Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Unicorns and Breadcrumbs

Yesterday, Chester wrote about plotting—or rather, about the subtle art of subconscious plotting. He’s in good company. The great Tony Hillerman once said, “I have never been able to outline anything.” Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, and Sue Grafton are among the many writers who eschew outlines. Robert B. Parker used to outline but found it limiting and joined the no-outline club. Robert Crais, on the other hand, falls firmly in the outline camp, as do Jonathan Kellerman and James Lee Burke. If you lined up all the mystery and thriller writers in the world and then divided them into “outliners” and “seat-of-the-pants-ers,” you would probably end up with something close to an equal number on each side.

I fall into the outliner category. Part of this is because I have no sense of time, and with no outline, I would have my detective being in two places at once and responding to clues before he finds them. Part of it is because I find it easier to write the story if there’s already a shape to it.

When I was about nine years old, I tried to sculpt a clay unicorn. I made what (to my nine-year-old eyes) appeared to be a gorgeous head and a sleek, horse-shaped body. But the spindly legs repeatedly collapsed beneath the weight of the solid-clay torso. Frustrated, I told my father this was a stupid project, and it couldn’t be done. “You need to make an armature,” he said. I had never heard of such a thing. Armed with this new knowledge, I began again. This time, I smoothed the clay over a heavy wire skeleton. The legs, strengthened by the wire, were able to hold up the now-hollow head and torso.

An outline is the writer’s armature. With the shape of the story laid out, the writer can concentrate on the details—emotions, sub-plots, and character development. Some writers use detailed outlines laid out with Roman numerals. Others scrawl out quick plots on the backs of cocktail napkins. Julia Spencer-Fleming writes until she “finds the story,” then outlines the remainder of the book. I use index cards, writing brief descriptions of the scenes I think I’ll need, each on a separate card. When I can’t think of any more, I put them in what seems to be a workable order and begin to write. The advantage of this method is that, as new ideas come to me, I can discard, replace, or rearrange the cards. My “outline” is in a constant state of flux.

Maybe it’s just a way of convincing my left brain to give up control, since I often find myself in uncharted territory. My muse calls out, “Hey, wait! I have a better idea!” and we’re off, strewing plot cards behind us like a trail of breadcrumbs.

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