Plot Outlining: Avoiding the Trap

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Anyone who’s written more than a couple of stories will tell you that the worst thing you can do is sit down and start writing cold. You really should know where the story is going to go before you even open up the word processor. The problem, of course, is that it’s tempting as heck to just rush in.

A good idea can be intoxicating for a writer. There have been times when something would pop into my head, take root, and immediately command all of my attention. Unable to sleep, I inevitably wind up pacing around my house, obsessively working and reworking the idea until it turns from malleable thoughtstuff into something that’s workable. Once that’s done, it’s all I can do to keep myself from jumping on the computer and getting it down on paper.

The trouble with that, however, is that is how you get crappy stories. You need to know where things are going before the first words are put down. That’s why writers outline their stories first. Unfortunately, this can also be a trap.

Outlines can be a really useful tool. They allow you to organize your thoughts, and to help turn what starts off as a cool idea into a story that other people can read. Having a plan can be the difference between writing something that works well and writing something that is disorganized, and, ultimately, crappy.

Let’s use a couple of TV shows as an example. First, we have the X-Files. Hailed as something brand-new and ludicrously engaging, the X-Files ran for nine seasons. I’ve watched every episode, and with each passing season, it became more and more evident that the writers had not planned more than one season ahead. I understand why that was the case– things need to be reworked when you’re writing for television, and when the ratings keep your show on the air, you stay on the air until it becomes unprofitable. So, really, they couldn’t possibly have planned on the series continuing for nine seasons.

But the payoff at the end? Sucked. I felt robbed. The kicker? The writers never intended for the show to have a continuing story! It was supposed to be more like The Twilight Zone, but with recurring actors. There were a lot of reasons behind the shift, one of which is discussed in this Cracked article. Unfortunately, what wound up happening was a whole bunch of kludged fixes over plotlines that had never originally intended to be introduced, creating a domino effect of expanding in-universe mythology. One explanation in the series led to several more questions, which led to several more answers, which… you get the idea.

The point is that the series really could have used a good plot outline from the start, and would have been a much better finished product if it had run for, say, six planned seasons rather than nine that were written by the seat of the writers’ collective pants.

You should still watch the show, because the individual episodes are still pretty damn good, and it has been crazy influential on shows that came afterwards.

Like my second example: Fringe. This show, man… this show. I love Fringe. I watched from the first episode to the last, and never missed a week. It never would have been possible without The X-Files, but it took writing to the next level.

The pseudo-science and multi-verse stuff can leave something to be desired, but it is obvious that this plot was ludicrously well-planned. It ran for five seasons, and the series finale wrapped everything up in a bow tight enough to match the Gordian Knot. I have watched and rewatched this series several times, looking for plot holes, and I can’t find any.

Do you know how rare that is? Even movies, which need to keep their story’s integrity for a relatively short time– a couple of hours or so– usually have plot holes. Like The Matrix— how did Cypher get into the Matrix to meet with Agent Smith and defect without Tank to pull him out? It goes unexplained, without even a Hand Wave attempted.

Fringe managed to maintain a plot’s structure for five seasons, ending with exactly 100 episodes. Hints at the show’s ending have been dropped since the show’s pilot. Every season moved the story closer to the conclusion, and the final season demonstrated each previous seasons’ relevance. It really is an extraordinary feat, and anyone who likes Big Damn Plots should watch the show if they haven’t already.

Anyway, now that I’ve explained why plotting an outline is important, I should probably tell you why it can be dangerous. Like the title of this article suggests, it can be a trap. Why? Because it can lock you in to an inferior story.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. You have a solid premise, and you want to get started. So, you outline the thing. You make your list of characters, filling in their quirks and backstory. You come up with a sequence of scenes, and separate them into chapters. You write down your Big Damn Ending. Once everything is done, you sit down and start actually writing.

That’s when things start to fall apart. Because Johnny Linko, your main character, doesn’t want to go on a date with Mary Shilkens. You thought he would, because it makes sense on paper, but now that you’re actually writing your character… well, he finds her rather repulsive. So you can stay true to his character, and have him skip the date with Mary, because, honestly, Susan Brantley is way more his type now that you think about it. But then… crap, that kind of messes up the confrontation in chapter six that you had planned. Why would Mary even be there if she wasn’t dating Johnny? Maybe you could remove her character altogether? But then, she’s the one who will give Susan the gun in chapter nine! How can you explain the gun?

Or… well, you did do all this work on the outline, and it’s structurally sound. The plot makes a lot of sense, so… it’s just the characters who don’t fit into it. You could make Johnny fit. You can make it so that him dating Mary doesn’t seem so out of place. That’ll make him less of an interesting character, but nobody will know that Johnny could have been more interesting, right?

Except people will know. And they will hate you for it. You don’t think that readers are smart? Given a wide enough audience, every story will be revised by fans. People will come up with better solutions if you don’t provide the best source material available. For example, Google Twilight’s backstory. There is a lot of cool stuff there! (Yes, I’ve read the books. Yes, I do have testicles). There are ancient vampire clans, native American werewolf packs, superpowers– hell, in the fourth book, there’s a pretty awesome vampire dude who fought in the Revolutionary War. As a vampire, probably! I would read the crap out of that book! But instead, we’re left with… Bella. Because the writer wanted to make this a love story instead of something that could have been awesome.

