Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To Outline or Not Outline – That is a question!

When I start a new project I am faced with the inevitable question: How much should I know about the story before I start grinding? I’ve written a few books underwritten by the historic phrase: Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. The result was a lot of torpedoes in the form of confused characters, sagging storylines, and even downright confusion on the part of the author. I’ve gotten better at constructing the story and all the attendant baggage that goes with, I had to. I was spending too much time wandering in the wilderness.

Check out last week’s post (see below). Christopher Vogler presents in his book The Writers Journey, a concise outline of story structure – all you rabid “Can’t tell me what to do!” folks please just sit back and think about it for a moment. All Vogler is doing is showing you a road map, actually quite generic if you distill it to its primary points. This staging of a story is well founded and historically based and considering that there are very few “New” stories out there, it is an excellent place to start.

This outlining and structuring of a story at the idea’s earliest moment of conception allows you think of college for the poor thing, even before it’s born. Normally I break the story line into paragraph descriptions or synopsizes of major changes in the flow of the story. It’s two or three descriptive sentences that continually help to push the story forward, if a significant event or issue is thought of, it is here is where I note them along with other brief references. I also post a character list with their names (if known), their part in the story, and their traits. Both the outline and the character list are continually updated as the process evolves (an aside: When the character list is complete I do a character evaluation on a form I developed to better understand them and who they are.)

As the story is expanded through each stage of its journey, I flesh out various “What ifs?” that allow me the non-lineal aspect of pushing quickly forward and backward to other story events that respond to conflict-resolution sub-stories, all leading to a collective (and hopefully) successful denouement. (I stayed up late thinking about that sentence!) This is done with a quick and free flowing (almost out of body thing) series of sessions that frame and drive the story. I am looking for cohesion and lineal connections – not bulk and detail. Drive it forward, push it.

A novel may take a year or two to write (much depending on whether you need to work to live). It is very easy to get lost in the thing, get distracted and lose your way on the “Road to Denouement” (BTW – good name for a writer’s book). This type of paragraph outline (not the kind taught in English class with all its Romans numerals, which to this day, I believe, no one understands!), puts the story back in front of me, gets me thinking again, keeps me on the road. And it can be continually updated!

Next week I’ll write about how I take this outline and put it into a graphic matrix that really helps to keep track of the story on a time line. It also helps to show the story’s flow and when characters are introduced.

More later . . . .

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