Monday, August 25, 2008


A lot of writers don’t make outlines, and may even discourage their use. This may depend, though, on the definition of “outline” and maybe even of “use”. I personally like them, but that’s because the one book where I leaped in without any outline in advance was Redemption. I hit the ground running and enjoyed the writing, but the book now needs to be completely rewritten, because the final product could use some improvement.

So since I’m doing an outline for Empire of Glass, I thought of what I normally put into my outlines – and what I don’t include.

Character profiles

Most of those available on the web – character’s favorite color, pet, high school sweetheart, worst memory, etc. – can be a pitfall. For one thing, writers may feel they have to fill in all the blanks and answer all the questions, when these may not be necessary. I have no idea what any of my characters’ favorite colors are, but I know what they want most, who (or what) opposes them and what they do about this.

Secondly, coming up with this information might make writers feel they have to include it in the story, whether it’s relevant or not. I’ve never actually put time into filling out these character sheets, but if I’d spent half an hour on one, I just might look at it and think, “All right, what do I do with this now?”

Thirdly, the division of character traits into positives and negatives sometimes backfires. Charm and persuasiveness and intelligence can be used to either help or harm; to pigeonhole them at the start might make it difficult for a writer to see the shades of grey that can make characterization so much fun.


I like drawing maps, though the first map I ever drew looked like the continental United States, so I made a determined effort after that to be original. Then I showed a map of Dagre to my friend Susana (who’s from Spain), and she pointed out that it looked like the Iberian Peninsula. Oy.

I still drew maps, since I like knowing where lands are in relation to each other, and how long it might take the characters to get somewhere. These are relatively basic maps that don’t show every major geographical feature and town; maps which did show this would be good for novels where the milieu and setting were more important, like The Lord of the Rings. The drawback to them is that they can be so much fun that they’re a distraction from actually writing, and not all fantasies need them. Tanith Lee’s and Lawrence Watt-Evans’s and Terry Pratchett’s novels do very well in a mapless state.

The history of the world

When I first started writing fantasy, I did reams on this. How the gods created the world, how they made people, how evil entered the world, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Two days ago I took a sheet of paper and a pen and wrote three paragraphs on the origin of the titular nation in Empire of Glass. That was all I needed to know. Best of all, rather than being a Silmarillion ripoff, the birth of that nation was set in motion by a character who would be appearing in the story. There’s more history behind the other nations who oppose the empire, of course, but all I need at the start is the foundation – the empire has conquered Rukcia, Avayne fell five years ago, Fairfell is the last bastion, and the Fairfellans are so ruthless that most refugees think they’ve just exchanged one nightmare for another.

So what does go into my outlines?

I do jot down notes about worldbuilding, but they don’t tend to be detailed at the start. And by the time I get to the writing stage, I’ve usually been turning the ideas of the story over in my head, so I know who the main characters are and what the gimmicks or motifs of the novel will be.

So my outlines are more to do with the plot, giving me a framework on which to build. For instance, in part 1, they go to the Sea for the negotiations which may end the war, in part 2, their enemies spring a trap laid at the Sea, but the protagonists have plans as well, and so on. Then I break it down a little further : in Chapter 1, the protagonists meet at a war council and set off for the Sea; in chapter 2, they arrive at the Sea and try to secure the area but their enemies reached it first, etc. It gives me an idea of what’s ahead, like a map into an unknown place.

Some writers don’t like outlines because they feel it restricts the story, but my outlines are never written in stone. I have an idea of what kind of end I want for the story, but the personalities of the people involved get them to that point. And in one case, they resulted in the death of a main character, which I hadn’t foreseen at the start.

Other objections to an outline are that they detract from the wonder and discovery, the surprise of what’s just around the riverbend, but I haven’t found that to be the case for myself. Writing is just as much fun, and makes me feel more secure, when I know what’s going to happen. I also think that the longer and more complex the story (especially if you’re aiming for, say, an epic fantasy trilogy), the more important it is to have an idea of what will happen. Diving into the world without a map or compass might result in something glorious, but it might also result in a tangled mess as each character does their own thing and runs wild, rather than doing their own thing within the overarching framework of a plot and a purpose that drives the story.

Outlines are just one of the tools available to writers, so the use of them is personal. I just find that they work better for me than no outlines.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I know I always say this, but for those who have not read Robert McKee's wonderful work, 'Story: Substance, Structure, Style, And The principles of Screenwriting," it's a must for any serious writer (oh, and don't let the 'screenwriting' in the title put you off. The work applies as much to the novelist).

The book is a real real eye-opener on the architecture of story design. A few folks are 'natural' story tellers and 'do' structure organically or intuitively. Storytelling is in their DNA, so to speak. Unfortunately most of us have to learn this art. So, yeah, if you're new to this game, I recommend you find this book and read. You won't regret it.

Marian, a word on Maps: You can't go past Russell Kirkpatrick. A New Zealand geographer turned fantasy author. In Path of Revenge (bk 1 Husk) he has eight pages of maps! Personally, I haven't seen any one do this part of the fantasy genre better.