I’m getting a little off-topic here, and I apologize for that. Do you know why? (Because I didn’t outline this, and I’m not taking my own advice, but this isn’t fiction, so. Nyah-nyah).

The point is that, as a storyteller, you have an obligation to provide the best story you possibly can. And honestly, wouldn’t you want to write a better story if you had the capability? Or are you satisfied with minimal effort?

Outlines that are too in-depth can be incredibly restrictive. Stephen King puts it best when he says that “storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration” (King, 2005). In other words, the story you’re writing must go where it wants to go, and if you, as the writer, try too hard to make it go where you want it to, it will be a worse story because of it.

Maybe, like in the example I wrote above, it’ll be a character who becomes less interesting. Maybe it’ll be prose that’s too stiff because this is what has to happen next or the following scene won’t make sense. Maybe it’ll be things that you just can’t predict.

In short? Plotting a story too tightly is a really good way to kill it.

If that’s the case, then why did I say all of those good things about plotting earlier? Because it’s not a contradiction; outlining is still necessary. The key is flexibility. You need to leave yourself room to improvise as you go, because– trust me on this– you’ll be doing a lot of improvisation. But you still need to know where you’re going.

Here are my general rules for outlining fiction:

Short Stories:

If the story is basically one scene, like SmileI pretty much just know how it’s going to end, and I can sit down and write it without needing any notes.

If the story comprises of multiple scenes, like SnowI need more information. So I get a general idea of how I want the story to progress. Since it’s still pretty darn short (fifteen pages in a word document, or 5,500 words or so), I can keep track of it in my head, but I still know the following things:

1. Mark finds an abandoned car on the side of the road

2. Mark gets home to wife and watches the news

3. Mark goes to the Cranstons to help shovel and bad things happen

4. The ending

Notice how simply I put each thing? This is the extent of any outline I use for short fiction. These are all very general ideas. I don’t restrict myself. I let myself play with these characters, and I let them take control of the story. I didn’t know Mark at the beginning, when I first wrote him into existence, but I learned a lot about him. I learned that he was a furniture salesman who adores his wife, is a generally kind man who wants to help someone in trouble, and, while he might be considered a coward, he was still brave enough to risk his life to save someone else.

I might not have found those things out about Mark if I had plotted every scene for him in advance with crazy detail. And the story (which, by the way, was a self-imposed challenge to write a “Tales from the Darkside” style story, start to finish in a single sitting. It’s is not my best story ever, but it’s still pretty darn good for what it is) would have suffered because of that.

For Long Fiction and Novels:

This can get a bit more complicated, because it depends on your genre. If you’re writing a globe-trotting adventure novel similar to The Da Vinci Code or a plot with complex political machinations and betrayals, you’ll want to do some more plotting. At that point, your research is going to be your guide; you have to move characters from one place to another in a deliberate sequence, and it’s unlikely that you’ll want to deviate from a plan. You’d better hope that your plan is good. (The Da Vinci Code was not a great book, in my opinion, and a lot of it felt forced– again, the victim of strict plotting, I’d bet a hundred bucks on it).

My best advice for this type of thing is to know the following things about your book:

  1. Know how it ends. If you don’t have that, don’t start. Seriously, know how your book will end, then write it. If the ending still makes sense, go ahead with it. If not, then change it so that it does make sense.
  2. Know the MAJOR events in the book. If you’re going to kill a main character, you probably know it (sometimes I don’t when I write until it happens, though). If someone is going to get superpowers, know when it’s going to happen. If Mary is going to marry Johnny after all, then you should know that too.
  3. Know the order of the MAJOR events.
  4. Have a rough idea of a sequence of events that link the MAJOR ones. These are the smaller scenes that usually provide subplots and characterization. These are the meat of your story. These are the ones that you can change.

 

It is important to not that when I say things like “Know the MAJOR events in the book,” I don’t necessarily mean for you to have mentally composed the entirety of that scene. I prefer barebones style. On my outline, it would look like:

  • Johnny gets expelled
  • Johnny gets superpowers
  • Johnny marries Mary
  • Mary is killed
  • Johnny fights Deviculous and loses
  • Deviculous is defeated and killed by his own henchmen
  • Ending

This gives you an enormous amount of freedom while still being a useful guide for keeping you on track.

Obviously, the more complex the story, the more complex your plotting is going to be. I have a character web for my next book, “Specter” that I use instead of a regular outline because the cast is just too damned big. (There are like thirty or forty characters the last I checked). You’re going to have to make your own decision on how much to plot, but please take my advice: don’t get married to it. Let the story go where it wants to go, and let the characters decide for themselves where they should go. If it sounds like I have a weird form of psychosis and I think characters are real, you’re wrong; I’m a writer, and I take them seriously enough to understand when they’re being used wrong.

Now you should know enough, and be forewarned enough, to plot out that sweet novel you’ve got hanging out in the back of your head. So what are you still reading this for? Get to work!

 

Obviously, if anyone has any questions, feel free to leave a comment. I will reply as soon as I can.

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