Boxing Gloves are on and we’re talking outlines

A big thank you to Peter Damien for stopping by and giving us his take on outlining…well sort of.  You know Peter.  Enjoy!


The danger with outlining can be that in the process of outlining, you put down the ideas that excited you in the form of an outline, it satisfies the urge to write that idea, and you never feel the need to get further than the outline. Basically, you’ve told the joke to yourself and that’s it. It can be awfully disappointing.


Like practically every topic under the sun (except for possibly “we should probably use words when writing, huh”) the topic of outlining divides writers and gives them something to fight about. Fighting and arguing about writing is a writer’s first favorite pasttime (the second is thinking about writing. The third is writing). Some writers are for it, with a tremendous body of evidence to support outlining stories, and the other side is obviously against it. They’re both vehement. As with any topic, there’s a big body of writers in the middle who take the hard position of “I don’t know, I guess I kind of don’t mind doing it, sort of, when I need to, you know?” Which is a bit hard to have a fight with. It’s like punching jello.But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to discuss is why one should outline, or should at least consider messing about with it, and why I outline now and again.


Now as for me, I mostly don’t bother with outlines. I don’t need to. I carry out a very long and tangled thought process before I even begin working on a story, and somewhere in that muddled mental mess, a process very much like outlining probably occurs. This applies, for me, to short stories, articles like this one, and comic scripts. I need a beginning, and I need to know my tone and voice (like knowing what key and rhythm you’re going to write a song in) and then I just go. I figure out what I want to say along the way. The major exception to my not-outlining policy, though, are novels.


I’m doomed on the novel front. I joke that I was born way too late in the 20th Century, because I’m built as a short story writer. That’s where I do my best work, that’s where I’m strongest and happiest. I’m a hundred-meter-dasher born in an era of marathon runners. This wouldn’t be a big deal at all, but I like novels, I have novel ideas in my head, and I want to write them. I just don’t have the natural comfort in that area.


So I outline. And in fact, I outline to a level you might find weird.


Here is how my outlining train of thought went for the book I’m tooling around with now, called Save Us. “This book will have, um, fourteen chapters. The book will be split into three parts. Each chapter will be roughly 10,000 words in length.” And then I sat down with fourteen index cards, wrote the chapter number atop each one, and then wrote down what I intended to have happen as major events in each chapter.


Every time I’ve told somebody this – how I outline it down to number of chapters, and words per chapter – I get the same response. “What? What? That is completely aribtrary! Are you insane in the membrane?”


To which I answer, yes it’s arbitrary, and yes I am. That’s the whole point.


All of art is about imposing a set of completely arbitrary structures onto a series of blank and formless areas: both the blank white paper, and the formless idea floating around in your head. You decide that the story is long enough to be split into chapters. Or paragraphs. You decide it will be a novel long, or three novels long (or, if you’re into high fantasy, 6,000 novels long).


And you’re saying yes, but that evolves organically, I don’t just pick it out of thin air at the beginning and put it down as a plan.


And, well, you do. It may be unconscious, it may not be as overt (and thus will feel more natural) than my way, but you probably do.


Writer and Magician Alan Moore is probably the singlest biggest influence on me, both as a writer and really as a person. If everyone has a small pantheon of artists who inspire them and guide them, then he’s top of the pantheon itself (and he very nearly shares that top spot with Hayao Miyazaki). Alan Moore, in a very long and interesting interview, reinforced what I’m saying about imposing outlines. I was thrilled when I read it, thrilled to see my sill ideas confirmed. Allow me to quote him:


“Now, what you have to do is limit yourself. You cannot work in a complete conceptual void. Which is what the white page is. You have to start putting restrictions upon yourself. Now, if you’re working commercially then you’re lucky, in a way, because some of those restrictions will be pre-imposed. If you’re asked to write a half-page story for a comic anthology –2000AD– then you know certain things about the story, there are certain parameters. You know it’s gonna be something in the kind of science fiction/fantasy area, so the genre is already imposed. You know it’s gonna be, say, 5 pages long, which means that’s probably 30 panels, tops, maybe a few more, a few less, but that’s roundabout what you’re looking at. These are all kinds of structural considerations which give you somewhere to start. They kind of mess up the white page, interestingly. Now you can then, I find, often achieve interesting results by…once you’ve got your initial start conditions, once you’ve got your basic shape – you know it’s a five-page comic strip about science fiction – or a five-panel comic strip about a cat – a one-hour performance piece about William Blake – you’ve got your purely external parameters imposed – then, what is productive very often is to immediately come up with a bunch more shackles with which to bind yourself.

