A friend of mine was lamenting being a “newbie writer” the other day because her story outline had a plot point along the lines of “Stuff happens?”
Joke’s on her. Even veterans do it.
First off, kudos for even having an outline. Being organized enough to do that is harder than it looks. A lot of people don’t bother, or can’t wrap their minds around it. I know authors who never outline. Others who’ve just done a three paragraph synopsis and still others who do vast corkboards full of index cards. I know a guy who did it on a cocktail napkin. Some just jot down a page or two.
And all that’s fine. When it comes to how our brains work we’re all special snowflakes.
Setting aside the whole Pantser versus Plotter debate (I don’t actually believe there’s a difference – at some point you’re still making shit up) giving yourself a roadmap can save you a draft or two.
If you decide to do an outline inevitably a question that comes up is, “How detailed does it have to be?”
The answer is, “Enough.”
Enough for you to work with it and use it as a guide. Enough for it to make sense. Enough, in some cases, for somebody else to understand it and poke holes in it.
The point of an outline is to give yourself a map showing major scenes, plot flow, character notes. Something that you can go back to and remind yourself what the story is about, who the characters are, what happens next.
For my second novel DEAD THINGS, the follow-up to CITY OF THE LOST, I wrote a three paragraph synopsis that looked like this:
“Eric Carter is a necromancer. He sees ghosts, talks to the dead, compels them to his bidding. He’s turned it into a lucrative career putting troublesome spirits to rest or taking on more dangerous things. For a fee, of course.
When the sister he left fifteen years before is brutally murdered, Carter goes back to Los Angeles only to discover that her murder was bait to bring him home. Someone wants him for something, but who and why? The gangster looking to settle a score? The girlfriend he left in the lurch? Maybe the best friend who inherited all his problems. Not to mention the ghost of the mage he murdered the night he left town or maybe the patron saint of violent death herself, Santa Muerte, who’s taken an unusually keen interest in him.
Carter has to figure out who’s gunning for him and get them first. Because it’s not just his life on the line, it’s his soul, too.”
Nice, yeah? but really that’s just a pitch. I had to turn in an outline, too. That’s part of the deal. Publishers kind of want to know what they’re buying before they’re buying it.
So I took those three paragraphs and blew them up into a 31 page outline. Some people would have done 4. Some would have done 400. I did 31.
I’m not terribly detail oriented. A lot of the notes I take are sketchy at best. In that 31 pages there’s a lot of “Stuff happens?” and “Insert Cool Thing Here”. Because I didn’t know how I was going to handle a problem and wasn’t going to know until I got there.
I had a note in one draft of the outline (Yes, I did multiple drafts of the outline) that says “Waffle?” What the hell was that for? It’s stuck in the middle of a sex scene in a hotel room. Was I hungry? High? Thinking maple syrup? I have no idea. The whole thing was peppered with shit like that.
The important thing to remember about the outline is that it’s just a map. And the map is not the terrain.
If your story starts going off the rails the outline can help you get it back on track. At the same time if off the rails is more interesting territory, ditch the outline. You don’t have to follow it.
Unless you’re contractually obligated to, but that’s an entirey different discussion.
Point is the outline serves you as the writer, not the other way around. So feel free to toss in “Insert Cool Thing Here” and “Stuff happens?” if you can’t figure something out. When you get there you will.
Or you’ll wonder why you were thinking of waffles during a sex scene.
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