Here’s an age old question for you.  Writers have been asking this for…  well…  forever.

To outline or not to outline?  That IS the question.

I’ve outlined stories and I’ve used the ‘discovery’ method.  I’ve even mentioned it before. For the audio drama Izzy I started with an outline.  The story was meant to be an epilogue to The Behemoth, one that took place 14 years after the events in the first show.  I did the same thing with the original script for The Fiona Potts Interview (then called The Project). In both cases I was looking at large casts (8+) and felt that I needed to story point each episode.  In both cases the writing felt clunky, forced, and uninspired.  It wasn’t because I didn’t love the characters or connect with them.  I loved Fee (Fiona Potts) and the story I set her in simply didn’t mesh with her strong personality.  She was stronger than the writing.  So I scrapped it and placed her in an entirely different story, one that I created without an outline.  And she flourished.  She became the Fee I had imagined (I sometimes wonder if my characters find me as opposed to the other way around).  The same thing happened with Izzy. The first incarnation of the story felt like a map and she was being moved from point to point.  She had no free will. Allowing her to ‘discover’ the story empowered her.

I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.
– JK Rowling

None of this is to say that I don’t believe in going into a new story blind.  The quote above attributed to J.K. Rowling mentions a basic plot outline. I prefer an extremely basic, barebones outline.  It’s probably not even fair to call it an outline.  I start with three points.  A definite beginning.  A very foggy middle.  And an anticipated ending.  I say ‘anticipated’ because I never really know what I am going to end up with.  If I had written Pixie with an outline I would never have had the pleasure of introducing the audience to the extremely colorful characters that populate Pixie’s world.

I look at it this way.  What if I were to sit down and write an outline for a new show? And let’s say it takes me a week to write the outline, I haven’t even spent time with the characters yet.  I don’t yet know our main character well enough to know what she would do in a situation.  Let’s call her Sarah going forward.  I don’t know how Sarah will react to things. With an outline I’m dictating to her what she will do and where the events will take her.  She’s basically just a chess piece and the story is the gameboard.  Or, to use another game analogy, a domino in a long line of dominoes that I set up.  Once they are set up there’s no other way for them to fall.

Now if I start the story with a vague knowledge of the events that await her later on I can let her find her way there on her own.  Let’s open Episode 01 with Sarah sitting at her window.  There’s a light pattering of rain.  She looks sad. Forlorn perhaps.  Maybe bored.  And then her sister Jennifer knocks at the door.  Sarah frowns at the interruption.

JENNIFER:   Why didn’t you answer me?

SARAH:        I was thinking.

At that point I slip into the scene as an observer.  Both Sarah and Jennifer are real in that moment.  They can say or do whatever they want.  I’m not planning or plotting at this point.  I’m taking dictation.

And I love to listen to them talk.


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Photo provided by: Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

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