In Graham Greene's stingy faux-autobiography Ways of Escape (stingy because he tells us so little about his personal life) he remarks that only in the second half of his long career did he begin to outline his novels before writing them. Outlining helped him, he felt, and wished he'd done it from the beginning.
That most excellent writer Doug Clegg wrote a lengthy letter about outlining on Shocklines last night. Since I've always been unable (or maybe unwilling) to outline I found his take on the subject fascinating. I want to thank Doug for letting me reprint it here.
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Bio: Douglas Clegg is the author of more than 25 books, including the upcoming (fall 2009) hardcover, Isis, as well as the email serial The Locust, coming out in the summer of 2009. Check his website at DouglasClegg.com for details. He was born in Virginia and currently lives at the beach in New England.
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I used to hate outlining. I felt I was storytelling in the outline, and I'd get bored with it and would never want to write the book. So, for most of my novels, the only outline was the first draft itself. This meant I had a 300-700 page "outline" depending on how that first draft went.
Then, I had to edit it down and cut it like crazy until I found the structure.
However, in the past couple of years, in the studies I've been doing of the architecture of the idea of story and what makes a powerful tale. I think there's another way to look at the outline in terms of a functional scaffolding for the writer's work.
I now believe structure is the most important element in a novel and a story.
I don't believe a writer with undeveloped abilities as a writer can necessarily write a great story or novel. But when the structure is sound in a story, even with so-so writing, a novel or story can be successful. With great writing, it stands a chance of becoming a classic -- either of its time, or a later time.
I have no influence over how "talented" I am. But I do have influence over the technique and craft of story creation.
In the past several years, I've begun studying story architecture -- and structuring what I write far ahead of the writing itself.
If the structure is interesting and exciting enough for me, there's no boredom in the writing of the tale.
The structure begins with a premise. The premise comes from the writer's judgment on some aspect of human nature and the human condition.
From this, I can start to ask questions about where would this story take place, who are the people who most exemplify aspects of this story who will conflict with each other, where am "I" in the story (in other words, how is this a story that I must write, rather than someone else? Otherwise I'm practicing "applied storytelling techniques," and, as a writer, that doesn't interest me. It must come from something important enough to me, specifically, to put it on the page.)
There are other hurdles in creating the structure of the story. Sometimes at the end of a story -- when it's all done and has worked -- I realize the premise itself was something other than I had planned. I love it when that happens -- it reveals to me something about why I write stories.
I used to get hung up on the idea of outlines as being close to what I learned in school about outlining. And to me, that was a homework assignment. I hate homework.
Instead, in structuring the novel and working out the problems of its creation before I begin the majority of the writing, I gain a greater freedom in ordering the scenes, knowing what scenes absolutely have to be there, knowing which characters need further development, etc.
When the structure is in place, I can approach scenes with a freedom to move them, change them, adjust them without hurting the structure of the story itself. Sort of like the game of Jenga -- once it's in place, you can pull out pieces, etc., but there are usually certain blocks of the story that absolutely must remain where they are for the strength of the story to hold.
Why would I do this after publishing more than 24 books in the past 20 years? Because for every good novel I produced, I felt there were two that didn't work the way I wanted them to work. And the problem was in those novels' structures. I'll never let that happen again.
If you ever ask me: what's the one element a story must have?
I have to answer: all of them. Tone, emotional heft, strong idea, talented writer, compelling narrative, strong structure, characters worth writing, good dialogue, great backdrop or setting, etc. But since we're talking outlines here, I'm focusing on structure only.
Now there's something to be said for those stories that are so based on a sudden hit of inspiration that they come alive because, organically, the story structure exists without the writer having to outline.
If a writer has that, more power to him or her. But I've reached a point with writing where I never again want to look at a novel of mine published and think: if I had taken four more months and restructured that story, it would have been unforgettable.
My goal is to write a story before I die where any reader who picks it up will forget they read the story and instead, feel they lived it. Not there yet. May never make the goal. But working on the structure of a story well in-advance of writing it -- for me -- seems to work.
This is just me. You may have a different approach to writing fiction that works beautifully for you.