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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Outlining Your Work

Kids do a lot of prewriting in school. As a teacher, I know there's an emphasis on outlining because it helps students develop a focus. With an outline in hand, writers know where they are going and what they want to accomplish.

Do we as adult writers do that? Heck, no. We want to write great blockbuster best sellers and have them made into movies. Why waste all that time outlining? After all, there are only so many minutes in the day.

For one reason, an outline is a road map. It will help establish clear motives or why things happen in your story. It's not just your hero going on a journey. You, the author, are going on one, too; and for this journey, you need a road map.

By outlining, you and I can get a distance from our projects and be better able to understand if our stories are plot driven or character driven. It will help us separate the major plot points from minor ones; and we'll learn to recognize events that actually move the story forward. In other words, an outline keeps us on the main road instead of wandering through interesting detours that take us to an impasse nowhere near our final goal.

A common pitfall we experience is winding up having to force our story characters to act illogically because we've taken them to that impasse or dead-end where they have to grow wings and fly to get out of trouble. Now, I'm assuming you've already developed those characters and that you know them as well as you know yourself and how they will act and react in every situation. With your character dossier and road map in hand, you have all you need for your story.

An outline will point out inconsistencies and off-the-mark rest stops in your plot. If you're driving from San Diego to Los Angeles with only a limited amount of time, it doesn't make much sense to take a detour to Scottsdale. If your character has a history of violence, he's not going to be meek and mild when assaulted at the border by bandits. If you have a dedicated nurse in your story, she's not going to stand idly by while child bleeds to death or mother gives birth at the side of the road.

An outline will make it easier to foreshadow events. Of course, we don't want the reader to know what's going to happen next, but it sure helps if we, the authors, have a general idea. A plot is intricate. or should be, and it's a lot like building an onion for the reader to peel later on. There are many places in plot where subtle hints can be inserted about something that will come to pass later on.

So why don't we outline? Because we're eager to follow that ever-alluring muse who often leads us astray through every dazzlingly delightful detour; and we're so bedazzled by our own brilliance at stitching together expository backstory that we forget where we're supposed to be going and wander through our forest of words for days, even years.

Lost? Frustrated? Stuck in story? Halfway through a novel and can't get motivated to finish? It's time to get out that road map to see where we're actually going. The experts say it saves a lot of effort and energy in the long run if we know ahead of time exactly where we want to go and how we're going to get there.

Your story characters will be forever grateful and so will your critique group and any editors receiving your submission down the line.


Pam Muñoz Ryan, Avi, Agents on Submitting Manuscripts

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