; should we work by inspiration or technique? Is it better to plan it all out or wing it? Many will say that only one is the right way. Or worse, the will tell you, “Both.”

My answer? “Both.” Or rather, more sensibly, it's contextual.

Sometimes we want to write by pure feeling and sometimes we should plan it out. Seems obvious? It's because that's what we all automatically do. The issue isn't whether or not authors need to do anything. It is less about the requirements and more about the know how. When to plan and when to let the juices flow comes down to subjectivity.

                THE PROS of writing an outline are certainly beneficial.

1. The story tends to ramble less.
Because the author knows where it is going, he doesn’t stall for time in the middle of it trying to figure it out. Read an inexperienced writer’s story while looking for this “stalling” and you’ll immediately see what I mean.

Planned stories tend to have less irrelevant conversations and scenes. We see more time taking action than the characters sitting around trying to figure out what to do (because the author doesn’t know what to do.)

2. The stories tend to have a point.
Many tales start out as an image or concept, not a plot or a theme. We think, I want to write about an imaginary friend! Such as in the case of Twilight which the inspiration came from the simple picture of a beautiful meadow with two lovers in it, one sparkling like he had just gone through the car wash.

Though not a negative way to start out, it usually means that the author has to then come up with a conflict and what the story is actually about, not just where it is set or the characters in it. Maybe people do this by exploring it as they write. But, as I said, that leads to rambling, and, often times, it is more like a series of events and images than a story.

When brainstorming, however, we’re looking at the forest and not the trees, which allows us to understand the connections between all the events. If we have outlined it beforehand, then, just simply knowing why these scenes are there, we can tell the audience why the scenes are there.

3. There is less likely to be writer’s block.

Writer’s block tends to stem from three things: depression (i.e. unrelated emotional distress), disappointment at the results, and not knowing something important.

Often times we aren’t aware of what we don’t know. However, if you find yourself unable to “get passed that one part,” it is probably due to puzzlement.

It can be something simple like knowing there needs to be a fight, but unsure on what the characters are fighting about. Or even more so, how the topic comes up at all. Sometimes it’s bigger, like we’ve been written into a corner. (How can I believably get them out of this jail cell?) And sometimes it’s simply that we don’t know where the story is going at all.

Because often we start with some sort of setting or character that interests us, we get writing, inspired and feverous, finally get passed the point we get them all set up for the action, and we don’t know what the action is. We are at the inciting event, ready to introduce the main conflict that will propel the story into top gear. And there we sit, waiting for it to come to us.

Plotting out a whole story means that when the author is trying to get the words right, he doesn’t have to think about the action. Having those thoughts and problems already solved, all he has to do now is put it into the text.

4. There’s better continuity.

Continuity is a consistency in a story. A story with continuity obeys its own rules and does not contradict information given. An example of failing to have continuity would be saying a character’s parents died when she was ten and then later talking about how her mom threw her an expensive bat mitzvah.

Outlining helps the author find plot holes and inconstancies in the story, and allows for him to change them more readily.

5. It keeps track of ideas.

Every author varies in his ability to organize himself. Some have better memories than other. Some don’t work on the same story for months. Some often work on more than one project at once. And some have a good idea and instantaneously forget it.

For those who have a hard time remembering everything about a work, and this is especially true for people who do not write every day, having an outline to look back on can prevent throwing in the towel due to confusion.

It is important to note that one of major reasons people are so obsessed with this topic is the stubbornness that comes along with it. Many people are of one mind or the other, and it’s like trying to talk about a religious or political opinion. You’re probably not going to change their mind, and they’re usually a little superior about it.

                THE CONS

1. It takes longer.

This is the main frustration I have when I’m outlining. Often times when I sit down and am ready to work, I don’t feel like I can count the brainstorming as a part of my responsibility. I can’t get myself to feel like I’ve actually achieved when I’ve finished.

Though a little silly, it is a legitimate concern. The more we spend time on preplanning the less time we have for actually writing. And though I recognize there are a lot of arguments against, essentially, being lazy, but this is a huge factor in why most people don’t outline.

Quite frankly, it is a choice all authors have to make. Do we want to be James Joyce or Stephan King? Both are successful writers. I’m not going to get into quality because it’s too subjective, but I will say that there is merit behind either goal.

Prolific writers get experience, detailed writers get knowledge. If your goal is to be prolific, spending too much time on coming up with ideas and not actually putting them down can just be foolish.

2. The ending’s been ruined.

It sounds idiotic, but writing a novel can often be like reading one. Many stories are great when we aren’t sure on how they’re going to end, but once we know, the magic is gone. Too much preplanning can destroy the possibilities, and, sometimes, the author will be bored.

3. It can ruin the flow.

Books written by inspiration tend to have seamless transitions. Outlined ones can jump from idea to idea. When writing a story as we go along, we don’t have to think about why we made that connection; the evolution is there in the text. However, when working by a list of events, an author will often forget why it jumps from the train station to an underground cavern.

Furthermore, although this is of course not all of the time, when having the important moments listed out for us, the pacing can be abrupt. The mentality, “First I have to write the scene where we see the parents arguing. Then I have to write where she breaks the glass. Then I need to talk about how she gets get out of school,” can be infused into the story’s flow. Many times the scenes will clip along at the same succinct speed, having gotten rid of all the rambling that can make a moment less rushed.

4. Passion can change.

When we come up with an idea we are excited about it. Later, we might not be.

Having come up with a lot of concepts months before we may ever write them, it is possible for us to lose interest. Passionate writers are almost always (with rare exception) more interesting than apathetic ones, no matter the talent or expertise involved. It’s also harder to write an idea we’re indifferent to. This means that either we now have to a) write about a moment we have no care for, or b) change the story which makes all of that pre-work a waste of time.

5. It becomes formulaic.

Because outlining helps plot structure, it can also homogenize it. Often times stories that are over planned aren’t unique. When developing the novel as we go, we tend to let our whims take charge. When diagraming it beforehand, however, we are using logic. Both have their benefits and flaws, and the biggest flaw with logic is how mechanical it can become.

Most believe that whether or not to preplan is a decision based on personality. The use and extent of it is different for each and every author. It is also important to realize, however, that we don’t, and shouldn’t, stick with one decision. Outlining is a technique that solves a lot of little problems. Using it too much, or just for the sake of it can also make difficulties. To preplan or not to preplan is based around what the author is trying to do and what obstacles are preventing him from doing it.