By Carolyne Aarsen
I am a self-confessed, unabashed outliner. I need to figure out my characters, fill in my character charts, use a beat sheet to lay out the story outline. I need to know where my story is going every step of the way. I discovered this over a forty some book career that if I let myself ‘write into the mist’ I’ll start off writing a story about an American cowboy and end up in medieval England.
I know this rigid sticking to the outline might give some of you the jitters, but I have learned the hard way that I need to have a solid grasp of my characters and my story before I begin.
Stick to the outline has been my mantra for so many years I stopped questioning it.
And then, in my recent book, Reunited With the Cowboy, in spite of my rigid outline, I hit a snag. I was writing a single dad/irresponsible heroine story. I had reasons they should stay apart. He didn’t trust her. He had to think of his daughter. She didn’t see herself as worthy. In the Black Moment she realizes she needs to walk away. Except as I got there, I discovered I didn’t have a solid reason for her to do so. But I kept writing believing in an outline that was slowly falling apart.
I started noodling the scene. Trying anything. I had the hero’s in-laws show up at the ranch to pick up the hero’s daughter, their granddaughter. I just fooled around, having fun. But this scene wasn’t in the outline. I was about to delete it but something felt right.
But your word count! Your outline!
The voice of experience was jangling in my brain but I couldn’t let go of this scene. And as I wrote I discovered a woman who had never liked the heroine. A grandmother threatened by the growing romance between the heroine and hero, fearful of losing her granddaughter were they to marry.
And I had a conflicted villain who had a stake in keeping the hero and heroine apart. This grandmother had been a mere cipher in the outline but as I allowed her on the stage the story grew another layer.
I realized, as I worked backward and layered her into the previous chapters, she and her fears were there, latent in the story. I was simply allowing her to come out.
My outline still was solid because I knew where I had to end up. This altered storyline was just a better way of getting there.
In his book Super Structure, James Scott Bell talks about writing using signpost scenes. I realized that was what I did with this story. I knew where I had to end up, but I allowed myself some wandering between signposts.
I will still outline. But it is freeing to know that I can wander a bit if I know where I have to eventually end up.
Carolyne Aarsen, originally a city girl, was transplanted to the country when she married her dear husband Richard. She learned how to handle cows, tractors, snow machines, horses and unwieldy story ideas. Her stories show a love of open spaces, the fellowship of her Christian community and the gift God has given us in Christ.