Writing Without an Outline: Finding Your Way Through the Word Swamp
Guest: P.L. Yizzi
Our chosen writing method is a fundamental part of our individual artistic expression. It’s just how our brains work. So whether you’re a plotter, pantser, or a combination of the two, there’s no right or wrong way to get your story onto the page. The important thing is, it gets there. But for pantsers, where we go with it from there, well, therein lies the rub.
Are you on your umpteenth revision and still feel no better able to wrangle the lovable beast you’ve created? Maybe you’re hung up on the hook, or a scene you keep going back to and don’t know quite what to do with? Are you sweating over a voluminous prologue you can neither live with or without? Are you at a loss as to how to tie in a conflicting subplot? Whatever your bedevilment, is your story now gathering dust as you park yourself on social media for hours or stare blankly at the wall, hoping for that same spark of inspiration that compelled you to write your story to return and help you see it through? Any of this ring true? If so, then I bid you welcome to the word swamp.
I spent the better part of a summer in that remote brooding place, teeming with lackluster dialogue, do-nothing scenes, plot holes, and every other evil creature indigenous to the realm. I was lost in my own words and I couldn’t see a way out. If there was any hope of salvaging the novel I’d spent years writing, I had to find a solution before the siren song of the paper shredder won out.
The biggest impediment to effective revision is a lack of perspective.
But I was so stuck in the holistic big picture view of my story that I couldn’t alight long enough to zero in on the collateral damage of non-linear story development—the POV and tense confusion, incidental characters given too much time on the stage, and an overall story structure that more resembled a worn saw blade than an arc, etc.. Having eschewed the use of an outline, which would have provided a map to follow and a place to check in at each stage of story development, I had backed myself into a 140,000 word corner. Professional editors are a must, but the story still has to be fit enough to move on to that stage, and those of us not lucky enough to have a trusted and availing group of beta-readers have to do the problem solving on our own. But where to start when you can’t identify the core problems?
Without perspective you’ll never be able to identify your darlings or other key elemental issues that can get lost in the brush of the intimate view. Taking a few weeks off, or reading your manuscript over and over until your eyes cross does nothing to push your work to completion if you’ve lost track of the thread of continuity running through it. Look at something that doesn’t belong long enough, and the context encoding changes. Therefore by rote, it gets committed to memory as though it belongs. So reading the same thing repeatedly only strengthens that connection.
There’s no other way around it, the story must be deconstructed to see what it’s made of. Piece by piece. What works, what doesn’t. To determine where you are, how far the plot has progressed, and who you forgot to drop off or pick up along the way, you need to silence the background noise of the big picture bleeding through to muddle things.
The holistic big picture of your story seems irreducible. Every detail is important to you. It’s understandable why so many writers find writing a synopsis such a daunting challenge. But perspective, a macro view, shows us that not every detail is as important to the summary as we think. To gain that vantage point we need a bit of that perennial kill joy—structure.
Whether forethought or afterthought, a generous amount of elbow grease must be applied. More so for the pantser, because that free-spirited, nonconformist journey can often leave behind a choppy—and dare I say, sometimes self indulgent—mishmash of a story still unable to tell itself without multiple revisions. Yep, I feel your pain, because the thing about muses, they’re great at spewing forth reams of inspired prose, but not all that great at presenting it in reader friendly form.
Books are sold to entertain readers, but they are written to entertain writers.
Even by the beginning of the first draft, plotters are far closer to a finished novel than the pantser. It works brilliantly for them. But for pantsers, methodical outlining seems downright antithetical to the organic process of creative writing. Exhaustive prewriting of character sheets and plot maps just seems to take all of the color off the page. Pantsers feel an awe of discovery in the passenger seat, more like an explorer of worlds rather than a creator. Who would want to be deprived of an experience like that?
Murder most Foul.
Lack of perspective will prevent you from fully assessing your stories weaknesses, but there is also an emotional component involved. Yes, that’s right, the darlings in your canoe—nagging at you, vociferously arguing their right to be. Those witty lines, evocative descriptions, and colorful characters often times don’t further the story one bit. In fact, they may be weighing it down. Darlings can confuse, misdirect or just plain bore the reader. Every word in your story must propel, or at a minimum move with your story’s development. Every word must have a purpose. But you can’t imagine your story without them, they’re just too special, right? I thought so too, and I was convinced such inventive, lyrical prose could only enrich the story. The question I continued to stumble on was: How?
