18 April 2015 by Published in: Uncategorized 10 comments

I had a long discussion with a friend who’s an aspiring author about how to move the plot along and engage the reader at every turn. To that end, I thought I’d share some things about how I plan and outline my own work. If you find it helpful, good. If not, well, it was worth what you paid for it.

Let me say up front that there is no one or “right” way to write a novel. Some start writing with barely an idea, others do 50 page outlines. So I can’t advise the only way to write a compelling draft, I can only explain the system I use.

Here’s how I do it: First, I ensure that if it’s an action book, there are sufficient beats to keep the reader engaged. I do this visually, as I outline (I do single sentence summaries of each chapter, usually in three acts, approximately 15 chapters per act), by color coding my chapters with action beats or reversals. So if my typical book has, say, 45 chapters, and I don’t have a beat every two or three chapters, it’s probably going to be a snoozefest. I’d rather know that going in and contrive more story than discover I lack beats once written.

As discussed, my outline will be single sentence chapters, a la “Giant panda storms Tokyo,” “Protag introduced, narrowly escapes,” “Romantic interest introduced, helps her across river,” etc. The action beats will be highlighted red (or in romance, the conflict beats). I want to see a lot of red in one of my action adventure tomes.

When I do my single sentences, I focus on who’s in it, why they’re in it, and what’s happening. If it’s not essential to moving the story along or imparting important info of some sort, my philosophy is it should be cut – it serves no purpose but to occupy space, and it’s a better read if every chapter has impact, a specific purpose. Purposeful outlining, and then hopefully, writing, is a key in creating a gripping read.

I also try for as many reversals as I can achieve. She’s being chased, the situation reverses, she’s now the hunter, the prey eludes her, and doubles back, putting her in harm’s way again. She was on top, now she’s scrambling. The love interest was making advances, now he’s distant. Reversals make it interesting. The more the merrier, and if you can achieve multiples within a chapter, so much the better.

Probably the biggest thing in a larger sense is to try to demonstrate qualities about the characters, what they’re feeling, attributes, without doing so explicitly, i.e. showing vs. telling, because even the fastest moving novel will lose reader interest pretty quickly if everything’s explicate and obvious.

And finally, on second and third draft, I ask myself with each sentence whether it needs to be there – does it tell us something vital about the story, characters, etc.? Is there a better way to say it? Is it repetition of something I said earlier? Is it setting a tone or mood? Does the reader already know this? Are the characters logically consistent in their behavior?

One of my pet peeves is when a character has to behave stupidly or illogically (outside of the framework of the world I’ve crafted) in order to move the plot forward. So I’m careful to watch for that – although note that in something like my NA trilogy, I deliberately have the protag behaving in contradictory ways, but that’s because when you’re a teen, you can have contradictory impulses in a short period of time. That’s how it was for me. Part of becoming a mature adult is being fairly responsible, but being a teen is the path toward that, so I want that push pull of emotions, that “should I or shouldn’t I” instability. It’s the instability that adds to veracity, that even, while frustrating in a kind of “No, don’t do that!” way, feels true and real, even if annoying that the character is doing something that isn’t in her or his best interests.

And then finally, I’ll check for echoes, which are repeated or overused words. I have an entire list, but it seems like every book has a few new chestnuts I find, new lazy habits.

In summary, I strive for pacing and consistency. I’m not immune to the lure of prose, to the well turned phrase or the bordering-on-purple description, but that’s a personal style preference. I know many books and courses counsel the Hemingway/Chandler school of sparse prose and economic description, and that’s fine, but it’s a preference, nothing more. I do look for readability as a final check – is there musicality to it? Lyricism? Is there suitable difference in sentence structure to avoid monotony? Is there a cadence, and if so, is it one that I like, or could I do better?

The big takeaway is that color coding your chapters might work for you, might not, but I’ve found it a reasonable way to do what a content editor might, on my own, and ensure my characters get into sufficient trouble to keep it interesting. That will help with structural issues and pacing, and then the rest is block and tackling of multiple drafts to get the prose right.