(To see more: )

Start imposing ridiculous little rules, just perhaps on a whim, or because you think they might help. You don’t have to be too logical about this, although logic can help.

So. You impose these preconditions upon the work. Then, when you’ve got a bit of an idea of what you’re going to do, attend to its internal structure. You know what the limits of the perimeter fence are. You know that it’s an hour of performance, or five pages of comics, or whatever. Then break it down. It’s a novel, break it down into chapters, if it’s a comic script, break it down into pages, if it’s a performance piece like one of the Blake pieces, break it down into movements. Try and understand how the different pieces you’ve broken it down into fit together, what their purposes are, their functions. An easy textbook way of doing this is the kind of standard Hollywood three-act drama, your beginning, your middle and your end where you’ve got plot points placed a third of the way through, two-thirds of the way through and then, the big climax, right at the end. And yeah, you can see that – you watch most Hollywood films, say they’re about two hours long, then about 40 minutes in, something decisive will happen, and then about 80 minutes in, something that completely turns the story around and that you never expected will happen, and at the end of the film you’ll have the climax, the payoff, where everything will be resolved. Unless it’sMulholland Drive and he’s David Lynch and he doesn’t have to follow making fucking sense.

So what you’re doing is, you start out with this white tundra, and then you erect fine and finer, more and more detailed levels of structure. And there’s a certain amount of intuition in that, which is something which is not really quantifiable, but which comes with practice. You’ll start to develop a personal aesthetic as to the kind of shape of the stories that you wanna do. You’ll start to realise that – doing something this way – you can get results, but it’s manipulative. It’s trying to jerk people’s emotions around. And that that doesn’t feel right. So you’ll kind of modify the way you approach emotional scenesc you’ll perhaps decide that there’s greater power in keeping more in reserve, in soft-peddling, in leaving a lot unsaid. Let it sort of detonate in the readers mind a few moments later. There’s benefits to all these approaches. And they will all shape the thousands of creative decisions that you’re gonna make, probably in the course of even a short work.

I’m sorry for quoting at such length. It’s impossible to quote Alan Moore in any other way. He doesn’t really do short, terse answers.

This is why I outline novels in the completely arbitrary fashion that I do, and why it doesn’t seem like a horrible and soul-crushing idea to me. I’m used to limitations, and I think they’re a good thing. I grew up reading comics. A comic issue is twenty-four pages long. There are exceptions, sometimes, but mostly, that’s what you’re looking at. You have twenty-four pages with which to tell your issue’s story. Or you have 2,500 words to tell your short story because the editor doesn’t want longer.

And it’s not soul-crushing at all, not really. It’s fun because it’s completely arbitrary. The bit people yell at me about is actually key to the whole affair. I am imposing an absurdly detailed set of guidelines upon the work, with the unspoken knowledge in the back of my mind that if I’m three-fourths through the book and things have to change, screw it, throw the outline out. Go longer. Go shorter. Do whatever. The structure provides a scaffolding from which to begin the work and with which you support yourself with when the work wobbles, as a long work of fiction will inevitably do.

Furthermore, the interesting thing about it is that as you begin the work, you find it’s not quite so random and made-up as it seems. We are always told to trust our instincts as writers, that if we’ve written enough and worked enough, the inner Voice will begin to guide us a little more accurately and usefully. Well it’s quite true.

I didn’t realize it until I was well into work on the novel, but it turned out that each chapter was coming out at about 10,000 words, rather without me struggling to manage it. And, yes, it did seem like the book was going to resolve in about 14 chapters, based on how it was going. And yes, there were logical breaks to split the book into three parts.

Your unconscious is looking at the idea and your ability as a writer, and it knows more than you think. The completely made-up outline you’ve created is, really, your gut earning its keep on the page. This means that it’s not only an arbitrary scaffold you’re constructing, it’s also a trust exercise in relying on the unconscious parts of your writerly mind.


And even better than that…it’s fun.

I can’t defend that final point. If you need me to defend fun, then you’ve got problems far beyond outlining books. I think you’d best stop reading this and go pet a kitten,or eat a cookie, or play outside. Go on. Fun-hater.



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