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Writing Wrongs: Is Your Outline Killing Your Characters?

Heroes in literature have faced some pretty awesome foes, from gods to natural disasters to a devil wearing Prada. But the one thing that has destroyed more protagonists than any force of evil is the writer’s story outline. An outline keeps a story on track and moves the plot toward a satisfying conclusion. It’s not always that easy, however. In truth, it rarely is. If you listen closely to the authenticity of your characters, oftentimes they won’t want to dance to your tune. What do you do when that happens? Destroy your character(s) or sacrifice the outline?

This paradox, should you stumble into it, actually reveals a wonderful silver lining: real characters. If your characters are real enough to make their own choices and defy the author’s (your) intentions, you’ve got a gripping story in the making. With that opportunity comes responsibility. Like a good parent, you have to reign in those mischievous characters before they go sprawling into a boring thousand-page epic with endless dialogue and extraneous plot exposition, the result of which is often a book without an ending. Endings have to be carefully planned to wrap up all the loose ends and release echoes of the beginning. That kind of careful planning is exactly what your strong-willed characters hate.

Hemingway famously said that he would quit writing for the day when he knew what his characters were going to do next. That takes great heaps of discipline, but it also gives insight into how great characters can exist in a world of story frameworks. The secret is an organic, evolving framework that adapts as characters make their own choices. And as sequels, trilogies, and longer serialized stories have become in vogue, the need for adaptable story outlines has become acute and paramount. Thus, the good author architects a structure that is a skeleton built for movement rather than a cage built to constrain movement.

Here’s a three-step process for creating story frameworks that are skeletons rather than cages.

1. Development – A person’s character is merely a series of reactions to situational challenges. That construct gives you two flexible options when beginning to define your narrative: You can start building your story framework with a character that fascinates you, or you start with a challenge that puzzles you. Either way, put the precise framework details aside until you know what the essential crisis is going to be. At what point will the immovable object meet the unstoppable force? You don’t have to know who wins yet, but the conflict will be the spine of your story.

2. Exploration – Like brainstorming, the exploration phase requires you to let your creative instincts rule over your common sense. This is where there are no restrictions on character development. If your characters don’t start to challenge and surprise you in this phase, then you aren’t trying hard enough. If you feel you’ve slipped into this malaise—a state of uncertainty about your characters’ potency as characters—try describing them in different styles and genres. Forcing your characters into different contextual personas, like trying on outfits, will help you sense which style is the best “fit” for each character. Even if the fit wasn’t what you had originally thought, if it fits go with it. That’s how exploration yields authentic results.

3. Curation – Most writing is not good writing, especially first drafts. And not all quality writing is valuable writing. While it’s true that Picasso kept every scrap he ever scribbled on, aspire to have sensible regard for what writing you choose to publish for your readers’ consumption. You will need to edit your work. And you will need to let some of it go entirely. This form of curation—self-curaton—is a difficult muscle to develop. Start with the mindset shift before you try to get to hands-on with your writing. That nimbleness of mind is essential to anchoring an objective perspective on your own work. Once you accept yourself as a curator of your own best writing, you can start building your skill in storycrafting, which is the precursor to maturing strong characters.

Putting this three-step process in motion can be uncomfortable and confounding. For instance, how often should you cycle through this process? Is one cycle sufficient? Would multiple, smaller cycles foster a higher quality outcome? And how do you know it’s working? As with any creative workflow, implementation choice vary from writer to writer. But generally, the best results from this process typically bloom through repeated use.

For example, experiment with cycling through this process every week. Start your week with a focus on development. Don’t cloud your creativity with rules, boundaries, or judgment. Instead, put pen to paper (or finger to keys) and sail forward upon the changing winds of your character impulses. See what happens. Capture it all. Don’t limit yourself.

As the week progresses, transition through exploration into curation. Many writers find ending the week with curation a satisfying experience as it aims to clean up writing from earlier in the week, fostering some sense of finality to the ideas that were evolved throughout the week. In contrast, launching into a fresh week with fresh ideas for your characters and plot is often most energizing for writers that crave momentum in their work. The surest way to galvanize momentum is to begin with the phase involving the least constraints.

However you choose to implement this process, keep in mind that there will always be tension between the need to architect the story arc(s) and the need to protect the breathing room in your character development. It’s the Goldilocks paradox; avoid “too hot” and “too cold” so that you can enjoy the perks of “just right.” Threading this needle is tricky. It can be done. Interestingly, the tension you feel that may interfere with this balance is precisely what you need to achieve the best results. The tension between the stability of the framework and the chaos of creativity is what makes a great story.