Writing Advice — What to Do When Your Outline Breaks

One joy science fiction writers encounter is that, among our readers, so many of them wish also to be writers, and often express a lively curiosity about the craft of writing.  I do not know if this applies to writers of romances, westerns, or vampire-samurai technothrillers; I do know it does not apply to other and more dignified craftsmen, such as carpenters and shoemakers. Never once have I sat on a particularly comfy chair while shod with a goodly pair of shoes and wished to know the trick by which the joists were dovetailed, or the heels snugly cobbled.

We who cobble together stories have an audience with whom there is more to talk about. Indeed, the only craft I can think of where the customer wants to know such details is cooking: often someone who eats a fine meal asks the chef to share her recipe, so he can try it himself at home. That parallel between cooking and writing is that both use a few simple basic ingredients nearly anyone can pick up, but from them produce a gamut ranging from hearty basics to airy fantasies, with skill ranging from comfortably workmanlike to sublime genius. Writers, unlike most craftsmen, have an audience that wants to know the recipe.

One difficulty writers have in giving advice is that it is hard to discern between the particular and the universal. Often a writer intending to explain a general principle of the craft of writing, instead finds himself explaining some point that only applies to writers of his type, in his genre, with his tastes, or, worse, he explains only his own personal writing process or inspiration, an effort useful perhaps as autobiography, but not useful as advice.

I have reached that point in my latest project that has happened to me in all my projects save one, which I call ‘breaking the outline.’ My advice to new writers, if it ever happens to you, is not to panic or give in to the temptation to murder your project as you watch it mutate horribly before your very eyes. What you do in such cases, is go back to the beginning, and write up a new outline, this one to incorporate whatever serendipitous elements you discovered during the writing process that you can afford to keep. My advice is to stick to your guns.

Breaking the outline is the point where, having completed or nearly completed the first draft, foresight and imagination fails, and you have to go back and re-do the whole novel again because now enough details have been written down, and enough scenes played out, that you can intuit and grasp in a concrete way where the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript lay, and you can see, or grope blindly without seeing, toward shoring it up, perhaps changing the ending to make sense of your beginning and middle, perhaps changing your beginning to make your ending more firmly grounded, and so on.

If you are writing a story with plot-twists or clues, now it the time to go backward and make sure all the clues that need to be planted like seeds are placed where they need to be placed, hidden in plain sight. This is when you return to your beginning and color in the foreshadowing, or when you ruthlessly cut out any image or special effect (no matter how beloved or brilliant) that does not lend itself to your theme.

This, for me, with my work habits, tends to be the last push before the end. It is the time when all the complicated recomplications rear their unlovely heads, and the writer must gird on the blade of Hercules to start lopping them off. Your “A” plot and “B” plot lines have to merge, any “C” subplots have to be resolved, all the gears of the wheels have to mesh, and you have to make it look easy, natural and unforced.

Now is the time to think of the reason why Spock cannot just use his Mind Meld to discover which imposter is the real Kirk, or to make up an excuse why the Ministry of Magic does not simply use truth-potion on everyone arrested for suspicion of being a Death Eater. Now is the time to go back to scene 2 and erase the reference to ‘mitochlorians’ being in the bloodstream of a Jedi, and come up with some other more realistic reason why Qui-Gon thinks cute moppet is the Chosen One. Give the Chosen One a lightning bolt shaped scar instead.

It is the time when you plaster over the plotholes, or go back and establish motivation in chapter one. Writing is an illusion, or, to be specific, it is the deliberate self-delusion of the reader who is aided and assisted by the writer.

The illusion is the world we create. Since the world is make believe, we have to add two things, one which the real world has, and one which the real world lacks.

First: The real world has logic. Some say that this is all the real world has. Logic means that nothing happens for no reason. If you read the newspapers every day, you are reading a serialized story of events that follow from yesterday’s newspaper.

In stories, the causes of events are called ‘foreshadowing’ or ‘set up’ and they have to be deliberately placed in the first chapters to create a satisfying illusion that things are happening for a reason.  In stories the consequences of events have to have ‘conclusions’ or ‘follow through’ — you cannot introduce a story element and then have nothing come of it.

