I’ve talked before about my tendency to overplot. Here’s where I always get into trouble: I write a 30-beat outline for my story, in which my heroes dart from place to place, ferreting out the information they need and solving big mysteries (whether personal or professional) until they reach their goal. As long as each of my 30 beats is accomplished in 4 pages or less, I’ll come out under the dreaded 120 page limit. No problem, right? Wrong.
Remember high school physics? In order to make the theoretical problems easier to solve, they would always say “Assume that all surfaces are frictionless”. Of course, in real life, there’s no such thing as a frictionless surface, so your calculations would be way off, but they were just trying to teach us the abstract concepts, not trying to get anything done.
The problem with outlines is that they, too, assume that all surfaces are frictionless. In an outline, your hero glides into a room, collides with another character, and then the force of that collision sends the hero ricocheting off into the next scene. And you can try to write the first draft that way, too, but it’ll be pretty bad, and you’ll just have to re-write it later.
The more authenticity, verisimilitude, and texture your fictional world has, the more friction your characters will experience when they encounter it. Your characters may walk into the scene with a straightforward confrontation in mind, but in order to reach that goal, they’ll first have to overcome some tactical mini-challenges and navigate some swirling emotional cross-currents.
Here are some typical causes of friction that you may have failed to account for when you wrote your outline:
- Emotional fallout carried over from the previous scene.
- What the character in the room is doing (and may want to continue doing) when the other character walks in.
- Emotional fallout from the last scene these two characters had together
- Additional characters in the room who aren’t part of the main confrontation but may butt in.
- The physical challenges of the room’s layout.
- The decorum of the room, where a confrontation may be uncouth.
- When your character refuses to do what you tell them to do.
- When the encounter turns out to be far more emotional than you thought it would be, leading to unforeseen consequences.
If you just ignore all of these factors and write each scene as if it’s happening in a vacuum, you’ll get to where you’re going much faster, but the scenes will suck. The more sophisticated a piece of writing is, the more friction it creates, and the less plot it needs.
Each episode of “Mad Men” has only a thin wisp of a plot, just enough to start these richly-textured, electrically-charged characters sparking off against each other. “Don and Peggy need to come up with a slogan for a luggage company” sounds like a dead-simple goal, but on this show the characters encounter so much friction along the way that they wind up being torn apart. On a show like “Person of Interest”, on the other hand, the characters have no personalities at all, creating a frictionless surface, so tons of plots points glide by effortlessly (and meaninglessly).