I love to write. Growing up, becoming a full time writer was my number one aspiration. I didn’t want to write just anything though. I wasn’t interested in being a journalist or a self-help author. I wanted to write novels and short stories. Specifically, ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved fantasy and science fiction, and those were the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.
Here’s the problem though. As much as I love writing, and as much as it was the one thing I really wanted to do growing up, I have never finished a single novel or short story. Now, in fairness to myself, I’ve never really attempted to write a short story. I’m not sure I have the brain for them. Every story that occurs to me seems to explode in scope, till I’m left with a novel even if the intention was to write something smaller.
As far as novels go, I’ve seriously attempted to complete three in my life. I originally conceived of the first one when I was in junior high. I never finished it, and here’s a crucial point about that: I don’t know how it ends. I’m not even particularly sure about the middle. About the only thing about that novel that stands out clear for me is the beginning, because I devoted literal years to coming up with it.
As for the second novel, it’s a much newer idea. I only came up with it over the course of the past couple of years. It suffers from the same set of problems the first one does. I know how it begins, but the middle and the end are fuzzy. Another problem that both the first and second novel share is that they are incredibly grand in scope. They’re not just novels they’re sagas…the beginnings of potentially epic series’.
It was that realization that brought me around to the idea for my third novel. I knew that the idea for my second novel was huge. I also knew that the world I was building for that novel to take place in was huge. I reasoned that, if I were going to be able to successfully tell a story, I’d need to pare down my ambitions. So, I chose a random place on the “map” of my second novel’s world. Then, I invented a character on the spot. Then, I asked myself, what’s his story? What part does this character play in this grand tapestry of a saga that I’ve got swirling in my head?
Having arrived at some answers to those questions, I did something that I’d never attempted for any other novel. I set out to outline the whole story. After all, that was always my biggest problem with the other attempts. I never knew how my stories ended. I never had a clear idea of what the middle was supposed to look like. When I would sit down to write, it would be linearly, scene-by-scene, with loving attention paid to each detail, but with almost no idea of how the story was going to proceed. Eventually, I would bog down, my energy would flag as I hit a “boring” section, and I’d abandon the attempt.
It took me years to understand that the solution to my problem was as simple as mapping out, ahead of time, the course of events that would take place. It’s actually a little funny to me in retrospect, because in almost ever other way, I am the consummate planner when it comes to novel-writing. I would write out detailed character biographies, complete with “character interviews” to flesh out their personalities. I would draw maps of the world, detail elements of the political systems in place in each key location, talk about the broad histories of each culture…My worlds and the people in them are rife with detail.
It never occurred to me to attempt that level of planning to the actual events in the story. I just sort of assumed they would grow organically out of the other detail I was inventing. I’d heard of outlining, of course, but I never really seriously attempted it. I don’t know how, but I’d ended up with an aversion to the practice that I can’t actually explain.
For my third novel though, I decided to give it a real try. I had a central character, and I had a central premise. Now, all I needed to do was fill in the story. So I did. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, I plotted out the events of the story, one by one. I did this in order, in much the way that I had previously attempted to write novels. Some scenes I plugged in a lot of information for, others were much shorter, much less detailed.
In the end though, I had a complete story mapped out, scene by scene, for the first time in my life. Even better, the process of outlining had actually inspired some new and interesting scenes, and some new and interesting insights into characters that I didn’t have before. Since then, I’ve taken to writing bits of the story whenever I can. It’s not the most time-efficient method, but the story is being written, and I know where it’s going. If one area bogs down or gets boring, my outline gives me the information I need to simply skip to a different part and write there instead.
So, moral of this over-long story? If you’re an aspiring author, and you’ve found yourself stuck like me, don’t be afraid to try a detailed, scene-by-scene outline, it may be just the thing you need.