Didn’t you know? A bad outline is the death of a good story.
How can you be creative when everything is already planned out for you?
No emotion in the writer, no emotion in the reader.
How can you follow this rule when you already know everything that’s going to happen?
Like an overbearing parent, a detailed outline can suck all the danger and excitement out of your next story. Here’s a post from NY Book Editors that explains all the problems writers, especially newer writers, cause for themselves whenever they outline their work.
So that’s it? All this talk about how dangerous outlines are, let’s just forget about them?
Please. If not for your sake, think of your readers. You gotta outline.
WHY? You’re a creative person, and you’ve got a million ideas, and whenever you sit down to write, you always seem to come up with more. What do YOU need an outline for?
This was the last thing Swen said to me, before he jumped off the cliff: “I’m going to do something that you will never forget. Witness me.”
As he fell upon the war band, I watched as a car, covered in spikes, collided with his body. I watched as the explosives fell from his hand, undetonated, and his body impaled on the car’s spear-covered hood.
But Swen died with a smile on his silver-stained lips. And he did not die in vain.
Weeks passed, the brothers were killed, and the fortress fell, but still, I could not rid myself of Swen’s dying words. It was only after the water began to run again, when the sanded bluffs turned from red to green did I fully realize Swen’s message.
Twelve days in the desert, and I did not know how much farther I had to go. My horses were dead, my waterskins were empty, and my legs shook with every step. The string of mountains I had been following were dwindling, but I found refuge from the sun’s gaze in a cluster of sand-worn boulders.
Before me, the land wavered in the heat. Not a soul in sight. No plants, nor birds. I would have killed for any sign of life. Even a snake would’ve been welcome. Instead, I got a dust devil.
Wind swept down from the mountains, tangling itself up in the heat, until the two were locked in a kind of combat, spinning and throwing each other around, picking up dust, until there was a tower of sand rolling and revolving across the empty dance floor of the desert. The dust devil crackled with energy, and electric tongues licked out from the gathering sand.
Wind tugged on the buttons of my shirt and pulled on my hair. If I wasn’t so exhausted, I would’ve stood up. I could hear the energy crackling, I could feel it in my skin as the dust devil whipped closer to my shelter.
Writing is a very nauseating experience, like eating a can of heavily irradiated tuna. Most new writers haven’t developed that leaden stomach lining yet, so when they see a blank page they get sick and tend to vomit buckets of useless information all over it.
Something is better than nothing, I suppose, but there is a much better way to go about writing the beginning of your story.
Start with a Scene
Think of your favorite movie or video game. Every single one starts with a character (usually the protagonist) in a rich, immersive setting doing something interesting. The first scene has an introduction, a rising action, a climactic moment, and a resolution; it’s like it’s own mini-movie.
Does it have to be relevant to the rest of the plot?
As an example, take Casino Royale (the James Bond film). In the beginning, there is a huge crowd in a slummy part of Madagascar. The crowd is uproarious as they watch a cobra and a mongoose fight to the death. While all of this is going on, Bond is sneaking through a crowd, trying to catch up to his unsuspecting target. There is a mistake, the target sees Bond, and the chase is on.Of course, we now get to watch Bond display his physical prowess, but more importantly we also see him outsmart his enemies.
The opening scene sucks us into the world of 007. We see almost everything that is unique, visceral, and real about the world, and it’s amazing to watch unfold. On top of that, we learn mountains about Bond’s character (ruthless, quick-thinking, and bad ass).
Casino Royale is an action film first. Your story does not need to start out with this much high-octane, roof-jumping madness. But it does need to show the reader how immersive your world is, and how interesting your character is.
Before the First Turning Point
Most stories have several turning points, or important situational changes. These turning points are usually spread out evenly, to give the reader enough time to adjust, to allow the characters to worry or gloat over their fortunes, and just because it makes a more interesting story.
You want to keep this in mind when starting your story. You don’t want to start too close to the first turning point, because then your readers haven’t had the time to appraise your characters, or to become familiar with the world. And if you start too early, your reader will get bored.
And boredom is worse than radiation sickness.
Outlines, even short, single-page outlines can save you from having to cut out volumes of writing. Try to figure out your major plot points ahead of time, and at least your first turning point before you start the story.
In Media Res
In media res means your story starts “in the middle”. This one is tricky to handle, as it often requires convoluted narratives or extensive flashbacks. It’s hard to keep this kind of story from becoming a spiderweb of plot points and changes and everything.
However, in media res can inject a sense of immediacy to every story, as well as shrouding the tale in mystery. If you want to see how other authors do it, try reading something from this list, like Life of Pi by Yann Martell, or Wool Omnibus, by Hugh Howey.
Or, if your ‘to-read’ list is already longer than an epic fantasy novel, I recommend this movie:
One last piece of advice:
Do not (do NOT) start your story with a character just waking up, or dreaming, or regaining consciousness (unless you have an invincible reason for this).
How does your favorite story start? Why did you find it so immersive?