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To Outline or Not To Outline

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Photo Credit: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

Our next writers' group meeting is next week, and I'll be talking about outlining. To me, this relates a lot to the inside and outside writers we've talked about a little while ago. There are, of course, different opinions about whether outlines are "good" or "bad". I think that outlining is a tool, one of many, that you should have in your writing toolbox.

When we talked about inside and outside writers, I mentioned that I tend to be more towards the inside end of the continuum. I usually know what the story is about and how it will progress before I start writing. I also usually know who the main character is and what she's like. So, for me, the rough outline is there from the beginning. When I have an idea that won't go away, I usually open a document and write some notes about it.

I'll write the six main plot points:

1. Inciting incident (the "problem");

2. Lock-in (what makes the MC decide to solve the problem);

3. Tests and allies (I would usually have one main one, and work out the rest as I go);

4. Mid-point crisis (when the MC can't solve the problem or fails in an attempt or something);

5. Main climax (the solving of the main problem or at least the accepting of the new situation); and

6. Third act twist (a twist in which either the newly learned skills are put to another test, or the MC shares the skills with the community back home, brings a prize in or something like that).

These plot points are the rough storyline. If I have that, I know how the story will unfold.

Sometimes, I'll outline in more details. I'll use scene cards from the highly recommended Story Genius to flesh out the scenes a bit more. But to be honest, I tend not to need it as much anymore. I do, however, use the main thing Lisa Cron argues in the Story Genius: you have to know why the character does what she does. What are the features of her personality and past that make the way she acts in this scene inevitable? What is it in the other character's personality that makes the relationship between them a ticking time-bomb? Once I've thought some about the rough story, I start writing.

Does this mean that my story is rigid? Maybe. I'm sure Stephen King would think that. But I disagree with Mr King on quite a few things, but that's something he's just going to have to live with. For me, figuring out where the story is going is part of telling the story. If you only write beautiful, powerful scenes that don't have a structure or connection, you're not really telling a story, are you?


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