Okay, so how do you outline a story? Last week, I wrote about how I wanted to write my own superhero story. At this point, it’s going to be a manuscript for a novel. Typically, superhero stories are comic books or graphic novels. But since I barely have enough hours in the day to do this, I figured I’d start with the words—which take considerably less time.
Normally, when I write a story I jump in feet first. It isn’t until I reach the unbearable middle of the story that I realize I need some planning. As a writer, it’s very attractive to just start with an idea, when the enthusiasm is high. But, sooner or later, the reality sets in. Writing is super hard. It’s work. It’s not as magical as those idiots in school claimed it was.
If you’re a writer, and if you’ve tried both methods of writing (outlining ahead of time like a Type-A lunatic or writing from the jump with no plans in sight), you hit the same challenges. I like to think outliners tricked themselves into thinking that, as long as they plan ahead, they won’t hit the block. But they do. Everyone does. That’s because coming up with an original story that connects with a reader is much easier said than done.
So, I wanted to show a little bit of my process, to dispel all the nonsense online. If you’ve ever looked for helpful solutions for writing online, you probably found endless articles that promise you the moon. If you only followed their “6 Easy Steps” or whatever, then you’d write a masterpiece every time. Not true. There are many hurdles you have to overcome, if you want to turn an idea into a story.
Outlining can help relieve some of your anxiety. But not all of it. While working on my new story, I realized that outlining can create a false sense of security. Sure, in a matter of days, I have over ten chapters of this book “done.” But that’s not true. I have a skeleton of ideas, strung together like a Halloween decoration. But do these ideas constitute a story? Am I spending enough time with the characters, getting inside their heads, really figuring out what this is all about?
There is a certain kind of alchemy that happens only when you’re writing. Ideas connect, synapses fire, and your story goes in directions you did not expect. I don’t think that happens as often when you’re outlining. It’s almost like cheating, getting the answers before the test.
That doesn’t mean outlining is for the birds. It means, even for someone devoted to writing their story before they write it, you have to be flexible enough to let the story change in unexpected ways as you draft it—even if that disrupts your precious outline.
What’s my progress?
So far, I have sixteen chapters outlined for I AM HADES, including a short prologue. By this time, I have reached the dreaded middle of the story—the longest part where the most happens, but is the hardest to work out. My setting has been more or less worked out, the protagonists and antagonists introduced. I have a few ideas for the main conflict and theme of the story. But there is still much more ground I need to cover, before we get to that satisfying ending.
One thing I did learn is the risk of rushing through with an outline, before letting things “marinate” in my head. What do I mean? I recommend most writers spend time thinking about their story, long before they write it. If you’re stuck, get away from your notebook, go for a walk, put on some music, and just let your imagination flow. Put yourself in that scene or setting that you’re stuck on and just see what happens.
This kind of brainstorming is necessary for building out your story. You did it before you started writing. You imagined a story in your head. So much so, you had to write it down. But, chances are, the story was long from finished. When you get to that unpaved road, you need to step away from the outline (or manuscript) and go back to brainstorming. I find that going for walks, while listening to music helps. Parts of my brain are distracted enough so my imagination can work.
I realized I needed to do this while outlining. My focus was so tightly knit on one aspect of the plot, I had neglected details needed for the story. Of course, those things could be put in as I write or rewrite. But sometimes, details need to be in there ahead of time, so that they can influence the rest of the story.
Ever wonder why stories sometimes don’t work? (Be they in a book, comic, or movie?) It’s because the writers moved too quickly, rushed out an outline or script, and never let their ideas “breath” in brainstorming. You can rewrite all day long. But, if you’ve ever finished a story and tried to rewrite, you’ll know that some things cement down very hard—and are impossible to lift up. By that I mean, there are things you put into your story early on that you can’t change. No amount of rewriting is going to fix it, short of starting all over again.
This isn’t my attempt at discouraging you from writing, but a warning sign before you cross that rickety bridge. Don’t rush ahead with your outline. Let it breathe. Take your time. Go for that walk. You’ll be happy you did.