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To Outline or Not to Outline…

March 31, 2010

…that is the perennial question whenever I undertake a big work. Like a screenplay. Script Frenzy starts tomorrow and I’ve done very little work on plot. The website encourages me to make a plot outline, but I’m not sure if I want to do it.

Sometimes, though not terribly often, a story pops into my head with the plot already finished. I know what needs to happen at the beginning, middle and end. I’ll take some notes on the major plot points, and these notes constitute my “outline.” The sci-fi story I’m working on now is an example of a story whose plot was known to me before I started writing it. Having this foreknowledge helped me to get through the beginning of the story, but now I’m stuck on the middle. I know what’s going to happen, and that’s boring, so it’s hard to get motivated to finish.

More often than not, however, the plot of a story slowly materializes as I write it. I start with a premise I like, or a character who intrigues me, and somehow everything comes together from there. Or not. I saw a newspaper article years ago about a double murder in which the killer had also drowned the victims’ cat. The question, “Why did he kill their cat too?” immediately came to mind, and I wanted to write a story that answered that question. Good premise, but I have yet to begin writing about it.

So, on the one hand, I can do something: plan ahead and outline. Call it taking arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, ending them. However, outlining often makes my plot feel stale. When I write an outlined plot, I feel almost as if I’m just taking dictation, as if the creative part of the process is gone and I’m just a glorified typist. “Jack is born. Jack goes to school. Jack meets a pretty girl and marries her. Jack is abducted by aliens.” Dry, dry, dry.  It’s more exciting and engaging for me if I’m just as in the dark about what’s going to happen next as a potential reader would be. If I’m excited and engaged, then those feelings will transfer (hopefully) to my readers.  Also, like committing suicide, once I make the outline I can’t turn back. I can’t un-know the plot details once I’ve written them down. But I can start out without notes and then  make an outline in the middle of the process if I decide I need one.

On the other hand, I can do nothing and merely suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Disorganization can also be a problem for me, though. Sometimes a lack of planning ahead means I end up painting myself into a literary corner with my fancy literary paintbrush, and the only way out is to have a character do something that he or she would never do, or insert a convenient deus ex machina into the plot. “Darren and Emily are trapped in a cave of hungry polar bears. Darren has been blinded by an angry Inuit seal hunter and can’t fight off the bears. Emily’s hands have been amputated because of frost bite, so she can’t fight off the bears either. Darren and Emily must survive this situation so they can stop evil Dr. Prune from melting all the polar ice caps with his gigantic evil laser. (stops writing…taps fingers…waits…starts writing again, awash in self-loathing) Suddenly, big game hunter and advanced particle physicist Miles St. Frou materializes in the cave, having just perfected a method of teleportation. He kills all the bears with his bare hands and makes them into rugs, allowing Darren and Emily to escape.” Yeah, that’s not so good.

Last year when I started doing NaNoWriMo, I asked a bunch of other, more experienced novel writers if they used an outline. They all told me the same thing: “Outlines are for noobs.” I guess what it comes down to is that both Script Frenzy and its November counterpart are not venues for fantastic writing, so a deus ex machina here and there is ok. If all my characters have to get amnesia in the middle of the script to keep the plot going, then sobeit (and yes, that is a device I have used before during NaNoWriMo. I’m not proud.).

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