When I write outlines for books, I usually keep them fairly loose. I try to convey the broad sweep of the story, the general idea, if you like, but I don’t have everything fully worked out. I kind of optimistically hope that I’ll be able to sort out the detail once I start writing.
I know there are some writers who don’t even bother with that level of loose planning. They just start writing. I can understand this approach, even if it’s not for me. After all, the way something is written is as important as what is written. The style and the content are bound together, each influencing the other. So… there is an argument, I guess, for evolving both at the same time. And then going back to fix both once you realise that neither works.
But I’ve been working on something different over the last few months, which has introduced me to a whole new level of discipline and forward-planning. I’m trying to write a treatment for a TV drama. What I’ve discovered is that everything has to be worked out. You have to know exactly where your characters are going and how they get there. The writer has to undertake an exploratory journey up river, making notes of everything he sees, and then come back and report to others, showing them a map and making it sound like it’s a journey they want to make. And they have to do all that in a couple of sides of A4.
The river is the story. The story is the emotional journey of the characters.
I’ve lost count of the number of drafts I’m on. The story has changed radically from my first outline. Characters have switched polarity, or dropped out altogether. I’ve thought I’ve fixed problems only to find out that I’ve created new ones. Three steps forwards, one step back. Or even, at times, the other way round.
It’s hard. It’s frustrating. I’m not sure I’m there yet. What’s worse is I’m not sure I’ll ever get there. Maybe all I’ll discover in my journey up river is that there isn’t much to see. The story gold I thought I had turns out to be a handful of moonshine.
It helps (a bit) to be told that all writers hate writing treatments. And even experienced TV writers get them wrong. But not much.
Right, where did I put my lifejacket? Time to get in the story boat again.