Stories Need Bones, Too

No matter where you are in writing something, you’re in the middle of the worst, hardest, most difficult part. Finish that novel, back up your copy and lean back to bask in the success of being done and within ten minutes you’ll be mentally struggling through how you’re going to fix all of the problems you first-drafted into the sucker. There’s no escape.

So, right now, outlining is the worst, hardest, most difficult part of writing. Thankfully, I love outlining, so it’s a sort of fun, headache-inducing, worst, most difficult part. Any excuse to pull out a Moleskine and scrawl ideas for hours is freeing and focusing. It’s the one part of writing no one has to see, where using the wrong words in the wrong ways isn’t death. You can just run.

My current headache is the webseries Rachel and I are developing. It’s hurting more than usual, but outlining is supposed to be a bit masochistic. Things look like they fit until they don’t, then you slap the board and start resetting. Though it’s frustrating as hell, every reset gets you closer, until the day when the story just clicks into place. That’s when I know it’s time to write. I’ve tried to write before that moment. Every time, without fail, it doesn’t work. I’ve finished things I hadn’t properly broken before writing. I’d bet money you’d pick them out as my worst work.

Outlining is one of the most vital parts of this writing game. Outlining is when you’re still pulled back far enough to see the big picture and to break the story into pieces like it’s puzzle you need to solve. Which it is. One of the many, many ways a story can get away from you is when the story is right but the pieces don’t fit together in the right way and in the right order.  Outlining is when you have a clear view of when a character (or the audience) needs to learn something, when an event needs to happen to not only justify what follows, but to give enough time and space for consequences to have the right impact. Characters drive the story, but the structure you build in your outline sets what the audience needs to see and when.

That stuff matters. Don’t undervalue just how much it matters. A narrative is a more delicate artifice than it can seem to a reader. Than it should seem. Readers should feel the effects of your structure: the pacing, the rise and fall of tension, the relief or pain of the conclusion. What they don’t see are the million, tiny gears, valves and pulleys, a custom machine built specifically for this story. The less well built that engine is, the more readers will feel the wobble. Things will seem slow, or motivations confused, or tension diffused too soon. No one lusts after a skeleton (please don’t name me any exceptions) but anyone who’s looked enviously upon beautiful people will tell you that bone structure matters.

Outlining is your chance to get a feel for that. It’ll change. Oh, yes, it’ll change with every chapter, paragraph, sentence and word you write. It’ll change when characters buck and kick against your ideas (when they do, for the love of God, listen!) and it’ll change when you realize what you thought you’d be feeling isn’t what you’re actually feeling. That’s a given. Stories change from underneath you. Your outline isn’t an adamantium frame. It’s a blueprint; one you’ll erase and redraw a thousand times. The point is to have something to erase and redraw, to have thought out how those pieces probably should fit before the raw terror and confusion of actual writing clouds your mind.

There’s no right way to outline. Most of my work is done in a notebook. If I don’t know where to start, I write a question (“What does Julia want?”) and then just start scrawling the questions that branch off until I find myself answering them. The first question is just to get my mind unlocked and my hand moving the pen across the page. The overactive part of my brain becomes focused on forming letters, and the imaginative part can supply it with ideas. Other people draw charts on whiteboards, or nested bulleted and numbered lists. It doesn’t matter. The point is staring at the big picture and moving pieces around until the skeleton looks a little like the idea you had when you first felt the story Then you write, and the next worst, hardest, most difficult part hits you like a tsunami.

In case you couldn’t tel, I’m using writing this post to avoid my own outlining-headache. I guess I should get back to it. Where’s that Naproxen?

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One Response to Stories Need Bones, Too

  1. samatwitch says:

    You’re right – most writers do need some sort of structural foundation, especially if it’s a novel or play. (I don’t think I’ve ever done one for a short story but I usually have the beginning and ending in my head before I start writing.) Sometimes my outlines have been quite detailed, ie chapter to chapter details, other times just detailed characterisation and rough plot points. I don’t always think of them as outlines because they are not the structured & numbered ones I was taught in school.

    Hope your short detour to blog helped your creative juices to start flowing again for your webseries.

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