Plot development is at the centre of this week’s article in the series Twelve Rules of Writing – in particular the subject of outlining. As a quick reminder, this is the extract from the original article: ~
11. Do I need to outline my story or just write it?
That depends. If you already have a detailed outline in your head, then you don’t need to outline it. If, on the other hand, you have no plot or structure then you need to outline the plot you don’t have. It’s easy, just indent every other sentence until it makes sense.
Outlining is just one of the techniques that can help you if you are struggling with plot, and since we mentioned it, let’s start there:
The purpose of outlining is to allow you to operate at different levels within the overall plot arc. At it’s most basic, we can start with an overall premise and three labels: Beginning, Middle and End. Note that you don’t have to adopt a 3-act structure and if you already have a structure that works for you then use that, but the important thing is that you impose some structure.
Once you have an overall structure you can begin to fill out the levels beneath the overall structure with elements, initially at high level and then in more detail. The point of outlining is that you can dip down into detail anywhere in the plot as it occurs to you without worrying about how you get there. There is a freedom in this that liberates you from the narrative sequence and allows creative expression.
You don’t need software to outline, though there are some useful tools you can use which include outlining functionality such as OmniOutliner, Scrivener, NoteLiner and others, but you can just as easily use sticky notes or index cards. The key elements are that you should be able to expand and collapse each element independently allowing you to focus on that element without worrying about everything that precedes or succeeds it, and that you should be able to move elements about in the structure if you want to. That might be laying cards out on a surface, or clicking and dragging a paragraph.
Potential pitfalls of this technique are in the level of detail to which you descend. If you drop down too far you can over-outline an element and steal all the fun and surprise from that scene so that when you come to write it you find there’s nothing to do and your pen is dry. On the other hand you can push the level of detail so that you are, in fact, writing the scene and then you’ve lost the big picture, which was the purpose of outlining in the first place.
The trick is to stay light and agile, swapping between scenes and adding in detail all across the story arc until you have enough that you think you can write it. Then stop outlining and start writing.
If outlining had an antithesis it would be freewriting. In freewriting we ignore structure and follow the narrative path to discover where it leads. There is a different kind of freedom in this, in that it liberates the writer from structure and allows their subconscious to manifest in the story, revealing new truths and discovering hidden jewels. Writers sometimes talk about characters walking in and taking over, which is an aspect of freewriting – if it feels right then go with it.
The downside is, of course, that you can end up writing material that has no discernable plot – a structureless story without development or progression. In some cases this can be avant-guarde, but mostly not, and it can leave the reader disorientated and unable to follow.
The most powerful tool for the freewriter (some would say for any writer) is the delete key. If something isn’t working then have the courage to delete it. If it was good after all then you will be able to re-create it, if not then it is better gone. This can mean that you are deleting more than you are left with, but if that’s what the story demands then so be it. Remember that freewriting can produce a lot of material quite quickly, so there is seldom a problem with insufficient words.
At its most powerful, freewriting is revelatory and inspiring, but not for the faint-hearted.
Snowflaking is a little like outlining in that it operates at different levels of detail, but it is rather more formal in approach. This technique starts at a high level, one sentence summary of the plot and then iteratively creates increasing layers of detail until the story is written. Note that this is different from outlining in that in outlining you are encouraged to switch levels and move around within the story arc as the mood takes you, but in snowflaking the direction of progress is towards increasing levels of detail.
The power of this fractal approach comes from the link between the overall premise and the final story, and it is almost guaranteed to provide you with a story that is true to the original idea. The weakness is that it doesn’t allow you to deviate from that idea, and can produce results that are formulaic and uninspiring. It also relies on a brilliant premise, and if you have that then this technique can generate a story quite quickly and relatively easily, but if you don’t then it can feel like you are just digging yourself into a deeper hole.
If you really need a formal structure and a regulated approach then this technique can work for you, but don’t let it stifle your creativity.
Backtracking is an alternative approach to plot development that starts with the end and works backwards to the beginning. This sounds initially strange but can be very useful in certain circumstances. If we take the example of a murder-mystery, we can start from how the murder was done and then work backwards to the clues generated, the red-herrings created, the characters who would be suspect and the beginning of the story, which could be where and when the body was discovered.
The power of this technique rests in the questions. Why was the victim killed? Who would want them dead? Had they done something to deserve it? Who would have a motive? Where would the murder take place? Questions are powerful because they feed back into character. What sort of person would kill another human being and then conceal what they had done? This gives you an insight into that character and allows you to write about that person in a way that feels true and vital.
Backtracking can be used to plot an overall story, but also at a more detailed level. If you have an event in the story arc that you need to get to but you find yourself blocked, then you can work backwards from that event by asking why it happened. What happened to lead to that event? Who was involved, and what was their motivation? These questions may lead you back to a different point in the story than where you were trying to write from, and allow you to discover why you were blocked.
The weakness in backtracking is that it can lead to plots that seem tenuous and contrived, since there is a web of dependency leading to the final event, created specifically to support that event. When using this technique you should question each link in the chain and ask whether that is really there for the story or simply to make the plot work. Otherwise you may find your story dominated by plot devices and helpful coincidence.
Each of these techniques has strengths and weaknesses and each is more or less appropriate in certain circumstances, so which would I recommend? The answer is all of them. Writers need to develop a range of techniques and tools for dealing with different problems and learn when to use a particular technique. This comes with experience and practice, so trying each if these techniques is a good place to start. You will find that each has benefits and each comes with it’s own restrictions and limitations.
This is not a definitive list of writing techniques and there are others that you can learn and experiment with. Try mind-mapping or borrow Robert McKee’s excellent screenwriting technique documented in Story. Use flowcharts, cover the walls with sticky notes, fill notepads with random notes and build character databases. All of these have their own strengths and weaknesses, and you can discover them for yourself by experimentation.
There is no single recipe for good story writing any more than there is one writer of good stories. Each writer must discover what works for them. But if you find yourself stuck and you’re wondering what to do about it, try a different approach – you might find that you solve more than just the problem you’re faced with.