Friday, December 19, 2008

Overdoing it

Brenton Tomlinson raised an excellent point that I think I’ll address sooner rather than later. Like, now.

Is there a danger of overdoing this structure and analysis work?

Can you overwork your outline, or try to do just too damn much – try to force every one of these concepts in? Or spend so much time on outlining and reworking your structure that you never get to the actual writing?

Yes, of course you can. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is almost always a problem for creative people. You have to be fairly obsessed to succeed at anything, and obsession feeds on itself. There’s a point at which obsessive outlining, or obsessive anything, can become counterproductive. You have to know that tendency in yourself and stop yourself when you feel yourself becoming hung up.

The bottom line of all this method is just one thing: teach yourself how to write the kinds of stories that YOU love, that work for YOU, by analyzing the books and films that turn you on, and figuring out what those storytellers are doing to create the effects they do.

That’s really the main thing I’m trying to show you, here, and then I’m throwing in a lot of general structure information and technique that I’ve learned from theater and film and novel writing.

But I also hope that you’re not JUST outlining or JUST doing index cards, and I think I’d better reiterate this point - now, and in future posts. When you’re brainstorming on your story outline and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. ALWAYS write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.

Ideally you’re working on three or four piles of material, or tracks, at once.

- The index cards you’re brainstorming and arranging on your structure grid.

- - A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to you as you’re outlining, and that you can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

- - An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that you’re compiling as you order your index cards on the structure grid.

- - a collage book of visual images that you’re pulling from magazines that give you the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of your story.

In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that work.

At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. I was telling an interviewer this week that because I come from theater, I think of the first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will FINISH a book or a script.

Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

But that’s MY process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “panster” – you write best by the seat of your pants. In which case the methods I’ve been talking about have probably made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here! ;)

Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pansters have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.

But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.

I also thought I’d restate a completely different point about this story structure series. People who are finding these posts might wonder why I’m spending the bulk of my time analyzing films when I’m talking mostly to authors. Good question.

The thing is, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X ray of a story. You have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story and so it’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.

So it’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel.

And realistically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of those film techniques can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.

And one more thing. I’ve decided I want to illustrate these techniques by breaking down some films and books step-by-step, start to finish, pointing out how the filmmakers and authors are using particular techniques. So I’m taking suggestions of books and films to use. I’d especially like to collect some examples that were effective books AND films (like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and MYSTIC RIVER). Let me know, in comments or privately!

Questions of the day – are you a plotter or pantser? What are your process quirks?

- Alex


Previous articles on story structure:

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List


Gayle Carline said...

I really do enjoy reading your posts - I feel like a sponge trying to soak up all this info. Being a complete newbie to writing books, I'm still learning what my process is. My first book was not outlined at all. It is a lovely piece of crap. I outlined my second book, then found my outline too constrictive. When I reduced it to the basic points I wanted to hit, I found my characters could wander into some interesting predicaments as long as I could head them back toward the next goal on my list. That's the book I sold. I'm working on the next one (same characters) and it'll be interesting to see how many of your ideas become part of my own regimen. Thanks!

Bobby Mangahas said...

Personally, Alex, I tend to wear pants. Oh, whoops, I mean I'm a pantser.

Honestly though, I think I'm somewhere in between a plotter and a pantser. I'll basically write down some key points for a scene, who's in the scene...but that's about it.

Someone once said, as far as first drafts go, "Done is better than perfect." So I usually try to get something out, making notes along the way, then going back to fix stuff.

And I can SO relate to the theater thing. I've acted and directed, so sometimes when I'm writing, I see myself in that chair, getting my characters onto the stage. Or when I'm really stuck, I'll act out the scene and an idea will sometimes come from that. I'll even drag my actor friends into it some time. (Usually a meal or drink makes great payment :) )

Anonymous said...

Hi, Alex! I recently found your blog and I am so-o impressed.

Panster, here. I do try writing the basic points of a story. After that, I never look at them again. I've made 2 sales, so far. Yippee-kai-yea! I'm now working on a my third novel and, as much trouble as I'm having, I might need to outline this time for real.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Another way of slicing your question is whether it's possible to overdue structure by forcing the story points into "formula points." In my current WIP (70 chapters), the midpoint falls about chapter 37. Now, MAYBE that chapter will move closer to the middle during rewrites, but maybe it won't.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Alex. I am most definitely a plotter. I finally finished my first "outline" draft, as I call it, and I have to credit that accomplishment to you.

I'm probably one of the few writers who have found this meticulous index card method comforting. I tried writing my current WIP without a detailed structure outline and it failed...many times. Only once I started plugging in these various concepts and did the comprehensive chart was I able to focus and get the first draft done.

