Plotting, shaping the narrative – whatever you want to call it – is not my strong point, so it's the thing I am most consciously working to improve right now. One of the tools I use to develop and manage plot is an outline. Though I’m the first to say you don’t have to.
For some creating an outline kills any spark the story holds. But for me, if I don't create a map of the way the events and characters will interact; my story will just somehow slowly fail – like it's wandering some desert wasteland with no oasis in sight. It starts out trotting along all optimistically, then slows to a walk, begins to stagger, falls to its knees and crawls the last few yards before expiring with the final scenes and denouement still somewhere beyond the horizon. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but for anything longer than a couple thousand words, I simply cannot write "by the seat of my pants."
Conversely, I find outlining intensely creative. The process is a way for me to discover the heart of the story and to get to know the characters. First, I brainstorm a variety of scenarios and put the characters in play, I generate lots of ideas and random thematic details that might or might not go into the draft. As I begin to narrow the options, I can recognize and address logic flaws – before I start drafting. The outline is a place where I can try out ideas without the time-sink of writing through tangents and into dead ends. An outline is a map of the territory – of the story. Since I’m literally inventing the landscape, my outlines are never set in stone. I often tweak and change them once I begin writing. Even if my outline totally changes as I draft, it remains an essential step for me.
But, as much as I love a good outline, sometimes they are daunting. For writers who are natural storytellers in terms of plotting and conflict, maybe an outline feels like a terminal document. The story has been described and therefore all the magic has been drained from it. For me, a solid outline does not feel final, but it does have a self-contained completeness. There have been times when I’ve looked at my outline and thought, okay now how do I get into this story? How – or where – do I begin. That’s when I remind myself that
The map is not the territory.
I’ve done some backcountry hiking with trail maps and a compass, and I can tell you that those folded paper representations of the ground under your feet are an essential guide. But they are also abstractions, which don’t carry any information about what I might encounter on my journey. A map doesn't include the smell of pine needles warmed by the afternoon sun or the black bear, deer, and countless birds and butterflies I'll see as I walk. The elevation lines that crowd together indicate a ridge, but not the puffs of fine trail dust my boots raise or the ache in my legs, the sweat rolling down my neck, as I ascend.
An outline is an abstraction, a map, and it is only useful if I acknowledge that it is limited to describing the structure of the area of the story and can tell me nothing about what I will encounter on my journey though. As I begin writing, stringing one word after the other, I’m hiking on a narrow trail under the canopy of a thousand individual trees that are simply indicated by a wash of solid green on the map. Even with an outline, what I witness once I’m inside a story is always unpredictable and brand new.