15 March 2011

Story Dandruff: How Outlines Can Kill Creativity

I'm going to spend the next few posts discussing outlines; appropriate since I'm in the throes thereof. Tune in later for parts two and three.

Hands up who out there is a pantser, who trembles at the very hint of an outline, who cries at being asked to structure their first draft, and who would rather die than write a story that's already been written (in outline form)?

Yes? Well, you'll sympathise with my topic today.

There are, of course, as many ways to write as there are people who write (and probably more, since all my novels so far have demanded that they be written differently), and outlines are one of the more fraught topics of conversation. To love them, or hate them? To use them or abuse them? To write them all out and then conveniently ignore them while you write, making you wonder why you bothered in the first place?

I've had experiences at all ends of the spectrum (yes, all; this is more than a linear scale!), and today I'm going to talk about my worst outlining experience ever. It was a play, not a novel, but the essential principles remain the same. This play was written for a specific purpose, to be performed at a specific time to a specific audience - and things just keep getting more specific. Initially, I was told the topic of the play. Then I was told the basic story line it would follow (a retelling of a well-known (in those circles) story).

All good, all fine thus far. I could work with a general plot, and still interpret and embellish and dramatise, and all would be well.

Except. Specific. The commissioner of the play is a very specific fellow, and soon I not only had a rough plotline I had to follow, but a schedule that involved certain events happening on certain nights, bits of dialogue that needed to be included, set ideas that had to be worked in, and a particular number of characters.

I reeled. I floundered. I wrote the play, and every single person who worked in it (who have all performed plays of mine in similar contexts before) unanimously agreed it was the worst play I'd ever written. I pretty much refused to put my name to it.

Now, I firmly believe that outlining is a Good Thing, that it's *le gasp* necessary and can save a whole bunch of headaches (see forthcoming post!). So what went wrong here?

Easy: too much outlining, and from an externally imposed source. Now, it might be really tempting for you to sit back and say - well, that's fine! I'm never going to write on request like that, and I'll decide what I want to write, and everthing will be great! So I'm sorry about your problems, but they don't apply to me.

Except, they do.

Externally imposed outlining doesn't just happen when other people impose things on you; on the whole, we're pretty good at doing it to ourselves. Fantasy and sci fi writers are particularly notorious for this, mostly because we're the ones who tend to go overboard on the whole worldbuilding thing. We spend days/weeks/months/years building our world before we ever put pen to paper for the actual story, which means that by the time we come to write, there are a whole bunch of 'external' factors dictating how the story should go.

Forced-march plotting, I believe it's called. It's where the plot happens for no reason other than that it must, and I'm guilty as heck of it even in writing that I do for myself. I've decided how I want the story to end up, what the steps ought to be to get the characters from A to Z, and by hook or by crook, those are the steps they'll take, character veracity be hanged.

It leads to a story that's dry and often illogical - and it's all to easy to fall into the forced-march trap. I did, in January, with the first version of the rewritten Act One of Jesscapades. Characters come across as stupid and unmotivated, plot events happen by coincedence and seem too convenient, and the whole story feels dry and flaky. Story dandruff? Don't let it happen to you!

Combat FMP (forced-march plotting) by taking a long hard look at your characters. Is x plot point something they would really do in that situation? If not, can you switch out the plot point for something else? Can you give them a plausible excuse for doing something out of character? Or even better, can you build up to this and motivate them so Plot Point X comes across not as an anomaly, but as a new and exciting facet of the character, making them a deeper, rounder, more real character?

So, Planners beware: outlines are tricksy little beasts that will turn on you as soon as look at you. Don't let them take control.

Pansters of the world unite!

Anyone else have outlining horror stories to share? O:) :D

1 comment:

Merc said...

Well, I like outlines. ;)

But as far as outlining horror stories...mine was again something of an outside source.

A (now defunct) mag had asked for a serial based off a flash fic story. I said sure, and went about outlining it. I got feedback from the editor and began writing--but it was HARD, uninspired and the outline was painfully confining (for many reasons). Also, I didn't want to deviate from it too much, so exploring things was a challenge. All the constrictions made it a general unfun experience (and then the project was canceled since the mag closed, so... it ended up a lot of wasted work).

It taught me, mostly, I have a hard timing writing on spec and for someone else's vision, and if I lack a true passion for a project, it will not turn out (or end) well.

Although on the bright side, that whole experience (and things following) helped me figure out what I wanted, seriously, from my work and professional ambitions. School of hard knocks and all, I guess?

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