Outlines are still for Wimps

Back in January, I wrote about how outlines were for wimps, and how I finally had the courage to become a wimp. If you missed the original post, you can read it here.

The courage has paid off and although I didn’t finish the outline process in January as planned (I finished March 31, actually) I am very pleased with the process. I expect the next time I outline it will go much faster.

How did a discovery writer, like me, even attempt an outline when my only previous attempts at outlining were for college essays? A co-worker—who also happens to be a published writer—introduced me to a writing guru named Randy Ingermanson. His fiction writing web site is here.

Randy advocates his “Snowflake Method” of story design, or in other words, a method for outlining. So, I read the free article on his site. You can read it here.

The short version of the process is simple. You start with a single sentence description of your story and build on it in deliberate steps until you have a four-page story synopsis, a full scene and chapter list, and full-page character synopsis/description for each major character and a ½-page synopsis for secondary characters.

This process can take a month or more, and for me it took two. However, the results were worth it, because I now have well-defined characters, core story, and a plot that flows consistently and builds gradually from beginning to end. I even tamed the typically vast wasteland of the middle of the book by a careful outline detailing the scenes and goals for the characters in that section of the story.

Now that I’ve invested energy up front in what amounts to story planning, I expect the process of writing the first draft will be smoother and more consistent than for my previous works. I don’t expect to be stuck anywhere along the way wondering how I painted my characters and myself into the proverbial corner. There are no corners at this point, only smooth curves ahead.

What about the siren’s song of discovery writing? What of the joy some writers derive from experiencing the story as it unfolds along with the characters? Well, I had that satisfaction while I developed the outline. I conjured the important high level events and determined the path and obstacles the characters would face.

The Snowflake Method has a built-in revision process so that after each of the ten steps are achieved, you go back and update earlier design elements so that everything is in harmony. For example, you have written a one page story synopsis which describes the beginning middle and end of the story with key events and outcomes. In the next step, you do a more detailed character description and you discover that your character would do things a little differently than you first thought and so the outcome of one event would be different. You like the new idea better so you update the earlier story synopsis to match.

This is part of why this process talks a little longer because you are evolving the story/plot in parallel with the characters and cross-pollinating ideas and revising both to stay in sync. When I finished, in essence, the scene list combined with the four page story synopsis (and major character synopses) became a mini first draft and I see the whole story now with all its core elements. The discovery part that remains is how the characters will navigate this path. How will they react? What will they say and do? Will they decide to veer of course and cause me to change my outline? It may. I have already given myself permission now to change the outline. It is, after all, my outline and as the writer, I should not hold myself to any structure that gets in the way of telling the story in the best possible way.

To me, discovery writing is like riding a raw wave of creativity. It is exciting while it lasts, but eventually the tide turns and you are left with still waters.

Creativity in a raw form is also like a bare light bulb shining in all directions, bright and diffuse and illuminating everything. However, we can’t look at everything at once. Our binocular field of vision is ~140 degrees. So, by focusing that creativity via planning or outlining, we are in effect putting that light bulb into a cylinder with a lens and a reflector. Now we have a means to focus and aim that light to help us find the best path forward. A focused light also helps us see further down the path than we could otherwise see with an unfocused exposed light.

Creativity needs focus to produce results. Outlining provides focus for writers.

This may not work for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling with the middle of stories or novels, or sustaining a plot through the full length of your WIP, you may find that investing some bandwidth in story design is a possible solution.

The process so far has been successful for me. I am very pleased with the results. I’ll revisit this topic down the road to see if I still feel the same about the value of outlines when I’m deep in the middle of The Lost Tower first draft.

Has anyone else had any outlining success stories or learned any new tips or tricks since the beginning of the year?

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9 responses to “Outlines are still for Wimps

  • carrie m

    Hello!

    I really enjoyed your post. I’m in the outline phase myself, and although I had heard of the Advanced Fiction site, I’d never heard of the Snowflake Method. I’m definitely going to give it a go! Thanks!

  • Scott

    Great post. I’d love to talk to you a little more in detail about this. I’ll send you a private message when I get some more time. Outlining is by far my biggest weakness. I’m a discovery writer as well, but things are becoming somewhat unwieldly as my story grows and grows. I’m thinking it’s time. Talk to you soon.

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    I’d been meaning to do a post of my own, at some point, about the Snowflake method; but since I haven’t actually employed it, yet, I don’t feel I can comment on it properly.

    Generally, I’m an outliner, for longer works at least. But I say that with a retrospective of actually having written most of my longer work by the seat of my pants, without an outline… It’s forward-looking that I consider myself an outliner, because my past efforts were not great successes, but i haven’t yet completed anything of great length based on an outline, as yet.

    • MJT

      Isn’t experience the greatest bringer of wisdom? I was determined to remain a discovery writer and only after getting mired in the middle of my third novel length work in 20 years, I relented in the same way I relented with blogging, social media, and eventually e-readers. Whatever makes us more effective writers and more importantly, storytellers, is a good thing in my proverbial book.

      Let me know what you thnk of the Snowflake Method when you give it a whirl. Or better yet, I’ll read your post!

      • Stephen A. Watkins

        I wasn’t tied to one method or another for any particular reason. I just wrote what I felt like writing, and I didn’t have anyone telling me it should be done this way or that. I wasn’t even aware there was a debate on which way was best until I’d already looked at how awful and cliched my book was and determined to rewrite from scratch using an outline. I’d realized the need to do that myself, again, without knowing much about the issue. Having decided that I needed outlines for longer works (and having already started working on a lot of background material for the eventual rewrite), I started classifying myself as an outliner as soon as I became aware of the schism.

        • MJT

          I think I’ll dub myself a discovery outliner for now. The Snowflake Method has been a great way to be very systematic for me in outlining my WIP and I hope it sustains me through “The End.”

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