Outlining melodrama

I have a confession to make: I never outline. Or, rather, I never outline successfully. I’ll try every so often to jot down some notes for future scenes and, in one case, I actually plotted out an entire book, but it never works. Oh, I wrote the book to the outline successfully (during National Novel Writing Month back in 2006, I think the year was), but every time I outline, I run into the same problem.


In the aforementioned novel, I had a wedding, a lottery winner, a little old lady who found a cat and gave it to her granddaughter without parental permission, a girl drowning in a pool because her mother was on the phone, and then that same mother running away (and her husband chasing her, of course) because she couldn’t face her guilt—all in 50,000 words. And trust me, it was much more melodramatic than the above list makes it sound.

You see, I tend to like subtle tension in my writing, the small moments that open up into larger ones, but when I try to write that down in an outline, it looks like there is no tension in the story, and so I add more.

For my current book, I haven’t done any outlining. I just finished part one, and I don’t know yet what the first scene of part two will be. Instead of planning, I’m going to go back to what I’ve already written and decide what seems natural based on what I already have.

This reminds me of a quote by Nabokov about how his characters are galley slaves—he doesn’t let them take over the book, as many other authors will tell you their characters do (and that that’s how they know a story has life). And despite what I said above, I think I fall in the middle—if I let my characters do whatever they wanted I’m sure I’d end up with a boring book. Instead, I focus on character motivation but always remember that I have the power to to change that motivation to fit what I want.

For instance, I was writing one of the early scenes in my book and decided that it would amp up the tension if one of my characters could potentially be pregnant. However, the way I’d written her, she was a very sexually-conscious woman, well-versed in contraception, and I didn’t want the maybe-I’m-pregnant tension to come from that 1% chance of failure; THAT felt like melodramatic manipulation. So I spent weeks brainstorming reasons this very forward-thinking woman would make a decision that was very likely to end up with an unwanted pregnancy. Had I let the character take over, I would have had to cut that thread and lost that tension. But had I been set on getting her pregnant from the beginning, I probably would have created a different character, a more soap-opera worthy one.

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