Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Case for Outlines

I've been doing a lot of outlining recently. There, I've said it, and I'm glad I said it. Anybody who's been reading previous posts will know about my on-again-off-again battle with writer's block. (Which also explains why I don't blog as often as I might). One of the things I'm doing to plough through this current one is to do story outlines and hope that when I come back to them in a stumble through the Collected Notes I might find the odd useable nugget.

It's kinda fun to outline, particularly if you know there's no pressure either internally or externally. I find it reasonably liberating to just see if I can make connections between things in a logical, narrative way.

Very few of them have even the basics of, say, character names – the characters get denoted with a fairly basic archetype (or even stereotype) put them in a situation and then try to work out the how, what, where, when and why. I've found myself using the expressions “and then what?” and “for some reason” quite a lot: for example “a future where Earthmen are highly prized as mercenaries in a galactic war – for some reason” and then try to figure out what that reason be. (If anybody wants to use that as a starting point, be my guest, I'd be interested to see what other folks make of this and I can almost guarantee that no two answers will be the same).

This has partly been sparked by my current reading material, which is Kate Wilhem's excellent “Storyteller.” It's a book I can't recommend highly enough. Not so much a book on writing as a book about writing that also has some incredibly used advise within its pages. Mostly, it's a memoir of Kate Wilhem's involvement with the Clarion Workshops (and if you don't know about them, then shame on you – unless you're not a writer in which case, fair enough). Not that it specifically says to outline but it got me thinking about the way in which connections are made in a narrative way.

At it's most basic level it's taking the “what if Earthmen were prized galactic mercenaries” notion and thinking out from it. But why? After, all humans are a relatively puny species, physically speaking. But what if that wasn't the case? What if they were the most robust species in the galaxy? What if the warring Empires where ones of pure thought, able to infect the minds of all sentient beings except those humans born on Earth. So our hero is an Earth mercenary? Maybe, but what if.... well, you get the idea, I hope.

I think it's about making those connections, however unlikely they may be and seeing if they can be justified in any narrative sense, then trying to add an archetype into the mix and see what happens.

I've come up with a few notions that way, not all of which stand up to close scrutiny, it must be said, but in some ways it's a 'broad sweep, go back and fill in the details later” way of looking at the canvas of a story. On the other hand, the outlines are running much longer than my usual notes (perhaps naturally enough) and I've started to find that some of them are outlines for novellas or, God help us, even for novel length works. However, they're most finger exercises to get me thinking about plotting as opposed to my usual 'right, let's start and see where we go' way of doing things.

This does not mean that, should any of these outlines become actual stories, there would be no room to manoeuvre or even change tack completely within the story, but sometimes it's good to know where you're headed (it's also fun to wander though the corridors of your own imagination sometimes as well).

So I've become an unashamed outliner – now all I gotta do is go back and write the stories, outlines on their own being of no use to anyone but me – and I can already feel the cracks in the Block .

1 comment:

  1. just a heads up the link for sample fiction on your website is broken- still after hunting a bit one can get here.