Thursday, February 2, 2017

When to Ignore your Outline

Outlining for your novel is great, it can keep you on track and help you to have a well-paced novel with well-rounded characters. But, sometimes, the outline can get in the way.

I say all the time, stories write themselves. Sometimes as you're writing, characters or plot points develop in unexpected ways and you have to be ready to adapt and change your outline as you go. Otherwise, you risk having a storyline that feels forced. Or worse, you'll have regrets when it's all over.

For example, years after the final Harry Potter novel was published, J.K. Rowling announced that Hermione and Harry should have ended up together instead of Hermione and Ron. She explained that she wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as wish fulfillment. While many readers remained loyal to the book as it was written, there are some that felt the same as Rowling herself. As a writer, you can plot and plan for two characters to end up together, but sometimes when happily ever after comes around it just doesn't feel right. Trust your gut and listen to what your characters are saying.

Romantic parings in a novel can change much the same as when a TV show introduces a new character - planning to kill them off - then discovers they have great chemistry with the lead on screen. The writers can plan to kill someone off, but once the viewers love them they often stick around, and if the writers don't pay attention to their viewers and kill them off anyway, it often results in angry fans. You need to pay attention to the chemistry that develops between your characters as you write them - not just as you planned for them to be.

The 90's TV drama Dawson's Creek ended a love triangle in its final episode. Showrunners had planned for Joey to end up with Dawson, but when it came time to finally write the final episode they changed their minds and Joey ended up with Pacey instead. The point is, sometimes what we plan to do, doesn't end up being the right call in the end.

Regrets and wish fulfillment happen when authors stop listening to their characters.

And, this doesn't just apply to romance. You may plan for a story to have a happy ending only to discover that what fits best is for your main character to die. For example, many readers felt cheated that Harry didn't die at the end of the Harry Potter series. Others were disappointed that Prim did die at the end of Mockingjay. I was disappointed at the end of The One, by Kiera Cass when the King was killed (and off-screen!) and everything seemed to wrap up in a nice little bow for America. I felt like the author had enough material to write a fourth book and it ended too easily.

Read my review of The One by Kiera Cass

Your readers want your characters to overcome struggles and to earn what they have. And, sometimes, when your characters are up against a threat that should kill them, they want them to die. You have to be aware enough as a writer to see when your outline is going in the wrong direction and make a change.

So how can you avoid this? Here's five tips.

1. Don't over-plot. Keep your outline simple. That way it can guide you without dictating what you write.

2. Be open to change. Your outline isn't carved in stone. You can, and should adjust it as necessary.

3. Listen to your characters. How do they really feel about other characters and things going on around them?

4. Think about how your reader will feel about what they get to see and what they don't. Should you show or tell this scene? (Deaths and Romance off camera can be disappointing, but throwing them in for no reason can be equally troublesome).

5. Is there anything that feels "too easy?" Don't let anything wrap itself up into a nice little bow.

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