Organic vs. outlining

There are an infinite number of ways to be inspired, but when it comes to putting your story down, you’ll have to choose between two approaches.

The first is the organic approach. That’s where you just write. Ideas, characters and story unfold with each keystroke. If you’ve ever had to improvise an all-new story for an insomniac child, where you surprise yourself with every new plot twist that comes out of your brain without you even knowing it was there… it’s like that. Only, you’re the one asking, what happens next? Continuity, character development, setting and so much more can be added and finessed in the next draft(s). (Spoiler: there will be many drafts). You can think of this as the riffing stage. You’re just picking up your guitar and noodling around, letting licks and riffs and chord progressions fall out any which way while you record it. This is strictly inspiration only. And it’s kind of awesome.

Doof Warrior

Any excuse to use this photo again. Hypothesis: the Doof Warrior does not outline

Working on pure impulse is fun. It’s almost meditative, a trance state. But it leaves a lot of the hard work for the drafts that follow. It’s like making dinner with whatever you grab from the fridge — you’ll have to clean up all those tubs and plates afterward. Same with writing — you grab any ideas that come your way, and it feels great. Just be aware that later, you’ll be in front of your metaphorical kitchen sink for a long time scrubbing.

(Quick sidebar: your first draft will always be a messy, unwieldy beast. You’ll probably hate it. But think of it this way: your first draft is PERFECT! Yes, we said it. Perfect. Why? Because it contains everything you need, and a lot more besides. You’ll be surprised just how many future narrative problems will be solved by seemingly random things from that out of control first draft. This is why you should never, ever censor your first draft.)

If the dread of that massive cleanup prevents you from enjoying the meal, then rejoice, for there is another way: the outlining approach might just be the best thing for you. This involves creating an outline of your entire story. You’ll work out your characters’ arcs in advance, then determine what story beats you’ll need to further those arcs. You’ll break out what your acts are (e.g. three acts for a movie or novel, 5 or 6 for a network TV script), and how your character development and action flows through them. This is the blueprint of your story. The “what happens next” of it, which is often what prompts hours of looking out the window instead of at your screen. With an outline, you have what happens next. When you go to start actually writing the story, you’ll get into the “how it happens” phase.

Outline notes

We’re patenting this story structure

Creating an outline, whether in a notebook, on post-it notes, index cards or flip charts, can save so much time when writing and editing. (If you don’t outline, and use your first draft to work out what your story needs to be, you’ll potentially have a lot more heavy-duty rewriting and restructuring to do in draft two). It can also help inspire your story as you write. We’ll be honest, it’s not the most fun part of writing. Like making a film or recording a song, the prep work is important and saves you time and energy in the end… but it is work.

So, what does outlining look like?

In its simplest form, it’s you working out and writing down ahead of time who your characters are, and what happens to them. A good place to start is with your main character(s) — who are they, and at a high level, what is their arc? Are they good, and going bad? Vice versa? Are they discovering something about themselves that changes their lives forever? Where will they be at the end, and how is that different from the start? Once you know who you’re writing about, and the basic emotional/psychological journey you want them to take, you can think about what needs to happen to get them there. This is focusing on character first, and using that to determine plot. As you do this, your other characters can come into play — who will help your protagonist, and who will get in their way? Who is their nemesis, their enemy? What are all of their arcs? Because all your characters should have some kind of arc or journey that they’re on. This keeps them from becoming cardboard cutouts that you’re just moving around for the sake of the plot.

It doesn’t take much to give your characters depth and nuance. Look at Sergeant Al Powell in Die Hard (which is possibly the most perfectly constructed piece of pop culture of all time — all the writing lessons you’ll ever need are in that movie). Al joins the action in Act Two. He could have just been a random cop without much going on other than being a device to ask John McClane questions to help keep the audience in the loop. But he’s so much more than that. It starts with his intro: he’s in a gas station buying twinkies when he gets the call to go to Nakatomi Plaza. That detail on its own is something, but it wouldn’t have been enough — but we get the spin — they’re for his pregnant wife, which adds a layer of “we don’t want anything to happen to him!” and also allows for a brief joke with the guy behind the till. That scene is at its core “cop gets the call,” but now it’s full of little details and dimensions that help give his character a little something more (and give the actor something to play).

Al Powell and Twinkies

Al. And the Twinkies.

This continues for him throughout the movie — and it’s not just adding random details either — each piece of his story means something to the movie, and to his arc, and to McClane’s arc. Your homework is to watch Die Hard and analyze how they make Al relatable, accessible, interesting, and, with his backstory and arc, utterly necessary for the movie to succeed.  Then think about how you can do this for your “minor” characters — because really, none of them are truly minor. If they are in your story, they’d better have a good reason to be there.

Al Powell Cop Car

From Twinkies to ringside seat at Nakatomi Plaza: character development very much pictured

Once you have your main character and their arc, and some of your other characters, fleshed out, and you’ve worked out what your basic story could be, then you can drill down to the next layer of outlining: breaking that story down into more manageable units. It’s helpful to think of your story in acts, whether it’s a movie in three acts, or a TV show in five or six. You can start deciding which pieces of story might go in which act. The ends of your acts will need to push the audience dramatically into the next act, whatever kind of story you’re writing. Once you have that, you can drill down again, to the level of sequences (composed of scenes), and individual scenes. For a novel, you can do this, and also be thinking about chapters too. Where will your major story points occur? Where (and how) will you reveal information to your readers/audience? You can chart this in many different ways — whatever works for you is what you need to do. As you start seeing how you scenes and beats can be laid out across your story, more of the story will come to you.

That may all sound too clinical or analytical, but just because outlining like this involves a lot of discipline doesn’t mean that it has to diminish your artistic flow. Outlining is the halfway house between the riffing stage, and the engineering stage that is editing. You’re still improvising as you lock down your story’s structure, you’re still feeling out those characters, and thinking of cool shit for them to do… it’s just a more organized kind of riffing. And once that outline is locked down, you can just dive into the writing and not be held back by not knowing where your plot needs to go — you can make that first draft really sing and get inspired.

And remember, there’s always discovery. You always have to be open to the cool idea, the new direction. The outline is there to make the process easier — but it’s not necessarily set in stone. You may find that your story needs to go in a different direction, and that’s OK. You can just update the outline, and keep on trucking.

Different approaches work for different writers, sometimes on different projects. What worked for your novel may not work for your screenplay. The key thing is that you find the process that works for you. The way of writing that gets you to the promised land of actually finishing what you started.

And that’s the ultimate goal: whatever your story is, you thought of it, which means that you can finish it. Your creativity isn’t that cruel — if your muse delivers a beautiful idea to you… trust her. She wouldn’t send it your way if you weren’t capable of executing it (the idea, not the muse!).

Do what’s right for you as a writer. And see it through. Don’t exist in a dense forest thicketed with unfinished projects. Make your writing life clear and open by turning those beautiful ideas into beautiful realities. It feels good.

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