What purpose did they serve to advance the plot, my character’s evolution? But how do we identify what qualifies as a proverbial darling, or just good old-fashioned whoop-ass writing? If we tossed out all of our writing which we found appealing, what would we be left with? A pamphlet? But I’ve learned if you love the character, phrase, or scene too much, if you stop and stare too long, it’s an alarm that mustn’t be ignored. There’s a good chance the attraction you feel is not one of sheer admiration, but of some underlying emotional attachment to the thought behind those words. Remember the suspect prose hasn’t been proven guilty, but it does require closer scrutiny.
Be in the Now.
After writing numerous drafts, a traditional outline seems rather redundant; and the idea of writing a synopsis to use as a compass of sorts may seem even more overwhelming. But how about a chapter by chapter recap? It’s still going to be painful, but it’s high time to alight from the big picture, kick those darlings overboard, and set your direction.
By breaking the story down, chapter by chapter, I was finally able to see the inconsistencies and shortcomings, where things needed to be fleshed out, and where passages needed to be deleted. Extraneous characters and pointless dialogue leapt from the page. Good riddance!
Below is a sample Chapter by Chapter Recap Worksheet. I’m by no means a tech wizard, so maybe you’ll want to jazz yours up, or not. It’s just to give you an idea you might find useful to free yourself from the quagmire unbridled creativity sometimes gets us into.
The Recap is divided into sections: Chapter #, Characters, Recap, Objective, # of Pages, POV, and Changes. For each section review, ask yourself a few key questions. After entering Chapter #, lets start with Characters.
Is your protagonist and/or antagonist present in this chapter? If not, are the character/characters necessary here? At this point in the story? Are he, she, or they, necessary at all? Do they advance your plot?
What happens in this chapter? Just the bones of it. It’s a main idea premise. Just get in there, have a look around, take what you need and get out.
Now that you’ve summarized what happened in this chapter, ask yourself: What did you need to have happen? Have you met your objective enough to advance to the next chapter? You have that loose outline already in your mind that you’ve drawn on to get you to this stage of development, so you know where you need to go. If you have any doubt, when you compare the objective to the recap, your answer should be clear.
Are the number of pages in this chapter proportional to what’s happening?
Too many pages?
Is there too much back-story, too much info dumping. You’ve worked tirelessly researching for your story and would like to share that information, but ask yourself: Is it merely interesting, or is it germane to the story? If it interrupts the flow, it has to go. And not necessarily into the recycle bin. If it doesn’t add to the story, through it in an odds and ends file for later use with another project. If it is vital, try incorporating it in dialogue, or in the accompanying imagery and description where afforded. Break up the back-story, and dish it out in small, teasing portions throughout the story to maintain the flow and still use the pertinent info you intended to share.
Too few pages?
Perhaps your dialogue is lacking the right amount of description and imagery. This is also a good opportunity to incorporate back-story. Example: Your character has a facial scar that resulted from a childhood accident. Maybe your character was the sole survivor, who knows? Have the character pause during an exchange, stroke their scar. Add a few words about how it occurred, what emotional symbolism it holds. Using a device such as this can eliminate paragraphs, if not pages, of back-story.
What POV is this chapter in? Is the POV in keeping with the desired POV of the entire story? Check for head hopping and inconsistency to avoid jarring the reader.
After examining the information you’ve entered for each of the preceding sections, ask yourself: What changes do I need to make in this chapter? Is there dialogue that needs to be added or removed? POV inconsistency? Are you writing in the correct tense? Are you hitting the milestones of your character arc and plot development? Has enough of the story you’ve formulated in your mind actually made it to the page? Are there still vital components floating around in your mind cloud? What is that full daylight opinion? Who goes overboard, who stays? And finally, does this chapter transition well into the next; do the scenes seem choppy and disconnected? If this chapter is running on all four wheels, it’s time to move on to the next chapter.
If you read your recaps straight down, you’ll find you’ve got yourself a nifty proto-synopsis. Alternating timelines and sub-plots demand a bit more tweaking to polish it into a finished product, but this method affords a good start point free of the big picture thinking that can make writing a synopsis so challenging.
There it is, my simple formula for a complicated mess. I hope you find the Chapter by Chapter Recap Worksheet as much help as I did. Just remember, no matter how desperate you feel, keep on writing and the answer will come — sometimes with the same unpredictability that seeded your story to begin with. Good luck! And don’t let dem gators get cha!