Taming the Prose

by Steven E.A.
I teach at a middle school in Korea and we’re quickly approaching midterm exams. Those three days of testing, while strenuous to my students, are quite relaxing to me since I have nothing but free time on my hands. In preparation for those days, I’ve been spending my office hours outlining the revisions I plan on making to a story I’ve been working on for nearly two years. But “outlining” sure is a nasty term. It implies Roman numerals and indentations and all sorts of formalities and structure to what should be a much more organic process.

I’ve never been a fan of outlining. I was advised against it at the onset of my writing and whenever I gave it a shot, it very much seemed limiting. The excitement of the story unfolding as I wrote it disappeared and was replaced with a sort of workplace drudgery that made writing feel like just another task to be checked off my to-do list. My attitude toward outlining was reinforced when I saw my literary idol interviewed by Oprah. Cormac McCarthy said, “Some people say, ‘Do you plot everything out?’ and I say, ‘No, no, that would be death. You can’t plot things out. You just have to trust in where ever it comes from.’”

I once spent two months outlining a novel’s every twist and turn. I wrote character sketches and backstory. I revised and replotted and combined characters. When it came time to write, I got six thousands words in and gave up on it completely. The prose felt dry, distant, unemotional. Nothing could deviate from my script (at least not too much) because that could skew the rest of what had been plotted. So when I heard McCarthy’s disdain for plotting out a novel, I felt validated and hopeful.

Right now you may be wondering why I’m sending mixed signals. Why did I say I spent time outlining then turn around and declare that I despise it? That’s because I’ve come up with a sort of compromise. I don’t outline by any traditional sense of the word. The story I plan to work on in my upcoming free time is one I’ve already written. It was an unplotted, 80,000 word novel whose ending happened as a result of the story taking root and growing in the soil of itself. The novel evolved (and continues to) in such a way that seemed as if it were planned that way from the beginning. But it wasn’t. And now that the story has been written, I’ve finally decided to do some outlining.

What works for me is outlining by summarizing. No Roman numerals. No letters. No indentations. Just a summary for each chapter that helps me see what concepts and plot points have been developed, with room for notes on what needs improvement. I use Scrivener, so it usually looks a little sumfin like this:

I look at summarizing as a sort of free write, where I try to discover inconsistencies and better ways of developing a character or plot point. On the left you see my outline for part two of my novel. Each document represents a chapter. In the middle is a summary of that chapter, with possible methods of revision, and on the right are my notes–these being things to include but weren’t mentioned in the summary. The great thing about doing this in revision is that I’m no longer in the story discovering mindset. Instead, this is my freeform method to improve what has already been discovered.

So, outlining for me is a way to tighten up a story and make it flow, give it harmony. It helps me organize my thoughts after they’ve been flung onto the page. Its loose structure allows me to brainstorm and think about my work while also helping me organize the jumble of thoughts inside my brain.

Of course, this method isn’t for everyone, but what method is? I simply offer it to those who feel plotting out a story is restrictive, but still need assistance in gathering their thoughts. I love trusting the story inside myself, but after it’s been written and needs tightening up, I don’t mind using a little bit of structure to wrangle in the rawness that birthed itself from my brain.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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