Even stories from fairyland, shining with magic and wonder, must be logical – indeed, fairy stories must be especially logical with the remorseless logic of childhood. Nothing can happen for no reason. The prince does not simply wake up one day as a frog like Gregor Samsa; he must be cursed by a witch or a naked goddess spied bathing. If the kiss of a princess is the only thing that can turn a frog into a prince, then that kiss and nothing else must be had. Being kissed by a Duchess or a Countess will not do, not even if Parliament so decrees. In a medical thriller or a science fiction story, perhaps, you can have someone discover an unexpected miracle cure, or have Scotty use the Transporter to turn the frog back to his true shape. Science fiction is all about problem solving through technology. Science fiction is about daydreaming. But Fairy stories are about logic. In a science fiction story, your Edison of the future can attempt some new way to make a light bulb, and have the thing blow up in his face, because science is also about finding out a thousand ways how not to make a lightbulb. But in a fairy story, you cannot have your hero climb the glass mountain to find the moly herb, the one herb that can cure the princess, and have him bring it back to her deathbed through fire and peril only to discover the moly herb went bad due to improper refrigeration and is now stale and worthless. If you want to play the scene for chuckles or gallows humor, maybe you can write it that way, but then you are not writing a fairy story any longer.

Likewise, nothing can happen with no consequences. If the God of the Dead tells the harpist that to glance over his shoulder will send the ghost of his wife back to the underworld, and if the harpist glances over his shoulder, the ghost must go back to the underworld. Science fiction and boy’s adventure stories are more generous than fairy stories, since reckless last chances when all seems lost is one of the tropes of the genre, as are surprise rescues. Robin Hood or Flash Gordon might be able to charge back down into hell to get Maid Marian or Dale Arden back after he fails the first time: but not Orpheus.

In general, the illusion of reality in stories is created by attention to the foreshadowing and the consequences of the actions, since this creates the appearance of a world where consequences happen for a cause and causes lead to consequences.

Second: the real world lacks drama. I do not mean the real world is not full of color and alarums and ignorant armies clashing by night, death and misery and pain and moments of joy.  I mean that, except for those rare times a mortal might glimpse the scheme of events arranged by angels for some particular purpose, life is this world is not a drama, not dramatic, the events are not arranged for the purpose of producing an artistic effect with an eye to irony, reversal, and contrast. Indeed, one of the greatest dangers in the modern world comes from those who believe that history obeys the rules of drama: one wonders if the South would have fought the Civil War, despite their lack of material and rail, had they not been convinced history would favor the honorable as in some novel by Sir Walter Scott. One wonders if the National Socialist Party of Germany would have fought the Second World War had they not been convinced history would follow the dramatist’s rule of allowing whoever lost in the first act to make a comeback in the last act. The pseudo-Darwinism that underpins Marx and Nietzsche is a simple dramatic two-act play, where the underdog is outnumbered, but due to the blessing of the gods or the blind forces of history or the accident ‘fitness to survive’, fairytale-like the ugly duckling grows into a beautiful swan, the Jack-like rat mammal outbreeds and kills off the giant-like dinosaurs, the awkward and ignorant Cave Man is stuck by the charming wand of Stepmother Nature and transforms into a handsome prince, who will be the Man on a White Horse, the Dear Leader, and the father of the New Utopia. If life worked like a drama, at least some of these daydreams would be realized.

But if life worked like a drama, we poor mortals would not need to turn to drama to be refreshed.

Drama is illogical. Things happen in a drama for the sake of the drama. Events are compressed. The entire complexity of falling in love can be condensed into a single balcony scene.

Events are symbolic. In drama, things happen for thematic reasons, not just logical reasons. That the heart of a murder victim should keep beating, or a madman imagine it so, makes little sense in reality, but the theme that crimes betray themselves is so powerful, that these events maker perfect, if dreamlike, sense in Poe.

In drama, unlikely coincidences are allowed for the sake of drama. Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict Pip aids in the graveyard, turns out to be the secret benefactor.

Characters are combined thematically. The many characters who in real life would be needed to carry out the action, in drama are combined to one. The soldiers storming Normandy beach are represented by Captain America; the Nazis are represented by the Red Skull. The entire space program is represented by three boys and an atomic rocket they build in their backyard.

Characters are also combined dramatically, making few or one hero the center of the action.  It is Oedipus, not some detective Oedipus hires, who finds out whose pollution brought the curse of the gods onto Thebes. Logically, there is nothing wrong with having Sam of Thebes, Private Eye, find out that Nachum the Beggar is the unwitting incestuous parricide, and  Sam tells Oedipus the king who is to blame, and Nachum the Beggar kills himself out of grief: but, honestly, the drama is missing if Oedipus not only commits, but investigates and solves the crime himself, and discovers his own guilt.

