Tuesday, November 10, 2009

He who pays the piper has a musician brother-in-law

What exactly is outline?  

You first became aware of the word in grade school, when a teacher announced that you were going to be spending considerable time, learning how to do it, because it would be required of you from here in, a serious mistake made by numerous teachers in your life and perpetuated to some extent by you, at least in the sense of you telling students they would be needing and using various things well into their lifespan.  Your only way out of that quagmire of guilt is the fact that you never told students they would be required to use outlines.  Let them find out for themselves, soon enough.

Outlines are based on the construct that paragraphs have topic sentences.  There was a time when you attended Central Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, Florida, where you were positive you couldn't, as requested, find a topic sentence.  You took to guessing when called upon, invariably picking the second sentence in a paragraph, and not getting into too much trouble with authority for proceeding in that approach, realizing sometime later in life that one of the reasons text books were so awful was due to the fact of their having a topic sentence in the first place and that, indeed, most of them were second sentences in paragraphs.

Early into your working years, no employer ever mentioned topic sentences to you much less asked you to find loose or missing ones as though they were some sort of rambunctious dog who'd dug out of his yard.  Soon you were in journalism, where the topic sentence was replaced with the lede, that repository of the four w's and an h, although that became a bit too restrictive (or you lacked essential imagination) and you went into television via the carnival life.  There was no need for a topic sentence in either landscape, and thus you moved along into such pursuits as writing short stories, writing novels, writing screenplays and, for some considerable time, essays about the American West for a man named Charlie who published those wonderfully pulpy magazines whose pages contained acid and were thus guaranteed not to last for centuries as acid-free paper is guaranteed.  From what you remember, your paragraphs then had no topic sentences.  Discovering some of these articles and essays in recent years, you read with the relief of a man who was true to the code of paragraphs sans topic sentences.

On the other hand, they have drama, your paragraphs.  A paragraph without drama will soon reveal itself to you as a wimp paragraph, unwilling to carry story, subtext, or any sort of dramatic load.  Even when you'd become a published novelist and then an editor who had contract-signing authority, you were removed from grammatical niceties, even though there was an earlier time when you knew your way around parts of speech and diagramming sentences to the point where you actually contrived to be sent to the blackboard to diagram sentences.  Lurking in the back of your mind was the notion that being known for diagramming sentences would get you a girlfriend.  It did not, nevertheless you persisted in diagramming sentences (and for that matter, trying to get a girlfriend).  Surely if you knew about objective and nominative and objective cases, girls would see you as a wise choice.  There is a distance between wise choice and smart ass, which is what you were largely seen as, and by the time you had a girlfriend, she was interested in dancing, particularly the fox trot, bossa nova, and Lindyhop, interested in doing as opposed to your interest in listening to the music by which these steps were to be danced.

Always out of step.

Now, you are able to relate paragraphs and topic sentences and objective cases to stories and essays in the sense that you believe any paragraph, any story, any novel without drama is what you were when you were nineteen, with a fake ID--trying to pass.  You were trying to pass for legal age.  The paragraphs without drama are outline.  So in the long run, this is about writing and how, although you have an idea what a predicate nominative is or a relative pronoun referring to an indefinite antecedent, you'd probably have to guess at a set of examples.  You could, on the other hand, find the drama just as, after some hours of work on a scene set around a poker game in your current novel underway, you knew that although it contained the elements you wanted it to contain, it was still an outline because there was no drama in it.  How did it become dramatic instead of an outline of plot points to be included?  Simplicity, itself: you had the most objectionable character in the whole novel show up for the poker game as though he'd been invited. And indeed he had, we discover a bit later--he'd been invited by a character who wanted very much to provoke the host.  You did not need a topic sentence for that.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Very well put, this article rings of truth. I can just hear my fourth grade teacher in the back of my head saying "...and you know once you get to high school and the workplace you'll only be allowed to write in cursive." I'm guessing she didn't foresee the ubiquity of computers.