National Graphic Novel Writing Month Day 22: Following Your Own Instructions
Outlines are important, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. They can keep you from making silly mistakes. Like having an article about outlining near the end of a writing month.
Seriously, an outline can keep you out of all kinds of trouble. If you have even a basic outline beforehand, you can get a clearer sense of your own pacing, and of the story’s overall flow. You can see where it’s going and how it will get there. And you can be sure you didn’t miss any steps along the way.
Do outlines work with graphic novels? Absolutely! If anything, they’re even more important for graphic prose than for regular prose, because you need to have an even clearer sense of how the story will break down. If you have the plot elements outlined, you can see where splash pages and close-ups and other visual features will fit without derailing the story or ruining the pacing. You can also get a sense of page breakdowns by going over the outline and seeing where action is fast and furious and where it’s slow and careful, which will give you a better idea of when to do a standard grid page and when to do quick cut-outs and burst images.
That means, of course, that you need to follow your outline once you’ve written it. Otherwise it won’t do you much good. I tend to keep my outline up in a separate window as I’m writing, so I can refer back to it as necessary. I also use a clean copy of the outline as my starting document, so I can go from point to point and flesh each one out in turn, transforming the outline itself into the full text.
This doesn’t mean you have to follow the outline slavishly, however. Things change as you write. Characters develop in ways you couldn’t have predicted. They do things you wouldn’t have expected—but that make perfect sense for them, given their personalities and situation. You could try to force them back to the details you already established, but that’s going to feel stiff and unnatural and it will show. Instead you need to let them change the story as they work their way through it. It’s their story, after all.
Just don’t forget to change the outline as well.
Your outline needs to be a work-in-progress, an up-to-date microcosm
of your story. It has to shift and change as the story does. Some
sections will collapse together. Others will expand, as little throwaway
moments become sections of their own. Still others will utterly vanish
as the events that led to them change and branch off in a new direction.
That’s okay. It’s allowed. You don’t have to abide by the original
outline, as long as you make sure the working outline is in fact
current. And, when you change things in it, look ahead as well. See what
else will change as a result, and adjust those details now. The more
accurate your outline is, the easier it will be to let the flow of the
story carry you—and your readers—along.
You can even use your outline retroactively. After you’ve finished
your story, sit down and go back over it. Compare it to your outline. Is
the outline still accurate? What’s changed? Adjust the details so the
outline matches your final version. Then read through the outline itself
again. Does anything feel out of place? Are there any strange jumps, or
gaps in the narrative? Does anything come out of nowhere, or feel
implausible? Chances are, if you notice it in the outline, that same
problem exists in your larger text. Check and see what needs to be
fixed. It’ll give you a stronger story in the end.
And it just goes to show that even an outline—or an article about one—can be as useful at the end as it was in the beginning.
Remember: you can follow all the NaGraNoWriMo posts here!