I did an interview today with Hank Garner that will air in a few weeks, and one of the things we discussed was my approach to outlining. I’ve mentioned it before as part of other blogs, but I thought I might as well formalize the entire shooting match in one place.
Outlining. Is it necessary? Depends on the writer and the genre. As an example, it’s hard to write a whodunnit if you don’t know whodunnit, so for a genre like that it’s probably essential. I certainly favor it in action/adventure, thrillers, and mystery, however I didn’t do it at all when I wrote my NA tomes under the R.E. Blake moniker. I believe genres like romance or literary fiction, where it might be more about characters and interactions than plot, it’s not required.
That said, I’ve learned the hard way that while it’s not required in action thrillers, either, it certainly speeds the writing process along by orders of magnitude and offers better control over pacing and plot.
So how do I outline?
I tend to favor single sentence summaries of each chapter. Meaning, what happens/what the chapter’s about. In the summary, I will typically capture the whys of the chapter, meaning the motivation for writing it. To make it into my final outline, it will need to either reveal something about the characters or the plot, or move the story forward. If I can’t articulate to myself the purpose of the chapter in that manner, I cut it. I try to avoid chapters that should really be paragraphs in the story. If it doesn’t resonate and stand up to that test, buh bye.
My chapters tend to run 1500 to 2000 words. So I can tell I don’t have sufficient plot if I only have 30 chapters of outline by the time I’m done. Pretty straightforward. That number of words is purely arbitrary, and differs from chapter to chapter, but it’s a good rule of thumb for my work.
I create a spreadsheet with chapter numbers down the left side, and character names across the top. On the right I create a vertical timeline. This avoids me creating chapters that are impossible given the timeline allowed, and prevents me from writing myself into a corner. I put an X in each cell when a character appears in a chapter – that way I don’t lose track of a character or have him/her appear too infrequently.
In the cell (B) next to the chapter number (A), I put the single sentence description. I then color code it red if there’s an action beat, or green if it’s a reversal/surprise that isn’t action. That enables me at a glance to look at the finished outline and ensure I have sufficient numbers of all the above to meet my minimum for a novel. If I don’t see a whole lot of red and green by the time I’m done, I don’t have sufficient story, or I have chapters that are basically bloat, and I’ll cut the dead spots and contrive more story, or introduce a secondary/tertiary/fourth plot to break things up.
As a final element, I’ll color code the actual chapter number three or four other colors to tell me which of the three or four plots I typically have the chapter addresses. That ensures I don’t start a plot element, and then forget about it, or mention it so little that the reader forgets or loses interest in it.
That’s the whole shooting match. I wish someone had told me this four years ago. I still have the sequel to Fatal Exchange on my desk, on two pieces of paper, hand drawn, with boxes beneath four separate intertwining plots, each box containing the next development in that plot sequence. That was as cumbersome as putting post-it notes on a board, or writing a narrative outline that goes on for pages and pages. Those can work too, only not as well, I find.
This isn’t the only way to do it. But it works for me. Next novel, you might want to try it. Definitely changes the way you look at story and flow.
In the meantime, if you want to see the result of my approach, go pick up Ramsey’s Gold, my latest novel, which is 106K words of non-stop adventure and guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.