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Robert's Rules of Writing #24: Map That Route

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Let's talk about outlining.

With rule #24, Masello argues in favor of outlining one's work before beginning to write. He notes that outlining has gotten a bad rep, primarily because people think of an outline as something their middle school teachers forced them to do, with a lot of roman numerals and capital letters scattered everywhere. But that's not what a story outline is. It's a map, a guide, a plan for the journey. And he says he's seen many writers stumble in the middle of their work because they didn't plan it out ahead of time.

Some writers argue in favor of outlining; others just as vehemently argue against it. I think most of us tend to fall in the middle, advising other writers to just do what works for them. (And come to think of it, in Masello's next rule, he says -- ah, but I'll get to that next time.) But for myself, I find that outlining is very helpful. In fact, although most writers think of outlines as something to use for longer works, such as novels, I've used them even with some of my shortest stories. And so I'll tend to recommend using an outline more often than not. Here's my method.

I'll sit down at my computer, with a blank document up on the screen, and I'll start writing out the plot of the story in a kind of narrative summary. Sometimes I'll open another document for jotting down notes about characters, and even another one for random sentences and pieces of dialogue that flit through my mind and demand to be recorded before I lose them. But in general, I'll stay with the plot document as I'm outlining. Sometimes I'll number the scenes, just like a writer might number the chapters. I'll take note of what I want happening to each character, what each scene must do so it logically leads into the next scene. (A good analogy would be to think of this as a set of interlocking chains; each scene must link to the next.) If I think of something that needs to happen later on, I'll insert those asterisks I use (remember them?) and note the event further along in the document. Eventually, I have a series of paragraphs that lay out the basic plot of the story, piece by piece -- or, in other words, I have my outline.

And once I have the outline, writing becomes a lot easier. I don't have to strain to think of what comes next when I'm actually sitting down and composing pay copy. I already know what has to come next -- and, given my nonlinear style of writing, I can even choose to write a scene in the middle or at the end before I write the ones at the start.

FInally, outlining also works with nonfiction, even for short essays such as this one. My outline for this post was three sentences: Introduce rule. Note both sides of argument. Explain my own method.

And now I have.

And if anyone wants to share their own perspective or some advice on outlining, please do.

Comments

I don't know if you would consider this as "extra" work or doing the process backwards, but what I tend to end up doing with a novel first is to write a few pages of bulleted notes of everything I want to happen in the story (or logically, what needs to happen)--this usually also generates ideas of its own--and then once I have that all out in front of me I start rearranging things into a chronological outline (also adding and tossing out along the way).

What I write initially also gives me a pretty good idea of what kind of book I want it to be.
A lot of writers do something similar, often with index cards. On each card is written a plot point, and the cards are rearranged until they are in the correct order.
I've thought about doing it that way, but figured I'd lose the cards . . .
On a much, much LARGER scale, I notice that one major difference between, say, C. S. Forrester and David Webber is that Forresster outlined Horatio Hornblower's ENTIRE career before starting to write. That meant that Horatio Hornblower never ended up in a situation where he was way, way more powerful than the challenges he was going to face, while the last couple Honor Harrington books have kind of sucked because Webber's written himself into a corner.
I'm reminded of how Babylon 5 was outlined from the start and Deep Space Nine was not. Both were great shows, but B5's final episode did feel more tied togther than DS9's.
A while ago, I followed a link on a Making Light comment to this early-20th-century writer's system for constructing plots. I'm not sure if this technique is brilliant or insane, but I may try it out one of these days.

(One of the things that has prevented me from getting any fiction on paper for years is that I come up with some idea for SFish setting or a general idea of how some characters would be in conflict, and then I ask myself "but what happens?" and it stops me cold. Any gimmick that could get me out of that rut can't be all bad.)
Do you remember the plot wheel? Spin the wheel and determine the protagonist, villain, conflict, and resolution of your story! (But yeah, anything that gets you out of a rut is good.)
i find outlining helpful. although, most of the time i stray from it and then circle back. i'm also very much about characters' pasts - their childhoods, their jobs, what makes them tick. before the outline, i usually write drawn-out character sketches, so that when i do stray, at least know what motivates my characters so it seems organic rather then a tagent.
Character sketches are also a vital part of the outlining process, although outlines themselves tend to be more centered on plot.
I rather like Randy ingermanson's Snowflake method (http://www.rsingermanson.com/html/the_snowflake.html) of outlining, although I've also been known to just write what comes into my head. I don't think I've settled down as a writer enough to know what really works best for me.

I've never considered outlining a short story. Although plot and character complications will undoubtedly arise in the writing process (a story currently in the edit phase comes to mind), I tend to see the story as more or less of a whole and know where I'm going.
The snowflake looks cool. I always feel people should use whatever works for them.

A recent book on Plot I bought advised writers to try it the other way; that is, if you're used to outlining, give spontaneous writing a shot, and if you're more of an organic writer, try an outlining exercise and see what happens.
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