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It can be a perplexing question for authors, particularly newbies. Do you write an outline, or a treatment, before you begin your book? Or do you just sit down and start writing?
Outlines are recommended for nonfiction books as they can be more precise, but because this blog is for fiction writers, I'm going to talk about what is the best approach for us, and that is to write a treatment.
A treatment isn't an outline. It's a short summary of what your story will be about. And while I highly recommend writing a treatment before you begin your novel, the amount of detail you wish to include is entirely up to you. Some fiction authors may choose to write treatments summarizing each chapter, while others simply write a brief one or two paragraph description. It's really a matter of personal preference. Remember, we're creative writers, not technical writers, and the keyword here is creative. For us, writing is an art, not a science.
My treatments tend to be short; no more than one to one and a half pages, and my main objective is how I will begin my story, and how I will end it. I used to fret a lot over what to include in the middle, but experience has taught me to keep it brief, because the details will come to me after I begin writing. In other words, my treatment is my launching point.
Some fiction writers may choose to write bios for their characters, and that's certainly okay. I don't do it myself as my characters come to life rather quickly, and once that happens they have minds of their own. (I know this may sound freaky to non writers, but trust me, every fiction writer experiences this.) Again, my personal approach is to include the names and general descriptions of my lead characters, but I leave the details out. Their individual personalities will evolve on their own once I begin writing.
Some authors like to refer back to their treatments as they write, and there's certainly nothing wrong with doing that. However, my approach is to put my treatment aside once I begin my story. As I've already mentioned, once your characters come to life they may want to go in a different direction than originally planned, and other ideas may come to you as you delve deeper into your story. Again that's okay. We're creative writers, and this is how creativity works.
Once my book is complete I like to go back and look at my treatment. My books never end up as described in the original treatment. They always turn out better. That's because I let my creativity flow as I write, and many new ideas will pop into my head as I go. My favorite example would be my first Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion. One of my supporting characters, a young man named, Jeremy, was originally intended to be a rogue character. He would do his dirty deed and then quickly disappear from the story. However, Jeremy was also leading man Ian's son, and as I got into the story I soon realized that Ian would never have a son like that, so Jeremy went from rogue villain to a rival, competing with his father to win leading lady Gillian's affections. This made for a completely unexpected twist in the story that resonated with me, and my readers.
As I've evolved as a writer, my treatments have also evolved. They've become less detailed and more generalized, but as I've stated before, how you choose to write your treatment is entirely up to you. As far as I'm concerned, there is no right or wrong way to go about it.