Plotting The Outline

Recently I've begun watching the television series 24. My local library had a couple of seasons on DVD, and I ended up going through marathon sessions (I just finished season five). Basically, when I get a new season, nothing else (reading or writing) gets done. I watch episode after episode. I can't understand how people could have watched the series during the regular season, having to wait an entire week before the next episode, one that would, inevitably, leave off with a cliffhanger.

Yes, the show can be frustrating. You can piece apart all the problems. But in the end it's great mindless fun. I could watch Jack Bauer torture terrorists all day. Which I know it an awful thing to say, because terrorists don't really mean to cause so much death and destruction. I mean, it's not like it's their mission in life to kill us all, so God forbid we put them through some discomfort. (note: sarcasm level is at an all-time high.)

Anyway, for a show like 24, everything depends on an outline. I'm sure the producers didn't let them start filming until they had the entire story already written down. And honestly, doing a show like 24, it's tough to do twenty-four episode that had enough action and drama in each episode and that also ended with cliffhangers. They (the writers and producers) could only do so much. They had to keep viewers tuning back in week after week, right?

Personally, I don't like the idea of outlining. It makes the process of writing more of a, well, process. You become restricted to the outline. You become to depend on it. All the novels I've written, I've never outlined. I always have a very good sense of where the story is going and where it will end up (outlining in my head, I guess), but I never put it down on paper. I like the freedom of telling the story as it happens in my head, not as it happens on the outlined page. (Of course, I haven't sold any novels, so what does that tell you?)

Last week thriller writer Lisa Gardner was quoted as saying:

[O]utline your book, scene by scene, on individual note cards. If you've written the novel, then go through it and break it down into its individual building blocks.

Apparently she "uses these cards to physically map out her book on the floor, actually visualizing the flow of the novel."

Sometimes I guess an outline is needed. I remember reading somewhere how Scott Smith extensively outlined A Simple Plan before he even started writing. Which makes sense, because that novel follows a very strict arc of events.

Harlan Coben, however, shares my viewpoint (or maybe I share his viewpoint, whichever way works for you):

I don’t outline. I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo … but I’ll end up in California.

One of my novels was never even supposed to be a novel. I'd figured it would be a novella at the most. But as I was writing I had the protagonist and another character walking out of a building, and as they walked they passed a janitor with his head down. What that janitor was doing there, I didn't know (it was just one of those things that appeared), but a few chapters later I understood what the janitor was doing there (hint: up to no good), and it turned the story that I thought was going to be a novella into a novel of about 120,000 words.

All because of one character who, at the time, wasn't even a character.

That wouldn't have happened had I outlined the novella ahead of time. I would have felt compelled to stick to what was on the page, even if the janitor did appear.

So what does this all tell us? I hate to regurgitate the same thing, but that every writer is different. What works for one may not work for another. We just have to feel out what works best for us and go with it, despite some writers claiming that you have to do something a certain way. I always hate that: writers saying you must do something such-and-such a way.

Years ago, David Morrell told me I couldn't write a novel in the second person. He wasn't being unkind about it; he was just being matter of fact. We were having drinks in the hotel bar, him and me and Douglas Winter. He said a short story, sure you can write in the second person, but not a novel.

And you know what?

I still went ahead and wrote that novel. And my first agent shopped it around. And while there were a few nibbles, there were no bites, but that didn't discourage me. I was glad I'd written it, mostly because I was told I couldn't.

Oh, and that novel? You better believe I wrote it without an outline.