Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Throw Away Your Outlines FOREVER!Posted: February 17, 2021
Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
My wife recently showed me a new favorite anime series of hers that perfectly illustrates a point I’ve been making about storytelling for years. I didn’t used to like anime all that much, and I’m not sure how you feel about it (if you feel anything about it whatsoever), but like many writers from my part of the globe, I had a certain bias toward a more Westernized approach to storytelling. I didn’t much like the aesthetic of anime, the tropes or the style, but I also wasn’t seeing the big picture. Anime is often judged on its aesthetics, but it should be praised for a preference for bold storylines, creativity, color, imagination, a kind of libertine approach that is no-holds-barred, that exceeds and usually subverts audience expectations.
The truth is there are a million writing advice columns saying it’s a bad idea to head into a writing project without some kind of plan. Sometimes, especially in speculative fiction, copious amounts of planning are advised. Character sheets, outlines, beat sheets, world building tools, map making, story bibles, and a number of other idea-gathering methods are common, and for good reason, I suppose. But in the traditions that gave birth to a medium like anime, form follows function, structure often inhibits form. In other words, rigidity and an unwillingness to let stories guide themselves is at the heart of lots and lots AND LOTS of bad writing.
To produce an animated television show, of course, quite a bit of planning is required. Scripts have to be written, art must be created, there’s a need to hire actors and hold recording sessions, and then post production is always a long process. Large groups of very talented people make this stuff. The animation industry is a machine, one so well-oiled the product itself is viewed and loved all over the globe, regardless of culture or regional storytelling preferences. In contrast, someone who writes fiction or poetry or who dabbles in screenplay, stage production, or even video game writing, is very much a free agent. But I’d like to ask you to throw all that out the window for a moment, because I want to direct your attention toward something crucial. Storytelling can and perhaps should be artful in addition to being solid, confident, and competent. Storytelling, the best kinds of it anyway, should meet and then exceed audience expectations, and I know of one sure-fire way of doing that: be the author who surprises the author.
Surprise yourself. Anime is an interesting medium to study because it absolutely loves the element of surprise. I know that in the new show my wife introduced me to, every episode contains a wealth of sea changes that completely redirect the flow of the narrative, creating an experience audiences simply cannot predict from one half-our segment to the next. It’s an intense ride, one that has equivalents in Western storytelling. Stephen King, for instance, is famous for espousing a very seat-of-the-pants approach to writing novels. He’s struck by an interesting what-if scenario, starts writing an introductory scene, establishes some initial paradigms, a few working story dynamics, and then he’s off to the races for the next couple months, having no clue where he’ll end up or how he’ll get there.
It’s worth noting that story synthesis requires the introduction, development, and resolution of disparate elements. For example, if I tell you to write a first chapter including a gun, a nun, an assassin, and a vengeful widow, you’ve got four disparate elements that must follow that exact line: introduction, development, resolution. So let’s say the widow is on a quest to kill the assassin who took the life of her beloved, but her religious convictions lead her to a local church where she gets down on her knees and begs a nun to talk her out of committing the ultimate sin of murder.
Where does the story go in chapter two? Imagine the possibilities, reason out the next most likely scenario to occur, given what’s just happened in chapter one (have to use your reasoning, logical brain for this). Repeat that method throughout approximately thirty or forty chapters, and you’ve got yourself a book. Again, if the author of a great story is surprised while they’re in the process of telling it, the reader is likewise guaranteed a similar reaction. It doesn’t mean you’re a sloppy storyteller. It means you’re willing to take a leap of faith, play jazz a little bit, stretch your abilities and find out in an improvisational way what works and what does not.
As you come up with ideas in the moment, you’re likely to want to check them against a few basic questions: does this concept make sense in context? Would my characters really do this and why? How does this dynamic irrevocably change the narrative, and does it take the story in a direction I’m not prepared to go? Constant alterations, redirection, redactions, and tweaks will be required, and you may also find your finished rough draft is in need of serious inserts, deletions, and edits, but the benefits outweigh the grief. Stories that surprise, that don’t hold the audience’s hand, that respect the audience’s intelligence, that’s what can result.
To return to Stephen King for a moment, there is a preponderance of disappearing, reappearing elements in his stories. Some of his most famous novels set, break, and then reset paradigms constantly and consistently. In The Stand, for instance, notice how a story initially about a small group of disparate and scattered pandemic survivors becomes a tale of strong familial community and then a post-apocalyptic holy battle of good vs. evil. King wrote that book without any planning at all, and whenever he got stuck because, you know, he hadn’t planned anything, he simply did something drastic and unexpected to break paradigms he himself had set. Gathering all the pandemic survivors in Boulder, Colorado and setting them up with good lives isn’t enough. There has to be a traitor in their midst, and if a bomb suddenly goes off and kills some fairly important protagonists, what’s the difference? At least we get some more breathing room to play with that wicked story.
Anime also teaches us paradigms can be created and implemented with the intention of shattering them and reassembling and continuing a story on the fly. Just like, I’m afraid, too much outlining can turn an otherwise well-written book into a predictable mess. Decent surprises telegraphed and ruined, characters that behave irrationally because they were and are slaves to dense, inhibiting structure, it’s a bit of a nightmare. It must be noted that in the professional world, a writer isn’t always given the opportunity to create stories on the fly. Publishers and studio executives, game developers, whoever you’re writing for, they like to be sold on ideas before they see a finished product. Call it an insurance policy. But if by chance you don’t care too much about impressing or working for these folks, if you’re of a more independent disposition, I urge you to try a writing approach that eschews too much planning and allows for absolute spontaneity. You may just be thrilled with the results.
I’ll be back next month for another Craft and Practice. See ya, folks, and thanks for stopping by!
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
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