The Limits of Outlining

I tend to be an outliner but these have their limits as I discovered when working on the latest Kormak short story. I’ve had half this tale sitting on my hard drive for years. I really liked the opening but I could never find a way of making the story work. I got myself into a real tangle by introducing an interesting new character with a big backstory and then not really knowing what to do with her. Frustrated, I put the story away and just left it.

A couple of weeks back I decided I was going to finish it. I sat down, broke it into scenes and did an outline of the bits I had written so far, hoping to make the basic structure of the tale clear to myself.

I started questioning myself about the implications of everything I had introduced in what I had written and what they meant for the story that should follow. I was using that famous Checkovian principle— if you show a gun above the fireplace in Act One, it had better be used by Act Three. I asked myself what were the guns in this story and how were they going to fire. I tried to work out the implications of everything I had already said, then I sat down and wrote an outline.

Once I got to grips with Scapple I transferred the scene cards from Scrivener over to it and played around there. Eventually I had an outline I was happy with.

Then I started writing. At first things went more or less as I had planned, but as I wrote actual concrete descriptions of the scenes, these started affecting the story and nudging it out of my pre-planned storyline. Bits of the stage sets implied something different was going on than I originally thought. They suggested things about the nature of the villain that I had not considered before.

The characters started behaving in different ways from those I had envisioned. Just the act of writing the story changed the story itself. It was like reading a travelogue about a place and then visiting it myself. Things were not quite as I imagined them.

As more and more new details accumulated, I found myself having to go back and foreshadow things. The nature of the adversaries changed. I don’t want to go into too many details for fear of spoilers but I will say that the changes were like those small pebbles that start avalanches. They rippled through the story and transformed it into something else.

The basic structure of the outline was still there, like a skeleton buried within flesh, giving it shape, but everything I had imagined about the body of the story was completely altered. It felt like a totally different tale.

I’m not sorry that I wrote the outline. It gave me the confidence and impetus to complete the story, but I was surprised by how much I did not stick to it.

I’ve sometimes had experiences like this before with novels, but it was much more obvious and powerful this time because short stories are so much quicker to write and tinkering with the structure is so much easier. I learned a lesson too. Sometimes an outline is just something you need to give you the confidence to start. You can abandon it once you’re well under way.

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2 Replies to “The Limits of Outlining”

  1. I’m sure you remember the Snoopy cartoon where he started a story that went – ‘It was a dark and stormy night. A shot rang out. A pirate ship appeared on the horizon.’.

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