Writing fiction is damned hard. We all know that. But why is it so hard? After all, talking—producing a continuous flow of words—is pretty easy. Three-year-olds do it effortlessly. Wait, you say, fiction is different. Oh yeah? What is fiction, except fantasizing at length, which is also well within the powers of the average three-year-old. But writing fiction? That’s a different story.
I figure it this way: Fiction writing is hard because it requires that you do three things at once: 1) create believable characters, 2) tell a compelling and coherent story and 3) choose the right words and nothing but the right words. This is the linguistic triathlon in which we’re all competing.
So, what can you do to make this formidable task easier? I can’t tell you with any certainty what will work for you—we all have our habits, our preferences and our predilections—but I can share my method and you can apply all or parts of it as it makes sense to you.
What I do is what the triathlete does: I separate the three components of the task—characters, story and language—and work on them one at a time. Here’s how:
I begin with a document I call “Cast of Characters.” I list every major character who’s going to be in my book—at least, all of them that I know at this point—and I depict them, usually in utilitarian and telegraphic language. No need to be fancy.
I describe them physically, psychologically and economically. I list their quirks. I work out their relevant back stories. I note their relationships with each other. I mention their hopes and dreams. I determine their motivations and what’s at stake for them in the adventure I am about to tell. I put all of my ideas on paper, even the bad ones.
After I write this, I let it cook for several days at least, maybe longer. Often, as I lie in bed waiting for sleep, I watch my characters in my minds’ eye, interacting, dealing with problems. I think of what they could do in various circumstances, alone and with each other. I add and delete stuff as it occurs to me.
When I’ve gone as far as I can go with my cast of characters, I put it down and start on my next document, the outline. This focuses intently on the second element of the trifecta, the story. I’m not thinking of language when I write this, just plot. I’m not developing characters either, except as needed to tell the story. My aim is to get the plot down on paper, to lay out the events in the proper order—what happens to whom and why and how it all ends up.
I have my own method for putting events in order: I list every one I can think of, every problem the characters might confront, every obstacle they must overcome, every interaction of significance, even every likely ending. I make NO attempt to put these down, at least initially, in any kind of order. I just make a list.
When I have harvested every idea my axons, dendrites and neurons can come up with and added it to the list, then I start to put these items into some kind of tentative order, probably chronological. Should new ideas come to mind at any time in the process, I put them where they belong. Should other items on the list prove not to fit, I eliminate them. This takes a lot of time, a lot of experimenting, a lot of thinking.
How do you determine the right order of events? I think that’s something your instinct must decide. But as you comb over your outline again and again, trying things out and switching things around as only word processing allows you to do, you will find that there is a natural order, that A must come before B, or B will be confusing, that M must come before N because in a way, M causes N.
When I think I have a list that works reasonably well, I flesh out each item a bit, with a few explanatory phrases and now and then a snatch of dialogue. I write in prose, creating a kind of Cliff Notes version of my book. I don’t use any formal outlining techniques. I find them artificial and constraining and they’re a real pain to use in Microsoft Word. So, no “I’s, “II’s” and “III’s,” or “A.” “B” and “C,” etc. Just prose. Conversational prose. I’m the only audience for this one.
What I’m chasing here is the story. For me, this is the very hardest part of writing a novel, the most brain-busting part, the part that requires the greatest concentration and focus. And it can take months to produce.
In my experience, outline is not fun, although I have often experienced the satisfaction of solving what seemed an intractable problem, or discovering a way to use a character that had not occurred to me before. Outlining is painful because it requires you to keep your entire story in your head, in brainram.
So, why outline, when you can just, well, start writing and let your characters do what they want to do while you watch the story develop and record it with nothing more than a bit of prodding here and there?
In my experience, outlining makes a novel much easier to write, for several reasons:.
First and foremost, it allows me to focus on story development without worrying about the language I’ll use to tell it. I don’t have to think about dialogue or description. I don’t have to worry about metaphors or synonyms or dialogue tags. I can deal with those things and their brothers and sisters at another time.
Second, when I’ve finished it, my outline will give me the confidence that comes from knowing I have a complete, coherent story. And we writers know that anything that increases our confidence is priceless.
I’ll also be confident enough to deviate from the outline if I come up with a better order of events or something totally new. It’ll be like leaving the highway to check out a nearby attraction, with the knowledge that I can get back on the highway whenever I like.
Third, an outline allows me to write out of order if the impulse strikes me. I think this is a huge advantage. Sometimes, I find myself coming up to a very difficult scene, one that I dread writing. When that happens, I often choose to write a later, easier scene, to get the underbrush out of the way, so to speak, before I tackle the brick wall. Once again, it’s a matter of building confidence. Piling up the pages does that for me.
So, how detailed should your outline be? I’ve heard of writers who’ve written 100 or 200-page outlines. For me, anyhow, this is overkill. My finished chapters tend to run 20-25 manuscript pages. In my outline, each one usually takes up a page or less.
I think that creating an outline is an enormously intense and creative process—more so than writing the actual book in many ways. I know that some writers feel outlines shackle them and limit their options. But I disagree. Big Brother is not watching you when you write. If you want to deviate from your outline, and you probably will, no one will call you on it. My completed books differ from their outlines by as much as 30%, and that doesn’t bother me at all.
Some writers genuinely do not feel the need for an outline. They know where they’re going from the start. These folks have more ordered minds than I do. Others feel that writing a book is a wonderful journey and they don’t want to know the destination until they get there. These folks have more creative confidence than I do. If you’re one of these writers, you may not need an outline. For the rest of us, it’s a terrific help.
So, okay. If you’re following my plan, you’ve got your cast of characters. You’ve worked out your story. Now you can put everything you’ve got into finding the right words. That may well lead you to revise your characters and alter your story, but you won’t be flying blind. You’ll know where your going and how to get there.