Keeping the End in Sight
I used to prefer writing by the seat of my pants. I just figured out one of the secrets to my success with outlines, though. It took six complete novel drafts (and part of a seventh) to reach the conclusion, but it explains so much.
What accounts for this change of heart by a former pantser, once preferring open-ended prose? It begins with the historical context.
The Earliest Days
My experience with outliner versus pantser hearkens all of the way back to my very first full-fledged novel endeavor: Planet Oz. I squished both techniques together. While I might have seat-of-my-panted my way between each literary milestone, the author of The Wizard of Oz had laid those markers down long ago. Writing a remake gave me a ready-made outline that, I suspect, accounted for no small part of my success in my first year of NaNoWriMo. However, it would take another year for me to appreciate this fact.
I went into the next NaNoWriMo with an exciting notion for the book: restaurants, robots, and transforming robots, all realized in keyboard form. The combination did provide me enough incentive to write all of the way to fifty thousand words, but I made it to the end with a frustrating lack of satisfaction.
As it turned out, I discovered my true protagonist only a third or halfway through the process. My conscious mind would only come to realization closer to the end, though, and that demotion of my first protagonist (and first-person narrator) left me exasperated. I never even made it to the giant robot in the book’s title! What had happened?
That second title had featured a semblance of an outline, character notes, and a general aspiration. In practice, the plan boiled down to the provincial equivalent of directions: the “go left a ways, then turn at where the old barn used to be” kind that serve to get you lost. In other words, I went in without any real notion of where I needed to stop. My story kept going until it petered out of its own accord, cut off at a point begging for less of a wrap-up and far more conflict. The lesson from that year’s journey took a year to sink in, but it did.
Come my third NaNoWriMo, I started work on the entry that would both provide the seeds for a burgeoning series of novels and reveal the core value of outlining. It feels a bit odd to say that, knowing just how much of a complete rewrite that particular novel draft will require, though I did get one part right. This story came with an ending in mind.
My initial ending reduced to a vignette of a battle, a climatic showdown that would settle a dispute between powerful forces, but it came with resolution built it. The big question posed by the opening (another, similarly explosive vignette) received an answer adequate for closing out that chapter of the series, even as others remained opened, while the amount of relief at passing that point felt palatable. If I could experience that, as someone who knew the “big picture” weeks before it arrived, what greater promise did it hold for the reader?
Looking through my notes now, I see that I used a cinematic beat sheet in the process of outlining the third novel. Given the emotional release expected of films, the final result of the novel comes as no surprise. What explains the failures of the next novel, then?
My fourth participation in Camp NaNoWriMo succeeded, technically. I hit the 50,000 word mark and reached a passable point for The End. As with the second novel, my heart just lacked resonance with the results. Even before reaching that stopping point, though far too late into the month, I could tell that a fitting resolution lay outside of my reach. The route to my fictional finish line ran through far hillier terrain than anticipated.
In the process of experimenting with the Snowflake Method, I had ended up creating more characters and interconnections than I could handle. (The problem stemmed from my inexperience rather than the method itself, I should point out.) The relationships, contributions, and needs of those characters piled up far too fast for me to corral them into a story of the proscribed length.
With the last of my 50,000 words piled in front of me, the weight of the open loops felt crushing instead of completed. On the outside, I reached a goal. On the inside, I knew how much of an opportunity I had missed.
My fifth NaNoWriMo entry avoided the over-sized cast problem, but it lacked another element instead. I might have featured too few characters, if anything, but the big problem stemmed from its lack of a powerful enough ending. It felt like the characters walked away from story shaking their heads, looking around for the “On Next Week’s Episode” preview clip. I went ahead and stopped with five days of NaNoWriMo remaining, having already run out of plot before its time.
Have you spotted the recurring theme with all these frustrating novel experiences?
Something snapped into place when I started my sixth NaNoWriMo entry. Rather, epiphany arrived in the days before that month of Camp NaNoWriMo. The month before that had seen me draft my novel outlining guide and that guide included one part absent from all my prior attempts. It consisted of three steps:
- Imagine an ending for your novel.
- Make that ending more dramatic.
- Then, make that ending even more dramatic.
Those last two steps made all of the difference.
What had changed? I had now set myself on such a bearing that I might, once within sight of the finish line, find myself needing to dial back the action and consequences. What writer would not give up a month’s coffee to have that problem?
Looking at back at my notes now, it turns out that I did, in fact, drop some of the potential ending. How did that possibly help? It meant that I had made the ending as dramatic as the story allowed. What more could an author want?
The value in outlines for me, then, reduced to this: they fill in the details between the in media res (mid-action) beginning and its heart-clenching conclusion.
I could off in entirely different directions. I might end up investing whole new characters, plot points, or the like. However, I could “recover” from such changes with relative ease and actually have a stronger story for them because of a fundamental difference between these surprises and those of prior novel drafts. Instead of detours, these changes stemmed from my subconscious discovery of even better ways to reach the end.
Even as I added to the seventh, in-progress novel draft tonight, the surprises kept coming. I caught myself laying down both metaphors and straight-up hints at events to come. The amount of rewriting this may save me shows incredible promise, but I also find such things downright far more fun to write in the first place. Pre-discovery of the ending empowered me on the per-sentence level, to the point that I must now question many long-held assumptions about presumed literary “accidents” in other works. Best of all, the realization of such an important element points the way towards my own “ending” as an author. If I can figure out just what I have in mind for that, who knows what unexpected routes I might find or forge for myself on the way there?
What experiences do you have with outlining? Have you found a particular technique that works wonders for you, or perhaps one to caution against? I look forward to hearing your opinions on the matter below!