Thursday, March 14, 2013

Discovery Writing with an Outline: How to Grow the Parthenon (Just Add Water!)

According to some successful writers, there are two kinds of writing: architecture and gardening. Architect writers outline their plots meticulously before they put pen to paper. Gardener (or discoverer) writers are sometimes called "pantsers" because they write "by the seat of their pants." Both have their strong points—architect writers typically have room for more intricate plots, while gardener writers tend toward powerful ideas that they carry out well.

Both have some pretty serious shortcomings, though. Architects struggle with what some people call "railroading," where they become so desperate for their original ideas to bear out that they force them to happen, even at the expense of character. Gardener writers, on the other hand, can often struggle with their endings. It's particularly difficult if they're young, inexperienced writers: drawing every single plot thread together into a cohesive whole is tough to do, especially if the plot has wandered around quite a bit.

I suspect, though, that the two can be balanced. Steven James, Stephen King, and Patrick Rothfuss—all very talented, very dedicated gardeners—might disagree with me, and since they're way more successful than I am, you feel free to go listen to their thoughts. But here's the thing: James, King, Rothfuss, and a number of other gardener writers are geniuses. Their subconscious does most of the heavy lifting for them. Also, they don't necessarily spit on knowing where your story is going—just on planning out every single moment of it.

I propose, though, that—as the writer—you're allowed to know at least a little about how your story's going to end. No need to wait until the climactic reveal, right?

So, without further ado, here are the Three Steps to Growing the Parthenon (or, How Outliners Can Be a Little More Discovery-Oriented).

(I'm bad at titles.)

1) You don't need to know every step to know the destination.

A common misconception about outlining—or, at least, one that I held to pretty tightly for most of my life—is that it needs to handle every single event in the story. Every detail of it, from the opening scene to the last and every bit of backstory, character interaction, and stunning reveal in between.

As far as I can tell, that's just not true at all.

Knowing every single step of the story is wildly unnecessary, and frankly harmful to creativity. You've effectively drawn a box for your story, out of which you must not step. As Steven James is fond of saying, "Story trumps structure." Don't feel pressured to map out everything that will happen in the story; usually, knowing what's going on will help.

Suggested Fix: keep your outlining to the bare minimum (if you outline at all). Know how the story ends (mostly), know how your characters will be affected (mostly), and maybe know some of what will happen in between, but don't feel any great pressure to know every single detail. That's absurd.

2) Characters come first.

This was the hardest truth for me to learn. I'll be honest: I'm not really good with creating characters out of thin air. I don't have a whole crowd of people living in my head like some writers claim to. So, when I have to populate my stories, I tend toward making semi-sentient machines: they have a function in the plot, but they rarely have personalities, desires, or secrets of their own. They're an extension of the story I've made for them.

That's bad.

My inability to smite the earth and pull characters forth from the ether is my biggest weakness. (It's not just a writing struggle either; I'm not very good at understanding people.) Consequently, I need to keep forcing myself to write characters who exist independently of the story they're in; they're not just wave functions of the plot. The characters are the heart and soul of any story. Story robots don't engage readers.

Suggested Fix: let your characters behave as they want to. Give them foibles, quirks, failures, dreams. You can always make characters more realistic.

3) No outline is perfect.

Stephen King says that "outlining is a great way to immortalize a bad idea." Outliners will often get way too attached to their original outlines, casting them in stone rather than ink. Instead of letting the story be fluid and organic, it becomes forced, rigid, unyielding, and—inevitably—disappointing.

Here's a quick comparison to get across the idea: imagine that you've met someone you find interesting, likable, and at least smart enough to hold up a conversation. You decide that you'd like to get to know this person, and maybe develop a long-lasting friendship with them. The relationship will naturally consist of a sort of give-and-take; that's how all relationships work, after all. You'll jump in with expectations, and gradually discover that a number of things you initially took for granted are, actually, very wrong. This person is way more complex than you ever gave them credit for.

Now imagine that, instead of letting the person subvert your expectations, you demanded that they be exactly what you expected on your first meeting. Instead of complex and deep and interesting, they become an extension of you; they're just another thing you've conquered.

Stories should never be something you hack out easily. They ought to come at cost. There's an inherent struggle in all writing that makes it worthwhile. Without the struggle, it rings hollow. It doesn't feel right.

Suggested Fix: let the story direct itself. Give it a few guidelines, perhaps even a few road signs, but don't ever make it adhere unquestioningly to your first thought. Stories evolve in the mind; that's how it's always worked.

So, dear reader, how about you? Are you more a discovery writer or an architect? How do you balance plot, with all its intricacies, and characters, with all their needs and depths?

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