Monday, September 28, 2009

To Outline or Not

Some people outline their novels before they begin. Others do not. Respectively, we can call these people plotters and pantsers. There are advantages in disadvantages to both approaches. I’ve tried both, but I’ve settled into being a plotter. I think the main reason for that is that I tend to be a big picture thinker and a top down approach guy. Some people like starting with the details and then seeing where they all fit. To each his own, I suppose.

When I think of a story, I see it all as one picture, beginning, middle and end. I don’t have the details yet. I may not know much about the cast of characters, but I know how it begins, how it ends and how we get there. As I worked to a writeable story, I develop more and more details across the board. As the picture become more detailed, it becomes impossible to hold it all in my head. I have to record it in some way. That’s where the outline comes in. I start with a high level and work down to more detail.

I love know where I’m going and I love a good ending. A story isn’t much of a story if you don’t have a good ending. That’s one of the things that frustrates me about literary agents. I appreciate their need to quickly evaluate an author and a story, but most literary agents ask for something like the first ten pages of the manuscript. That’s enough to tell you if it will grab people’s attention in a store, but it says nothing about the story itself. With many books, the first ten pages could be thrown away and not one would miss them. In The Shack, “great” literary work that it is, the first chapter struck me as being completely unimportant. In Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, the first ten pages are all back-story. In fact the first thirty-three pages are back story and could easily be thrown away. I’m not alone in thinking that. The “First Pages” from the preview of the book begin on page 45, presumably because the publisher or thought the prologue was too boring. My point is that the first pages of a story don’t deserve the attention they receive and without seeing the whole picture, you know little about the story.

A story has to end well. Take Romeo and Juliet for example. It wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t die in the end. Or Oliver Twist, if he doesn’t find his family and the crooks get their comeuppance, it just wouldn’t be the same. The beginning and middle of a story are only their to give us a great ending. So I like to know all three when I start and since I know them, I might as well write them down.