On Writing: Outline and Chapter – January 23, 2011

I suppose you can write a short story in one or two sittings. The process is logistically simple: you get an idea, you think up characters and situations that fit, and then you write the story. Everything stays “hot” in your mind for the duration of the writing process.

A novel is different. It cannot be just a big short story. Or at least, that’s not the way I do things. Some writers I know seem to have a single idea that they just “write big.” That is, they create a main sequence of action—such as the coming together for a final battle—and create multiple characters and a handful of subplots around it.1 But I can’t write that way. For me, a novel has more than one twist, more than one point. It’s an interpretation of the main character’s life and all of his or her revealed and unrevealed actions. It requires interplay between multiple viewpoints and purposes.

Granted, I’m not very creative. Ideas don’t come to me often or quickly. So it takes me months and sometimes years to go from that initial spark of an idea to working out all the characters, their situations and relationships, the incidents, the timing, the reveals, the climax(es), and the denouement(s). Or, at least, having a satisfying preponderance of these details worked out. So I open a folder on the hard drive, keep a notepad at hand, and start collecting notions and ideas.

The process really doesn’t get under way until I have experienced at least one moment, usually two or more, of synthesis. That’s when I suddenly realize the action of this book folder over here really belongs with that set of characters over there. Then a little explosion takes place, like the slippage along an earthquake fault, my mental silt gets resuspended, and the creative process moves ahead.

When a folder is full of the notes I’ve taken, and the story is ready to unfold, then I have to make an outline. I know some authors can take an idea for a book and just start writing from the first incident. That action suggests the next incident, from which the third becomes clear, and so on, letting the story unfold for the writer as it does for the characters. But for me that seems too much like trusting to luck. And sometimes these writers get stuck: they’re heading across country, take a freeway off ramp in Salt Lake City, and spend whole chapters, sometimes the rest of the book, driving aimlessly around in the suburbs.

For me the outline is a necessary structure. It’s like planning your cross-country trip on a map, or flying over it fast from coast to coast, picking out where you’ll eat lunch and where you’ll stop for the night. It’s also like the scaffolding erected around a new ship or a building under construction: it provides shape and definition for the thing that is not there yet but will shortly appear.

Outlines are also necessary to suggest that first incident. Consider that, if you are crossing from San Francisco to Boston, your first choice is how to leave the Bay Area. Do you drive east on I-80, through the Sierras, over the Great Basin, and through the Rockies? Or south on I-580 and I-5, through the Mojave, across the Southwest, and up through Texas? The overall route dictates your first choices. And the same holds for book writing.

The outline doesn’t have to be complete. Some parts of the action may still be vague in my mind. But the main structure must extend from end to end. I try to have each part of the book covered at least in minimal detail, usually worked out at the chapter level. The outline can be written forward or backwards. Usually I hopscotch through it as the pieces come together. And then the actual writing process starts.

Since the facts and incidents of the story have to become a solid and definable “history” for the part that I’m writing at any one moment, I must do the production draft moving forward, from beginning to end. (I’ve tried to write the ending and work backwards, but that always feels like trying to walk on air.) Only when I’m sure that what I’ve written so far is solid and represents “what actually happened” can I then move ahead.

This also relieves pressure on the moment of writing, of creating that “what actually happens.” The bet with myself in writing is always to either achieve the outline or do something better. If the outline says, “the character tells what happened last night.” I can always have the scene go: “And then [character] said, ‘Well, what happened last night was …’ ” But usually my creativity steps in and finds some more interesting way to play the story.

The outline is never cast in stone. While the main chapters may be captured in a paragraph or two at the start of the production draft, as the moving “now” of the book approaches upcoming chapters—usually about three or four chapters out—I’ll refine them down to the scene level. To my way of thinking, a scene is a discrete piece of action from one character’s point of view.2 Scenes have a beginning, middle, and end, incorporate one main idea or piece of action, covered in one or more conversations or physical exchanges.3 Actual details of a scene depend on that growing “history” that’s defined by the story as developed to date.

So the outline is actually an interplay between my early thoughts and hopes for the book and the next logical step based on what’s actually happened in the production draft. No outline is perfect: sometimes a one-sentence description for a scene unfolds in the writing and requires two, three, or four separate scenes to work through the action and its implications. Sometimes a one-sentence description (my favorite is “the character jumps out the window and runs away”) turns out to be … just one sentence. Then I have to start shuffling things to accommodate this modest piece of action into a sequence that will be satisfying for the reader.

For me, the writing process is an iterative one. Back and forth, but growing more solid from the past to the future. And along the way, I both create the action and see it happening. At every stage, I have to step out of the creator’s role and into the reader’s. I have to decide for myself if the action of the story is “real.” Is it credible? Are there loopholes? Can I see more reasonable alternatives? Are the characters staying true to their natures? Is the main idea of the book coming out? Back and forth, like a spider spinning a web. I just can’t do all that at one sitting.

And at the end, if everything goes right, the result is more than a simple story you can read and put aside. If everything goes perfectly, I’ll have created a tiny universe, intricate and detailed from every perspective, that you can hold in the palm of you hand.

1. Come to think of it, isn’t that the story of Hamlet?

2. My writing style could be called “third person from the first person point of view.” That is, while the language is third person (“he said,” “she did”) the action of a scene takes place inside one character’s head, reflecting what he or she knows, perceives, understands, and does. The character may observe and interpret the actions and words of the other characters, but the reader is always seeing through one person’s eyes and occupying one person’s part of the story. The fun begins when another scene picks up the persona and world view of a different character—and it’s different from the views and reactions of the others. I dislike, to the level of phobia, jumping from one head to another during a conversation or piece of action. (I only did this once, and then the viewpoint traveled on the tip of the knife that slit the first character’s throat.) Jumping around from head to head seems like laziness, an unstructured approach to storytelling. And mixing and comparing the different character viewpoints approximates my own view of reality: we each make our own truth, inhabit our own world, and play out our own games. There may be a larger external reality, but it is always filtered through the individual minds of the participants. My task is then to show the various sides of the story and let the reader decide what actually happened and whom to believe.

3. The resemblance between a scene in one of my books and the notion of “scene” that shapes a film as a sequence of discrete actions and exchanges is more than coincidental. At heart, I tend to think in pictures and so tell the story in movie-style framing.