I know, I know; it doesn’t have the same ring as Swoopers and Bashers, but when it comes to outlining, Freewheelers and Tacticians describe the two major approaches.
When I used to go to conventions, Freewheelers were the ones on the panel who would say something like, “I just put my characters into a situation and then I see what happens.” No outline, no synopsis, nothing like a roadmap. Just whip up some characters, plunk them into a dilemma, and off you go!
To its credit, Freewheeling is a very organic method of writing, and is very well suited to the “Swooper” technique. Plot twists are created on the fly, and ancillary characters pop up ad hoc. It’s a quick-start method and works like a charm for many, many writers. But its strength is also its weakness. In my discussions with Freewheelers, they’ve admitted that Freewheeling can lead them up dead ends where, despite their best efforts, they’ve essentially written themselves into a corner. In such situations, the Freewheeler has to throw out a large section of the work and go back to a pivotal point where they should have zigged instead of zagged.
As you can tell, I am not a Freewheeler. I am a Tactician, and I find the Freewheeling method bewildering.
Tacticians write outlines. Short story or Novel, if it has a plot, it has an outline. The level of detail in the outline can be pretty high, and Tacticians often have trouble knowing when to stop outlining and start writing. This method is as bewildering to Freewheelers as theirs is to me. “What do you mean, you know how it’s going to end before you start?” they ask. My response is always the same.
Ever read a book that just falls apart at the end? Where suddenly things happen in a blur or characters do something entirely out of, well, out of character? Or where the action just fizzles, as if the writer got bored and had to wrap it up? I’ve read plenty of books like that, and I’m pretty sure they were written by Freewheelers.
I want to know how my book ends before I start because I want to make damned sure that it’s got a good ending, from the start. Also, as a Basher, I don’t want to waste the time (or if under deadline, can’t afford the time) it takes to go back and rewrite two or three chapters when I end up in a literary cul-de-sac.
There is a hybrid method, though. I saw it in action, and I’ve adopted it for use in developing ideas and writing synopses for unwritten works. It’s called The Hardy Boys Outline, and it’s dead easy. Back in the old Hardy Boys books, chapters had a title that basically told you what was going to happen. You could read the chapter titles and get a really good idea of the entire plot. The Hardy Boys Outline is just that. Here’s how it works.
Jot down your character names and a phrase that describes them. Then start writing the chapter titles. For example, “On the Hunt for Jessie” or “Captured!” is all you write, and that’s what the chapter will be about. One colleague used to put them on yellow-stickies so he could rearrange them or pop a new one in between two others as he developed his plot.
I used this method to outline Books II-V in the Fallen Cloud Saga. It helped me define the arc of the series, and the scope of each novel. I went on to write a detailed outline of each book as I began them, but that’s me.