Writing: The Importance of Outlining

I had the best time tonight! My seventeen year old niece, Jillyan, has a 15-18 page story due for school in a couple of weeks. When she asked me to help her on it, I happily agreed. We had arranged to work together over Thanksgiving break but due to family illnesses and usual holiday drama, etc., we weren’t able to get together.

I picked her and her brother up from school today and on the way to drop her brother at home then to Starbucks  (grande hot chocolate – YUM), we talked about the story she wanted to tell. Her first words were, “It’s not a story I want to write. It’s more like one of the stories you might write.” Not exactly a great way to start.

I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of help she would want so we started with what she had done on her own: a detailed description of the protagonist, some ideas for subplots, ideas for background, and specific and vague ideas of potential plot points. She had drawn maps of the protagonist’s neighborhood and bedroom, which will become important when writing scenes set in those locations. She also had three pages of a story started but the first two pages were really character exposition.

In the end, what I did was act as a sounding board for the ideas she had, pushed her through questions and dialogue to identify secondary characters and create character studies for them, and help her take all the disparate pieces and parts and come up with a cohesive story line.

This is where the importance of outlining becomes so apparent. I like to think of the outline as a form of Mapquest. Basic driving directions with the major intersections carefully laid out. What happens between these major intersections comprises the story. The outline keeps you focused on your next major intersection and ultimately, your destination. It always helps to know where you’re going even if you eventually end up somewhere else.

Dialogue is so important when collaborating with another artist, especially a writer. Jillyan had a lot of great ideas, but they were unfocused and had no flow from one to the other. Through the use of an outline, we were able to place all the disparate parts within the story and come up with a fully realized story arc.

How we did that is a bit mystifying because really all we were doing was bouncing ideas off of each other. She would start with an idea and we would discuss the pros and cons and brainstorm alternative settings and catalysts until we came to a point where she was happy with the progression.

I kept a document open with bullet points and as we reached major intersections, I would type up what she said and also add other important items like “see notes” (for items she had already worked on in detail separately), or “flesh out” for items she had a good handle on and could immediately key in to key words in the outline.

We talked about the opening of her story and how to show rather than tell who her main character was and how she could do that in one sentence as opposed to several paragraphs. More exciting was that we were able to not only incorporate a minor subplot, but use to it as a catalyst later in the story for the decision the character ultimately makes. This was a complete surprise to both of us but came from the questions and dialogue as we discussed each step of the story.

This is a process I go through when I work on my stories as well. I live and die by my outline and although what happens between is more seat of the pants writing, I never lose sight of the major plot points and ultimate destination. It’s a way of working that has supported me through all my stories.

What I loved about tonight was that I had no ownership of the story, so it was easy to let go and allow her to find her own truths for her characters. As a result she allowed me to venture my opinion knowing she could reject it outright, discard some of it or venture off on another tangent without injuring my feelings.

It’s not easy to relinquish control of a story but I actually found the process stimulating. I could sit back and watch the wheels turning in her head and enjoy her discovering new ideas for plot points, locations and characters. We laughed a lot and shared a lot of ourselves in opening up even though everything we talked about had direct relevance to the story she wanted to write.

In the end, she was excited to begin writing her story and it had become a story she wanted to write. I find that so interesting because I was very involved in the process but by asking questions and allowing Jillyan to find the answers herself and then working with her to refine it down to just what she wanted, it became hers.

She also learned how important an outline can be when writing a story. Granted a 15-18 page story isn’t that long, but with the outline, the writing becomes much easier.

I highly recommend the collaborative process. It definitely showed me areas where I need to step up my game.

I can’t wait to read her story! We have agreed to meet on Sunday (if her parents approve) so I can read what she has written so far and also to help, if needed, to continue to refine and identify story areas she may need help with and, of course, to fangirl over her writing. I think she has the bones for an amazing story and the ending is so CUTE! Go Jillyan!

Been a bit under the weather. Writing when I can but mostly just holding down the bed and holding up the world. Somedays, you know.

Happy giraffes! Belinda