Logic and drama operate at two different paces and according to two different sets of rules, and the writer has to make it seem to the reader as if the whole thing makes sense by both standards. There has to be ‘in-game’ reasons why the story unfolds as it does, and ‘out-of-game’ reasons.  The ‘out of game’ reason why the Dread Pirate Roberts can outfence the master swordsman Inigo Montoya while outsmarting the Sicilian mastermind Vizzini is that he is the Hero in disguise, and we are rooting for him; the ‘in-game’ reason is that Wesley was taught to fence by the real Dread Pirate Roberts, and has built up an immunity to iocane powder. All the details have to be accounted for.

I call the point where the end is near and all the details have to be accounted for “breaking the outline” because it is the make or break moment when you decide whether to stick with your original idea, and change your ending to fit your beginning, or to modify, mutate, or amputate your original idea, and rewrite your beginning to fit your ending.  For example, in the original idea of ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin, the stowaway lives: he changed the ending to create a much more memorable story. Rare is the writer whose outlines and first thoughts need no revision before all can be brought to a satisfactory and harmonious whole.  Writers who write backward, last chapter first, may not suffer this problem. Writers who outline extensively can avoid it, or, rather, they do this part first.

You could also call it the “tidying and sweeping” part of writing, because it is the time when all the details have to be put into their places, and this scene or that scene has to be moved earlier or later, and all the references to it have to be changed too. The Tidying part involves a lot of tedious plucking apart of plot threads and reweaving them to be tighter.

Writers who don’t do it can be spotted. Heinlein did not do it. One need only read the last chapter of PODKAYNE OF MARS and then the first chapter to see he never bothered to go back and harmonize the elements, such as what the spies wanted, or who smuggled the bomb aboard the Tricorn or why. The explanation was slapdash rather than tight. The explanations are not properly foreshadowed, and the consequences of events are not properly followed through. Aeschylus would not have had the main character die tragically while going back for the space-cat (or whatever it was) unless this had been foreshadowed, heralded by an omen; such as putting in a scene in chapter one where Podkayne takes a foolish risk to save a space-kitten, and the Greek Chorus announces forebodings that this will get her killed someday. Euripides never would have blamed the heroine’s tragic death on maternal neglect without having the neglectful mother be on stage performing (before the alarmed eyes of the audience, unable to cry out a warning) the wee act of neglect that snowballs into the tragic death.

STAR TREK GENERATIONS did not do it, and the writers there did not do it so famously that their misstep has become a by-word for an unforeshadowed and underwhelmingly undramatic death. The most beloved icon of science fiction for half a century, Captain James T. Kirk, dies when the writers dropped a bridge on him. The death of Wash in SERENITY was equally underwhelming: after saving the ship with a display of tenth-dan black belt piloting, he is impaled on a chump spike. The viewers felt cheated, and rightly so, since (unlike real life) deaths of heroes are supposed to be dramatic. In real life, Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world, died in bed of crapulence after over-drinking, and Patton died in a car accident while pheasant hunting. Kurt Vonnegut died by falling down stairs. Sad events, to be sure, but not a fit subject for grand tragedy.

Philip Pullman did not do it. The ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy is particularly egregious here: reading one chapter out of the middle of AMBER SPYGLASS and the first chapter of GOLDEN COMPASS, read like two different authors who merely decided to write about characters sharing names, but otherwise have little or nothing to do with each other.

But it is the part of writing that is the least easy and the least rewarding. Big name authors who grew sloppy and uneditable late in their careers can be spotted because they tend not to write tidily.

Do I blame those sloppier, big name writers? I do not. I envy them. Even Heinlein at his worst (NUMBER OF THE BEAST) was better than some authors at their best. The breaking of the outline moment means you have to go back and revisit everything, and reopen and retry cases you had thought safely decided. It is the weariest part of the writing process.

My advice to any would be author writing on his first novel—if you have never run into the moment when you break you outline and have to go back and tidy up, you might think that the novel is broken and you cannot finish it. You will be tempted to give up.

Do not give in to the temptation! Remember that, despite what the atheists and agnostics say, faith is not irrational hope. It is the opposite. Faith is when you ignore irrational or ill-ground despair or temptations to quit because of a rationally grounded reason to continue. It means continuing despite the temptation to quit. It means ignoring your heart and following your brain during those times when your heart lies.

So have some faith, my dear novice writers, and push through the obstacle that looms when the end is near. When your outline breaks, go back to the beginning and re-do it all.

Or, if you really don’t feel like writing that day, put it off and write a writing advice column instead. Like this one.

Um…. Okay. I am going back to work now.