I’ve just about caught this blog up to the present, which is great, but first, I should mention a topic that many writers, including young writers that I knew in school, as well as myself, are reluctant to take seriously: outlining. There is definitely something organic about writing, but I’ve come to the conclusion that outlining can be a part of that organic process and not a hindrance to it. When I first started writing my current project I didn’t outline. I couldn’t have even if I wanted to. I didn’t have enough pieces of the puzzle and I just needed to get some moments out of my head and onto the page. But after about fifty pages it stopped being fun. I would write ten more pages then realize that ten didn’t work at all, so I’d write ten new pages and realize that they didn’t work either, so I’d write another new chapter and I’d realize, once again, that it wasn’t working and that’s when I decided, it was time to outline.
First, I typed up two separate documents over several days that included all the characters I could think of that I wanted in my story, as well as all the most important places. In the other document I worked on a chapter outline. I actually handwrote a very preliminary outline a little before this and using that was really helpful as I ironed out a more formal guide. Now, this outlining process showed me just how much I hadn’t yet discovered about this story as much as it showed me where I should be heading. It also raised a lot of new questions, such as does this all make sense? How can I make the new technology/sci fi elements work? Am I combining too many elements? Does it make sense to work from a twelve-year-old third person limited perspective? Is it ok that I am in another perspective in chapter 1 and then in unlimited in chapter 2 before I narrow down to my main character? How well are the plot points paced? etc.etc. With these questions to answer I decided I needed to take my outline one step further and I borrowed a tip from the author of my favorite screenplay/film: Taxi Driver.
I’ll digress for just a moment…Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in a very unusual way. It read more like a novel-script hybrid and it didn’t adhere to strict screenplay format. The script was split into sections and before each section, which had a chapter-type heading, such as Travis Gets a Job or something like that, there was a long section of text that set up the mood/scene much like an opening chapter paragraph would. I love Taxi Driver for its quiet simplicity in telling the story of a man who is simply not ok and on the brink of losing his sanity. My favorite scene takes place outside a diner and it is between main character Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) and fellow cabie friend, played by Peter Boyle. Bickle opens up to his friend and asks him for help and Boyle’s character does the very best job he can in supplying advice, which really is no help at all. I love that conversation. It just sums up fears that resonate with me and Boyle’s advice, while unhelpful, is really, probably, the best advice anyone could offer. Some problems just can’t be easily solved.
Anywhoo, so, I read that Paul Schrader outlines his scripts on note cards in different colors and the colors represent different themes like drama, humor, romance, etc. He then steps back and looks at the story in color form, spotting it for places where there’s too much of one element and then trying to balance the story out. I thought this was a very helpful idea and I went out and bought note cards, colored pens and thumbtacks. (Here’s where the visual aids come in) Outlining in this way is also useful because it categorizes the story so when I look at my note cards I can spot different plot points more easily, based on the fact that everything isn’t written in black ink.
I gave each chapter it’s own note card and I filled in the main plot points with the corresponding color that made the most sense. I realized through doing this that no matter if you’re writing a comedy or a drama or a romance or a thriller, etc. you still will have most, if not all, of these aspects in your story. They just will come out differently. At first glance Taxi Driver is in an intense drama, but on second glance I noticed how well paced the drama and building tension are mixed in with romance and the occasional comedic moment.
And finally, I decided to create a wall-web if you will of my characters. For this, I took liberty with the color thing and let each character’s note card be whatever color I felt like they should be. I also wrote out the three main locations in my story and clustered the characters around the location that they are most related to. There you have it. I may need to buy that plaster stuff that fills in holes when I move from this apartment since I had to use push pins to get my note cards to stick, but I’ll worry about that when the time comes.