The Writer’s Meal: Why outlines aren’t creativity demons and how to write them
Most people have eaten a salad. It’s delicious. Not as fantastic as the main course, so it’s more like a tease. Most people skip it and move on to the steak. That stuff is hearty. But no. Don’t do it. Your steak is great (writing the story), but it’ll be so much more fulfilling and enjoyable after you curb the hunger pains with a salad. Why? Because instead of frantically trying to throw words on a page or trying to get your story out one piece at a time until writer’s block smashes your face in, you can go into your story knowing what you’re writing and let your imagination drive you to the tiny “in-betweens” of your outline.
I know, outlines suck, but let’s look at a few things outlines do that “just writing” doesn’t guarantee:
- Rules & Regulations. Especially if you’re creating a new world, you can have the rules, regulations, loopholes, etc. involved with your world established before you write so you don’t accidentally break one of them.
- You can see your project as a whole. If you run into that stupid brick wall, you could even jump a chapter or two and write a different chapter. Why not? It’s in the plan.
- You can focus your attention on the bigger things and still remember the smaller things. It’s hard to fit little pieces of information, a character, a scene, or even little pieces of a world when you’re constantly trying to remember those big things that make up your story.
- Flow and balance. Granted, stories can flow rather well without an outline, but if you have a theme, a specific goal/point you want to get across, or simple things you want to happen throughout the book, an outline can help ensure you do that. It can also keep you accountable for moments when you start writing filler words/scenes that don’t drive your story forward because you’ll remember and see the purpose of your chapter or scene (if you get that detailed with an outline), and put yourself back on the right track.You’ll also see how much emphasis you need to put on certain topics, possibly more complex or in-depth topics, and you’ll be able to distribute or dictate where and when you should write it out.
- Answer every question. It’s hard to know you answered all questions (especially for new worlds or magical realism) when you don’t have an outline. With an outline, you’ll even find questions you may not have originally thought of. If you show a fellow writer, friend, etc. you could also receive quick feedback and questions they may have that you can be sure to answer.
There are plenty more benefits, but those are the ones I felt were most important. Hopefully I convinced you some. I didn’t write an outline for my first novel and let me tell you, I’ll have to read the entire thing to see if any of it made sense. You have to remember that, as a writer, you know and understand what you’re writing. The job is to make sure your readers will understand it too. An outline can help make that happen and when you go back to check on your project, you can more easily determine if you did it how you wanted and more importantly, how you needed.
Keep in mind that my outline will not be the same as your outline. When I outline my book, I write out the rules of the world I’m creating and if I know one or two of my characters, I write what I know about them. As for the plot itself, I write very little. I write what I know needs to happen (or what I want to happen), then I set my outline aside and WRITE. The outline is like a guideline; it can help you keep your story straight. You can jump off the ledge and go elsewhere for a while if it benefits your story, sure, but that outline will help you remember who your characters are and what path you originally wanted your story to take. If your outline originally had a love interest in mind, but you’re awesome, creative mind demanded the new character who popped in your head around Chapter three to be the final love interest, do it! Add it to your outline so you have the note, write the character out as he develops … don’t let it be your rulebook. Let it be your guide.
So how do we write this dang outline? Like a salad, it comes in parts. Every part is different, but they all add to the story. The little things can wait for your steak. That’s just seasoning, spices, and it’s the dry rub that makes your steak juicy and delicious. So we’re not worried about the tiny things right now. Just the big, chunky veggies (and fruit, if you really want a fruit salad).
Leafy Greens – What is the story? What’s the purpose?
If you’re writing nonfiction, this is your point. This isn’t just a story about you; there is a reason you’re writing it. What is that reason and why will this story get that point across? What makes your story qualified to do the job? This is what you’ll apply throughout your entire work so it will definitely be a theme throughout the book. Even in failure, if the goal/point is a positive one. It may not be apparent in the writing, but it will be an important piece that takes the reader where they need to go.
If you’re writing fiction, this is the theme, goal, character, or ending. This is the soul of the story. Whether your character represents all children of the world, your story shows the strength of loyalty between friends or your angry, heartless main character eventually falls in love and changes for the better, you need to know the soul of your story.
Another thing you have to have is what makes your story unique. Plots, when it comes down to the grit of it, are the same. Why is your story different? Why is it special? What will the reader see that they won’t in another story with the same theme?
Interview your characters
Your characters are really important. Even the old friend your MC sees at the store is important. Why? Because every character needs to add to the story, if not to the main character. You may not need an in-depth interview, but you need to know his or her purpose.
The characters you know will be in your story need to be your best friends. Write down their looks, traits, strengths, weaknesses, faults, likes, dislikes, maybe religion, habits, what they love and hate … all of it. Know them inside and out. Even if they broke their leg in middle school. It could be an addition to the story. (Leg pains?) No, you won’t use all of these things, but it’s good to know so you know why your characters do what they do. You need it because it’s what makes them characters. It’s what makes them real. Even if they were thrown in their closet by their brother a few times as a child, it could be relevant. Maybe that’s why they’re afraid of the dark or why they’re claustrophobic. For a little more on getting to know your characters, check out this post by my good friend, Kat Hutson, or this post, which is one I wrote recently about creating realistic characters.
What’s the problem?
This is an obvious one that I won’t have to elaborate on, but you need to know why your main character can’t reach the goal or what is happening that makes the goal necessary. It will be danger, lies, a bad habit, life problem, etc. The problems arising are endless, so take your pick. You need a problem, because the ending will either be the solution or, if you’re one of those unhappy ending writers, the climax of the same problem.
Drench it in dressing. Summarize your chapters.
You don’t necessarily have to go chapter by chapter, but some work better that way, so it won’t hurt to try and see what you end up with. Even if you don’t write each chapter summary out, at least write out the order, even a generalized order, of how you want things to unfold. Write how the problem comes about, how the character discovers the problem, troubles they go through to find the solution or find out they are the solution, then how they solve the problem.
This step is one of the more tedious steps, and I don’t want to tell you how to do it because there are dozens of ways to do so and I want you to find what works for you. So try it. Work out what you want to happen in each chapter, scene, or time-change. Write out what happens to your character, both internally and externally. What happens in the world? What makes that chapter important? What makes the chapter necessary? How does that scene or chapter drive the story forward?
By the time you finish your outline, you should be able to answer these with ease:
Who is your main character?
What is the problem?
What is at stake?
What is the obstacle?
What is the quest?
What is the answer?
What is the solution?
Guess what? You’ll also have something writers HATE writing or even thinking about. You have a drafted synopsis. All you have to do is add specific pieces that make it a true synopsis, which includes the act itself as opposed to the “The main character will _____.” in your outline.
You’ll also be able to create your elevator pitch, that 15-word sentence you can tell someone when they ask what your story is about. At some point, I’ll write articles about the synopsis and elevator pitch but until I “perfect” it, myself, I have no business doing so.
Anyway, outlines are more helpful than you can imagine. They get your metabolism going so you don’t have a stomach ache while eating or stop because you’re going too fast. They will help you as a writer, and they will definitely help your story form as a perfect puzzle, coming together like that fresh garden salad on a beautiful spring day beneath the shade of a gentle willow tree.
Now I want a salad.
If you haven’t seen the beginning of my “The Writer’s Meal” series on motivating yourself to write, check it out here.
Y’all have an amazing day, and don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear about your outline and how you put it together. It’s definitely not as appealing as the story, but it’s a huge step toward it and it’s worth it.