So a big Thank You. Your posts came at a point when I desperately needed them.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I really enjoy your comments, too, Gayle!

"When I reduced (my outline) to the basic points I wanted to hit, I found my characters could wander into some interesting predicaments as long as I could head them back toward the next goal on my list."

That sounds like a perfect compromise between outlining and improvising. I've written a few stories in which I almost never referred to my outline after I'd initially written it. Every project is different.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

"As far as first drafts go, done is better than perfect."

I'd go a lot further than that, quote, RJ. As far as first drafts go, perfect is not going to happen.

Perfect is not going to happen, period. Everything I write falls short of what's in my head. But I can get to something at least satisfying.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Anonymous - congratulations on the sales! I don't understand you pantsers at all, but I know enough of them to sort of believe you exist, ;)

It still doesn't compute.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, I would say Chapter 37 is right on target for the midpoint of a seventy chapter book.

In fact, anything from Chapter 30 to chapter 45 could be the midpoint, as far as I'm concerned. Or even beyond that.

All of these plot points are very, very approximate. Every book really does have its own rhythm, and I hope no one's getting obsessive about precise fractional page numbers!

Thanks for commenting - I really need to make sure I'm being clear on that point!

IIn my own head, anything to do with math is approximate...)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kristine, I am SO happy this is working for you. You're definitely not the only one. I would say that most professional writers I know, at least when they were starting out, used some version of the index card method.

Of course, I do know a lot of screenwriters...

It's comforting to me, too. I find I never have any resistance to starting a project, because brainstormin on index cards is just FUN.

Samantha said...

Another wonderful post Alex. I've been finding your blogs so useful. I've just completed another short story and am really thinking about attempting a novel (gulp!) But I think I'll be okay, especially since I have your printed out blogs in a binder sitting on my desk.


Bobby Mangahas said...

"Perfect is not going to happen, period."

Hmmm. This is a better saying I think. You're definitely right. What's in my head always DOES seem to fall short on paper, but I guess that's okay. I'm usually always happy with the results.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's fabulous, Sam!

Yes, go for the novel. You can't make a living at short stories, not for a long time, so you might as well start thinking long NOW.

Holly Y said...

Hi Alex, I've been following for awhile and definitely find your structure suggestions helpful. Years ago I wrote a novel by "the pants", then outlined a second novel. I completely lost interest in that novel! I thought that meant outlines were not for me. Years later I started a new novel and had an outline that I didn't realize was an outline: a day by day calendar of events in the story. I had also developed character backgrounds (on color-coded note cards no less!), and loads of location detail. It was a great new first effort!

Now I value outlines AND hot flashes. And now I'm committed to storytelling where before I was just telling about the stuff in my head.

Your blog is very helpful -- and hopeful -- for me.

Unknown said...

I know other people have said it, but I think I'm a combination between a plotser and a pantser. When I'm writing short stories I don't typically outline. I may write down my ideas on an index card if I'm not able to get to them for a while but that's it. I know what is going to happen, it's all in my head. Now, I'm working on my first longer piece, and I've had to outline and research the heck out of it. It's a historical story, and the end is already written, so I needed that outline so as not to screw up what was already together.

Thanks for pointing out the index card method. It made it very easy to write down all of my ideas for scenes and then rearrange them until they made me happy.

Anonymous said...

Well, Lesley, honestly, I think we're all combinations of plotters and pantsers. And every project requires a different combination of the two methods.

I'm very glad the index card method is helpful to you. It's just a tool, though, and like every tool - use it when it works, don't worry about it when you don't need it!

Ace Antonio Hall said...

Hi Alexandra! Very strong post again. Well, I went on a Family Values tour visiting family all along the east coast for three weeks. Among my usual writing-my new manuscript, finishing up my feature story for the next Big Thrill issue deadline and catching seven flights, on two of those (connecting flights), I picked up and read The Harrowing...I couldn't put it down. It was amazing! Why? I could actually see every scene, thread, character's reaction and settings (much more than the usual-everything you've been writing about in these posts coming to fruition). What was surreal was that I had to go back and change a few things in my new mnuscript: my main character was going to kill himself with Jack Daniels & pills (there you go in my head again), my main character's name was Robbie...oh boy too scary to name any more. I changed them all and needless to say, I'm very happy with the changes. Anyway, I am glad to have met you as you have truly mastered the crossgenres of screen writing and novel writing. I look forward to The Price-Your book is now one of my all time faves. Damn, that's hard. Happy holidaaaaaze! and thanks...Great Posts!

Barbara Martin said...

I outline scenes after I write most of the story, then jiggle the scenes around if they don't quite allow the story to flow.

I'm finding I keep returning to your blog to read posts, fascinated with all the material here. Which is great, because a writer can always learn something new.