The early planning stages of any long writing project are usually when you feel the most wobbly about the whole thing. Novels, of course, but even novellas and novelettes can feel like going off-path into the deep unknown. Sure, you can wing it, or feel your way blind the whole time, but most people seem to prefer having the security of some kind of guide.
This is why the process of outlining exists. To give you a map to follow, a blueprint to show you how to build the thing.
Except I hate outlines. A tool of the devil. I concede their usefulness as a sales aid, but still: If the most buttoned-down middle managers of the world’s dullest corporation got together in a beige boardroom around an unvarnished table to come up with the least inspiring tool to sell to writers, it would be the outline.
The Problem With Outlines
Two big ones, as I see it:
(1) They’re so dismally reductionist. I can speak only for myself, but I’ve never worked up an outline that didn’t make everything sound completely stupid and trivial. I’m left feeling like, Ugh … who would ever want to read THIS? Which has an incredibly dispiriting effect right out of the gate.
(2) Outlining doesn’t work the way your brain does. Outlining is a linear process. Yes, so is prose, ultimately, with one word, one sentence, one paragraph after another. But that’s imposing order on the chaos of raw ideas, and a project’s idea phase is anything but linear. The creative brain rebels against behaving in a linear fashion. It’ll fall in line you force it, but it would much rather run and jump and play. Those puppy and kitten videos that get a jillion hits on YouTube? That’s your brain on creativity.
If an outline is a map, the order seems backwards. How can you effectively map a territory before you’ve even been there? At least that’s the thinking behind the school of thought that a better time to work up an outline is after you’ve done the first draft, and know what you have to work with.
Until then, are you entirely on your own? Not if you don’t want to be. Not if you go Hollywood, with a modified version of a technique used for decades in shooting movies:
Of Course, This May Cost You $3.49 For 500 At Staples
I’m sure at some point you’ve seen behind-the-scenes footage of filmmakers consulting storyboards. They’re like comic book panels that show how scenes and sequences unfold visually. They don’t have to be pretty, or great art. All they need to do is succinctly get an idea across.
The writer’s equivalent? No, I’m not suggesting you draw your novel. A few words or lines on a notecard should do it.
That’s right. Notecards. Totally low tech, totally hands-on. You’re gonna get dirty on this.
The method is simple. Whenever you know an element of your storyline, you jot it on a notecard. A scene, a plot point, a revelation, a character entrance … whatever it is, it gets its own notecard.
In my experience, this makes a much better fit with the random access way most writers come to know and discover their own work. At first, we only know fragments. We envision scenes without necessarily knowing how they’re linked, or what order they occur in. We see characters doing things, without knowing when or where. We may know the end, but not what will be going on halfway there. Research may suggest specific events without providing a context for them.
That’s okay. The notecards don’t care. You’ll work it out in time. The notecards just give you targets to steer toward. Beyond that, how you use them is up to you:
- Spread them out on the floor or table, or pin them to a corkboard, to give you a growing overview of your timeline.
- Reorder them as needed to take things that aren’t fixed in time and try them in different sequences to see what feels right.
- Color-code them to denote character points-of-view, subplots, etc.
- Use the backs of the cards to capture finer details: snatches of dialogue, descriptive lines, reminders to yourself, and anything else you want to remember.
- Divide them into two groups: definite inclusions and maybe inclusions.
Whatever fits your way of working. Whatever helps, and keeps things growing, unfolding, moving forward.
Finally, credit where credit is due. I didn’t make this method up, but instead got it from friend and colleague John Skipp. It really did revolutionize the way I approached planning the novel I’m currently working on, and earned a permanent place in the toolbox.
[Photo by Sebastian Bassi]
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