An outline is — for me — almost essential. It’s a tyranny, and it’s subject to a great deal of change and negotiation. It’s needs to be there, but I don’t have to like it. Sometimes, there’s anarchy waving torches at the gates of the outline’s remote mountain stronghold.
My alter-ego writes non-fiction. The outline is — in essence — the contract. There’s little room for capital “I” Inspiration. The inspiration must have much smaller focus. It’s limited to concrete examples to support (or possibly explain) the technical topic at hand. Adding a new chapter is a fight with the editors. In a way, the outline is based on the idea that the details are all at hand, and the author is only summarizing them. There’s no concept if the author creating those details, and some details may have escaped the author’s non-omniscient gaze. Fortunately for my sanity, the editors are reasonable people and let me insert the missing chapters.
The Hero’s on a journey: arbitrary kinds of things could happen.
Things have consequences. And those consequences have consequences.
I devour the essays by writers who can create characters and follow them where they lead. I’m entranced by the idea. It’s so perfect.
But I can’t live in such a fluid world. Even when I try to read between the lines and strip away the poetry, I still struggle with fluidity.
I feel that characters can only exist in a context. There are external forces which shape them. In some cases, they exist to define the consequences of external forces.
In many cases, they have no control over the external forces. I’m fascinated by the “coping” aspects of people’s responses to adversity. I’m not so happy with heroes that can forge their own destiny and bend others to their will. The world doesn’t seem to work that way for most of us.
When I read accounts of successful people who claim to have control over some portion of the world, I suspect they’re spinning a self-aggrandizing story of what they wish they did. The reality might involve more happy coincidence than they’d like to admit.
When the drama is driven by “external” forces, this can’t be arbitrary. Summarizing context as the whims of the gods doesn’t feel right to me. The antagonists can’t be omnipotent. In many cases, they’re not even very smart. They’re just powerful, or quick, or one step ahead of the hero. Or all three. And if they’re smart, they’re crippled by some other limitation like ego, or lust, or poor choice of henchmen. Or all three.
I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about the bad guys. What were they really trying to do? For me, they're not in the world to merely punish the hero; they’re after something else, and the hero’s in the way. If the hero fails, the hero's journey vanishes to become someone else’s march to glory.
I know I'm setting aside the arch-enemy story lines. They can be compelling. But they’re not for me.
For me, the novel's outline is the antagonist’s battle plan; the hero doesn’t even figure into those plans until it’s too late for both of them. In some cases, the hero can’t even figure out what the antagonist is really doing; evil comes wrapped in several layers.
My tyrannical outlines are overthrown when interesting characters show up. For me, the characters are not carefully plotted. It feels forced to over-plan them; worse, my technical writing background makes me write dumb, early reveals. I try to sneak up on the characters. Consequently — in the middle of a chapter — I realize that I’ve had a person wrong all along. Rewrites are necessary. The original minimal back-story was wholly inappropriate; we need to go back to earlier and explain their action (or lack of action) more appropriately.
I need the outline. But I can’t stick to the outline. It’s as much a part of the final story as the characters themselves. And right now, I’m off to rewrite because I’ve left someone out. They're part of someone else’s backstory, and they’re important part of what a characters’s life is like.