When writing a story, be it short or long, do you outline your project first? I do—to an extent. When I sat down to write my novel Jazz Baby, I wrote an extensive outline, diagrammed every twist and turn my story would take from the beginning to the end—and all points in between. Then I wrote the story and so very little of that original outline actually made it onto the pages of the finished product.
Let’s face it: Real life cannot be diagrammed. Life is spontaneous. Things happen that we could never foresee. Death is seldom predictable, yet it visits each and every single person born on this planet.
Spontaneity brings realism to fiction.
That doesn’t mean an author should write by the seat of his/her pants. I’ll outline the bare bones of a story; work up a feel for where it will start and where it will end. But all of that in-between stuff, that’s where spontaneity comes into play. This is usually the fun part of writing. Even I, as author, won’t know the full extent of what a character may say or do until the moment arrives.
But allowing spontaneity to take root is not as simple as just writing whatever comes into your head. If the hero does something that’s out of character, you risk losing readers. In other words, if your hero is an honest guy, you can’t have him stop a robbery in one scene, then watch as he steals money from a Girl Scout in the next scene—unless you’ve already established this guy has those sorts of flaws. This is where a good outline comes in handy. If you’ve taken time to flesh-out your characters, discovering likes and dislikes, quirks, behavior patterns, and such, you’ll be able to insert these characters into scenes that are believable.
However, doing things out of character doesn’t necessarily make for bad storytelling. If there’s a reason, a situation, or even the unexplainable—and it’s done right—a character may behave in a manner that is unrecognizable by even those closest to that person. The American TV series Breaking Bad pulled this off in brilliant fashion over the course of five seasons.
Short stories are a different animal compared to novels—at least for me. I don’t usually outline my short stories (at least not extensively). They begin life as a few words jotted on Post-It notes. These words usually consist of an idea that comes to me while I’m busy doing other things. Last night, I had an idea for a short story. The words on the Post-It read simply: Girl, closet, candle, heroin; trouble with parents. Moody. Eventually, after much consideration, I’ll begin building the story inside my head. When I feel it begins to make sense, can hear the characters voices, and know where I want to go with it, I’ll then start writing the story.
Outlines are important—to an extent. They help keep a story on track, giving the author an understanding of where to start and where to finish. Just don’t get so caught up in the outline that you’ve squeezed all of the spontaneity from your story. Life isn’t diagrammed; it’s filled with shock and surprise and joy and horror. Your writing should be that way, too.