By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

Some writers swear by the outline as the best tool for creating a narrative arc. A novel’s structure – or lack thereof – correlates to its tension and suspense. Publishers, of course, want readers to turn pages. Does a novel become more “publishable” if we plan out the plot?

This oft-debated topic connects to the Hamlet soliloquy more than one might think. In short, does an outline determine whether the book be or not be?
Kathy Flann

No matter what, it seems important to make an active choice. The decision not to design the plot is still a decision, the same way that if Hamlet elected not to whack his uncle, it would reflect the choice to leave his father unavenged.

As a short story writer, I suffer from no such hand-wringing conundrum. I can skip along with my little basket, humming and picking flowers, in order to discover rather than design my story’s tensions. The short story is typically fewer than 30 pages and contains a single conflict that occurs over a short period of time – a few hours up to a few days in a character’s life. I can create a character, put her in motion, and see what she does or does not do. This is manageable in a story that covers so little of a character’s life.

For example, in the title story of my collection, Get a Grip, the main character’s dad leaves a novelty inflatable boyfriend on the porch of her garage apartment. It’s intended as a cute joke for her fortieth birthday. When she opens the door and sees it, the thing has a leak, and it atrophies and dies in front of her. This spectacle triggers an existential tailspin, a panic about why she’s still living in the garage apartment behind her dad’s house and still working at his statuary business, Big Pat’s Granite Ranch. She ends up having sex with her ex-boyfriend when he drops by with a birthday gift. The rest of the story explores the consequences of this decision over a couple of days.

I wrote the opening scene quickly, as well as the ending, but it took a few years of stumbling and fumbling and putting the story away for a while to realize there was a scene missing in the middle. It turned out I had hummed and skipped along into the proverbial swamp and now I was covered in chiggers and quicksand. The discovery method ain’t easy. But when we’re dealing with nuanced, short work that covers such short periods of time in a character’s life, a storyboard or index cards may not be the tools for figuring out structure. For me anyway, a short story relies on deep knowledge of character more than observable action, though we still need both. In the end, I composed a scene of a few minutes in which the character and her ex search for something they’ve lost under the bleachers at a minor league baseball game. We bear witness to a tiny epiphany that leads to the ending.

By comparison, the novelist works on a vast canvas, producing stories of 250 manuscript pages at the short end and, at the long end, upwards of 1000. There may be multiple conflicts or multiple points of view (meaning multiple main characters). We might cover years in a character’s life rather than hours. In order to keep readers engaged for such a long haul, we probably need more observable action than is necessary in a short story. It is a lot for the writer to track and understand.

When I teach college fiction workshops or speak at writing conferences, I mentor both short story writers and novelists. When I first started teaching novelists, I hadn’t understood all the ways that the length discrepancy between the two forms shaped the ways they must be crafted. They both had the same basic form – inciting incident, rising action, climax, resolution. In fact, novels often had similar types of conflicts as short stories – domestic strife, fraught workplaces, chance meetings.

Over time, though, I saw the same problem again and again. In a word, it was pacing. The aspiring novelists tended to cover way too much plot or way too little in the opening chapters. These chapters sometimes covered the plot of the whole book, leaving one to wonder what else there was to say. At the other end of the spectrum, the opening chapters might feature characters doing daily tasks, like commuting to work, with no conflict in sight.

I started to require the novelists to submit synopses of their whole books in order to help me gauge the percentage of the plot that had unfurled in the first chapter or two. The unforeseen benefit was that the writers also began to understand their overall plots. Before I’d even given them feedback, they’d say, “Yeah, I think I’m getting to the climax too early. I wanted that to be somewhere around page 180, not page 35.”

Aha, I thought. I’d heard about novelists using outlines, though I had no firsthand experience. I’d always ascribed to the E. L. Doctorow school of thought: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Now I was starting to believe that the process depended – or should depend – on the type of novel one was writing. The more observable action in a novel, the more an outline might help the writer find her way. The writers I mentored tended to have more in common with Robert Patterson than with E. L. Doctorow.

Robert Patterson has said of his process, “I write an outline for a book. The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish.” One can imagine that composing these outlines is as much work as writing the books themselves. An outline would force the writer to see the swampy morass from above, a bird’s eye view, bringing into focus the route the story might travel, the places where events crowded together or stretched far apart.

Then again, maybe the issue wasn’t even the type of novel one was writing so much as the type of brain one had. For a lot of writers (aka introverts), it’s easy to make characters too thinky and to forget about characters’ external worlds. Yet writers can be a little snobby about outlines. According to Stephen King, “Outlines are the last resource of fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” Well, Stephen King, how do you explain the handwritten outlines of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, as well as ones for many other highly regarded texts?

To be honest, I’m terrible at plotting, and for a long time the E. L. Doctorow doctrine helped me lean into that weakness like it was a good thing. I valued the mystery of human identity! I could create a mother-f*cking mood, bitches! But now, having mentored so many novelists, I understand that, should I attempt to complete a novel, I’ll probably struggle with plot pacing just like everybody else does. Writing humbles us that way.

To be or not to be?

Hamlet is such an angsty little dude.

Isn’t the answer always be?

Kathy Flann     


Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. She will soon debut a new Imprint with Stay Thirsty Publishing entitled Unblended with a mission to “serve up stories, fiction and narrative nonfiction, pure of spirit, brimming with humanity.”

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.