One of the questions I get asked the most about writing a book is whether or not I have it all planned out ahead of time. The answer is a very emphatic YES. Now, just to make sure things are clear, The Golden Thread is a finished work, but even when it wasn’t I had it all outlined before I started writing. I know there are some authors out there who fly by the seat of their pants (if memory serves, J.R.R. Tolkien is a pretty famous example), but I can’t imagine doing that. Even thinking about writing a book that way makes my head spin.
Writing fiction is very much a trial in multitasking. You have characters to flesh out, a plot to advance, events to unfold, and a theme or moral to tell. Add to this the pragmatics of writing, such as flow and pacing and you have an absolute mess of things to keep track of. An outline (mine takes the form of a bullet point list) will help you see problems before they pop up.
For example, you may have some amazing ideas for action scenes all over your book. However, in an outline, you may realize they’re too close together, or that they’re too similar either in style or purpose. The human brain is a funny thing; no matter how amazing and dynamic your action scenes may be, a story of nothing but action will STILL be boring for a reader. So an outline can help you see your rises and falls at a macro level. The same applies for characters and plot. You always want to advance them just enough to keep the reader reading, sort of like breadcrumbs, rather than just waiting a long time and then dumping info on them.
Outlines are also very helpful in avoiding something I like to call “narrative paradoxes.” Imagine you need a character A, to perform an action B, with a motivation C. A narrative paradox is when motivation C is directly related to some knowledge-gained or consequence of action B. Basically, it’s like saying “I want to do this thing, but I won’t know why until I’ve already done it.” It’s shocking just how often this can happen (I counted at least 8-9 times while writing The Golden Thread), and the real kicker is that a lot of the time you don’t even realize you’ve done it since there can be any number of events between B and C. Maybe character A doesn’t get motivation C directly from event B, but instead from event D which in itself is derived from event B. Already confusing, am I right?
Authors who don’t catch this problem as it develops suddenly end up with characters doing things for no reason, or weird logical paradoxes which they then have to fix with some sloppy logic, both of which really hurt the believability of your story. With an outline, you can spot these problems before they happen.
So in short, I fully endorse the use of outlines to plan out your stories. They’re invaluable not only for managing your flow, but also finding your trouble spots.
Until next time!