Say your novel-to-be is about rock and roll—that much is clear—and you’re ready to outline. Or rather, ready or not, you need to outline. You sit down to your spreadsheet, blank Word doc, legal pad, or multicolored sticky notes, your head abuzz with story impressions: the thudding loudness and in-your-faceness of rock’s heyday; the rock modernists; some patchy character profiles; a main plot, three subplots, and fifteen mini plots; this idea you have to score some original rock tuneage and include it in the book—your music actually telling part of the story (not sure how—will figure out as you outline); this other idea you have to represent the dissent that frequently breaks up bands by telling your story not just in alternating narrative voices but alternating POVs; and . . . and . . . and . . .
By the time you’ve wrangled all your potential storytelling elements into focus, you’ll likely have not only scared yourself out of writing word one of your outline but also decided that you and three to four of your friends are the rightful heirs to Deep Purple and what the hell are you doing trying to make a book when you could be making music. And, hey, if that’s your route, go for it. The kids these day need good music.
They also need good books. And if you intend to actually write, rather than think endlessly and vaguely about, one, you need to free yourself from the trap of trying to all-at-once decide how to handle characterization, plot, structure, POV, voice, style, and whether or not to include an original score.
Expressing Characters’ Emotions on the Worst (and Second-Worst, and Third-Worst . . .) Day of Their Lives
It’s a widely accepted truth that if stage actors, viewed from lofty balcony seats and way-back stadium seating alike, are to adequately project emotion, there’s gotta be a little exaggeration. Sometimes a lot. While the acting may never reach the highs (er, lows?) of soap operas or, say, the early days of Bonanza (ten points to anyone who knows the specific scenery-chewing I mean here), it does have to be pointed and often quite physical for the content to be properly expressed in the given context.
A truth perhaps less widely known: with fiction, particularly the literary variety, it’s nearly the opposite. If you’re going to express your character’s emotions in a way that comes across as relatable and real, a little understatement can go a long way.
So, the outline of what began as a simple-enough story has become less a sturdy structure and more of a jungle, complete with tangled vines. All you remember doing is adding a reflective scene or two to lend your structure some satisfying symmetry; frosting your characters with a little more philosophy, a little more humor; taking mental notes as you listened to the news, read a great book, watched your favorite movie again, observed a breathtaking sunset, etc., each time thinking I’ll use this in my writing, and my writing will be richer for it.
And now here you are. A less-intrepid Mowgli in your own damned story.
Rescuing a comprehensible story that flows well from an outline gone jungly is possible. Here are some tips:
You could call it the Modern Family curse (feel free to insert the title of your once-loved but run-too-long sitcom of preference). The watching world (WW) once adored it, with its sharp timing and its character-driven comedy and its Ed O’Neill. Now? The WW sorta kinda puts up with it, because nostalgia, the way you do with that one friend from school who always drinks too much pinot and argues politics. To have enjoyed such a hot streak in its early days, Modern Family certainly has succumbed to the pratfalls of far too many American-sweetheart sitcoms—not just staying on the air too long, but, in its scramble for fresh material, shuffling through entertaining-ish circumstances, whether those circumstances fit and arise from their characters or not.
The trap of writing interchangeable characters lies spookily in wait of novel, short story, TV, screen, play, and essentially all other writers. Falling into it leads to alienating fans of your earlier work who can no longer really care about the watery remains of characters they once connected to. Not to mention, the tendency to fuzzily sketch character outlines from the word go can prevent you from ever delivering the awesome story in your head to the right audience.
Fortunately, shucking that bad habit is largely a matter of focusing on that place where people definitely aren’t interchangeable: real life.