On Falling Leaves, Inspiration, and the Woes of Outlining

Darker PagesThis past weekend, my daughter and I went on a near-perfect autumn hike. Leaves crunched underfoot. The sun sliced between the soon-to-be barren forest canopy. A breeze nudged the dead leaves to scurry and the dying leaves to fall.

It was in this setting that we played one of our favorite games, in which we try to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground.

It’s a deceptively simple game, and one that can only be played for a few weeks out of each year. The leaves fall in an array of swirls, dives, dashes, and spirals, making it nearly impossible to predict where these rotting angels will land. We’ve found two effective strategies to catch the leaves: 1) simply stand in one place and let the leaf come to you; or 2) chase after them with mad sprints and flailing hands.

Catching falling leaves in forest.As is often the case, a balance of both is most successful. And as usual, in the simplest of things lies a metaphor for greater endeavors.

My point is this: conjuring a story is like catching a falling leaf.

The running and flailing can be compared to the actual writing. No story will be written if you don’t first sit your butt in the chair and get walking down that path. It takes effort and drive and will. The fingers must be fleet, for the story often takes a tangled path to the page.

But the standing in one place—allowing the story to come to you—is the other half of the equation. It’s what happens in the outer margins of the page. It’s the nuance of narrative that can’t be outlined or predicted or forced. It’s the inspired twist of the plot, the hidden meaning that you didn’t know was there. That’s some of the true magic of writing, when you craft characters that outgrow you and scenes that surprise you. The thing is, this magic won’t have a chance to occur if you over-plan your novel and suffocate your story with a cumbersome outline.

Let your story come to you.

Yes, there is a place for outlining in fiction. It helps to have a rough idea of where you’re going and how you’ll get there. But keep those outlines minimal, like the five-sentence outline that Les Edgerton suggests. That’s all you need.

Anything more than that, and you’re just stomping dead leaves when you could be chasing after dying angels.

Share Button