Developing story outlines doesn’t mean you have to stay within the lines

Last week, I talked about one of the rules of writing that I rarely follow—writing daily. This week, I’ll touch on outlines.

Many writers depend on a written outline to serve as a sort of roadmap, a way to show how you’re going to go from point A to point B by way of the minefield of conflict. Those writers testify that an outline is essential to writing a book and that you can’t write a good book without one.

Piffle. An outline is a good thing to have, but it won’t make or break your book. Only the quality of the writing itself can do that. Depending on the book, having an outline can be a good thing if you have difficulty staying on track in your writing, but it’s not always a solid list of directions for how your book should go.

 

Colors of Love and Autumn 2015 front cover
The Colors of Love and Autumn was the first novel, and it required an outline to develop the story.

When I was first inspired to write my first novel, The Colors of Love and Autumn, I knew I’d need to organize my thoughts somehow. Prior to 2006, the longest thing I’d ever written was a stage play, which if you’ve ever written one, is about one-fourth to one-third the size of a novel, depending on the length of said novel. If I was going to get this dream of writing a novel off the ground, I knew I’d need to put together a decent tapestry of ideas.

 

I was first inspired on a camping trip with my sister and brother-in-law, so when we stopped off for snacks, I looked around the store for some kind of notepad. Once I found one, I was off and scribbling. By the time I finished the camping trip and returned to Arizona, I had character sketches of most of the main figures in the book and a detailed description of the first few chapters. I wasn’t sure how many chapters I would have at the time, but at least I’d set up the groundwork for a love story between two men set in the northwoods of Wisconsin.

The outline wasn’t extremely elaborate, but it did provide me with a starting point. I used an outline once I started developing the sequel, The Second Season. I also developed beginning outlines for each of the three books in A Cure For Hunger.

With that said, I didn’t always follow the outline. While the outline gave me a place to start, once I got into the fury of writing, I didn’t remember everything that I’d listed as absolutes. Some characters experienced name changes unconsciously, while there were others that I took one look at the name and thought, “Yuck! I can come up with something better than that!” Events would shift, and some would disappear entirely from the landscape.

The outline is not the book. It is not an almighty bible where, if you stray from the path, you’ll go straight to wannabe writer’s hell.

 

creampuff-of-the-county-front-cover
The Zachary Gagewood Mysteries have been developed without outlines, including the pending sixth novel in the series, Creampuff of the County.

That’s probably why, once I started considering shifting from same-sex romances to mystery novels, I decided not to lean so heavily on writing outlines. In fact, most of the novels in the mystery series were developed from two to three paragraphs, the same two to three paragraphs that can be found on the back cover. For example, here’s the framework for the novel I’m currently working on (aka the rear cover blurb:

 

“It’s fair time for Shawano County, and that means the Fairest of the Fair, Victoria Pennington, is hitting the streets to hype up the longest-running county event. It also means the mild-mannered Fletcher Burgess is preparing the fair’s tastiest treat—creampuffs. Tensions are high at this year’s fair because Fletcher’s daughter, Janet, believes she was robbed of the Fairest honor due to the Pennington family’s enormous donation to restore aging fair buildings.

“The friction hits fever pitch when the Fairest eats a creampuff for a television commercial promoting the fair dies immediately after taking a bite of the beloved confection. Fletcher, who personally served the puff, is believed to have killed Victoria to avenge the injustice his daughter suffered.

“While officials are trying to quell local fears about safety at the county fair, Zachary Gagewood tries to clear Fletcher’s name and find out who really wanted to send the Fairest of the Fair to her maker. The question is whether Zachary can sort through the fluff and identify the murderer before someone else falls prey to a killer confection.”

From there, Creampuff of the County has mainly been outlined in my head, but I haven’t had any complaints about major plot faux pas. As long as you have a map, whether it’s in words or in your head, that’s what matters.

 

hex-of-the-dragon-fruit-front-cover
A very elaborate outline was essential to truly piece together Hex of the Dragon Fruit, a story that will be developed in between projects.

Ironically, I have returned to developing an outline for a novel I’m working on that’s completely separate from the mysteries. Besides Creampuff, I’ve also developed an idea for a fantasy novel called Hex of the Dragon Fruit. Knowing that this novel would be on a back burner whenever I was working on the mystery series, developing an outline seemed like the only way to keep this story from falling into the abyss of half-completed ideas I’ve had over the years.

 

Here is a sampling of what I’ve outlined for the characters in Hex of the Dragon Fruit:

Blue—A warrior in the land of Noridem. While he has magic the same as all in the land, his skills are mainly in swordsmanship and martial arts. He is the captain of the guard for Emperor Pretek. At first, he has a hard time dealing with Austin and his different personality, but it’s those defiant differences that eventually turn him on and cause him to fall in love.

Austin—An orphaned homeless 22-year-old living on the streets of Baltimore. He discovers he has mystical power in him when he inadvertently opens a portal to Noridem while escaping a couple of thugs intent on assaulting him. He wears a gold earring in his left ear and bears a triquetra tattoo on the back of his left shoulder.

Nephra—A very powerful sorceress who believes she is the only one who should possess magical abilities. She cast a sleeping spell on the dragons in the realm, preventing them from pollinating the dragon fruit, thus weakening other magical beings. She has a ghostly pale face that stands out from her pink, purple and blue hair.”

I also outlined some of the main artifacts and devices, locations and specific actions that took place in each chapter. The outline itself is five pages long and is, without a doubt, the most elaborate outline I’ve ever developed. In this case, I think it needs to be this way so details don’t fall through the cracks.

Each story is different. Each story has its own demands when it comes to details. Outlines are a good resource, but they’re not the only tools to make a story good. Use them if they work for you, but if they don’t suit you, feel free to skip that step in the writing process. Follow your own path.

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