Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Outlines, Outliers, Messengers, Massagers

outline--a template or design for a dramatic narrative; a scene-by-scene breakdown of an intended story; a thematic riff intended to lead the writer through the development and orchestration of a concept through its conceptual stage into viable story; the first step in a process that is completed with revision.

Some writers will not consider beginning work on the text of a story without some form of road map which guides them in varying degree of detail through the development and enhancement of a story. Other writers will argue that such an approach precludes surprise, an essential ingredient not only to the reader but as well to the writer. The late, prolific suspense and thriller writer, Dennis Lynds (aka John Crowe, Michael Collins, Carl Dekker) developed a mid-range outline in which he sketched a situation in which a character became engaged in a fast-growing complication, "wrote" his character to the edge of the complication, then stopped writing to expand the outline to cover the next forty or fifty pages before returning to text. Lynds did this until the final resolution, at which point he began revision, looking first for anomalies in the plot/motivation structure.

The jury is expected to be out for some indeterminate time on the outline or no outline question. There is no evidence to show that working with an outline makes the work easier or if, indeed, writers who outline are more prolific than those who do not.

Hint: How many of your last five stories (of any length) were written from outline? What does your answer to this question tell you?

Added hint: Try outlining in some detail your next novel, keeping opinionated notes about your progress as you proceed with writing text. What does this tell you?

Yet another hint: Try outlining a novel by using three x five index cards, one for each proposed scene, using as few as one or two sentences to describe the intended scene.

The major points to be made here: (1) an outline is not a sine qua non of a story or novel (2) there is nothing "wrong" with you if you chose to outline (3) there is nothing "wrong" with you if you do not chose to outline, and (4) the decision to outline or not is one of the choices you will have to make on your journey toward becoming a writer.


messenger--a character who physically brings news on stage (into the narrative); an individual who by example becomes a recognizable symptom that could befall a front-rank character.

Ever since the days in which authors not only could but were expected to directly address the reader, a persistent opposition to the practice has evolved. Henry Fielding's picaresque romp,Tom Jones (1749), and Laurence Sterne's rollicking Tristram Shandy (1759) led the way toward the authorial aside, a technique that may be yet employed today, provided it is done with an inventive purpose--otherwise editors will thank you for thinking of them and wish you good luck elsewhere. Enter the messenger, appropriately dressed for work in your story, bearing some message, intent, or example of behavior thought to be of contextual interest to the reader.

Messengers are of primary importance in contemporary fiction because the reader may still have his doubts about the author, but if the reader has gone beyond the first five or six paragraphs of a short story or the first chapter of a novel, the reader arguably believes the characters more than he believes the author.

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