Now, go buy my crap. JET – Ops Files, Terror Alert, is out and garnering impressive reviews, and Ramsey’s Gold is on preorder for release end of May. Both are worthy of a hard look. Terror Alert is as good an example as any of how my approach to pacing unfolds, so it’s not a bad place to look for the structure within the chapters. And Ramsey’s a blockbuster read. Trust me on this.

As to my situation, I’ve got a mountain of work to get done over the next ten days, so will be in and out.

Hope this little glimpse into my process resonates. Now go write something.



  1. Sun 19th Apr 2015 at 4:40 pm

    The reversals tip is gonna help me with what I’m working on now. Thanks.

    You know what would be great? If the writing blog posts were in a section of their own, or if you put them all in a little book and sold it.

    More tequila money.

  2. Zara Pradyer
    Sun 19th Apr 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Hi Russell,
    Thank you for your most welcome tips which I am probably too thick to follow.
    Nevertheless, I will briefly share my excitement with you because I was greatly impressed by your prodigious output, the joy you give others and your having found your vocation and fulfilled it.
    I am realistic about my prospects but I am having a ball – writing, and writing quickly for me, a crime/thriller which is making me laugh myself silly.
    So thank you. If I do overcome the odds (and the good taste of readers) and it is in any way even partially successful, I shall dedicate it to you.
    Please accept my kindest regards.

  3. Sun 19th Apr 2015 at 5:26 pm

    Fascinating stuff, Russell. I like the simple overview, making sure the whole story will have enough interest.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 19th Apr 2015 at 5:45 pm

      The reason I do it this way is because I think kind of algorithmically. First level, boy meets girl. Next level, what’s boy and girl’s backstory, and what conflicts must they endure – what do they want, what obstacles are in their path, what peak beats happen that define turning points in the story? That’s the chapter summaries. I can go even more granular, but I generally don’t because it’s all going to change as I write it, but the overall structure won’t. But I can tell I’ve got a problem if I outline the first fifteen or twenty chapters, and there are only two or three peak moments. I mean, sure, I can write yawn, but do I want to? If action, I want more, more, more. But I also want to avoid melodrama. True drama is when there are real, inevitable, unavoidable obstacles and challenges. Melodrama is where I’m inventing conflict for the sake of filling pages. I can’t tell you how many books I tend to put down because while there might be action, it doesn’t actually tell me anything about the characters, isn’t necessary to the plot, and is the equivalent of sticking a sex scene into a book just to add page count. A sex scene that’s the inevitable consummation of something building over the story arc is drama. A sex scene put in because I want to show that one of the characters is promiscuous could work, but I’d seriously question its legitimacy. A sex scene that’s there because forty pages went by and my formula says I need a sex scene every fifty pages insults my intelligence as a reader, and I tune out. I always view my reader as smart when I outline, and I expect them to question why things are happening, to reflect upon whether they make sense contextually, and react skeptically to events. So one could say I use the outline as my chance to question every scene’s legitimacy with the questions, “why is this here, what am I showing the reader he needs to know, would this really be how they reacted (is there a more realistic or more obvious alternative) and how can I make it as entertaining as possible?”

      I also kind of hate Rube Goldberg-esque plots where simple things require 100 pages of unlikely machinations, which just feels like fluffing the page count because of a lack of actual story. Better to just come up with a better story, or a secondary or tertiary plot that moves nicely. But that’s just me.

  4. Zarayna
    Sun 19th Apr 2015 at 6:21 pm

    I agree with Kim.
    A book of your blogs on writing to inspire others.
    Excellent idea and thanks for additional insights.

  5. Lynda Filler
    Sun 19th Apr 2015 at 7:22 pm

    You know what I love about you RB? Not only are you an entertaining prolific writer but you are extremely generous in sharing the steps of your success. Considering this takes away from writing time and/or tequila, señorita-skirt-chasing time, that makes you a very special guy.

  6. writerofthesky
    Mon 20th Apr 2015 at 10:32 am

    I love your business posts, but your craft posts are just something else. I’ve heard a lot of writers refer to story beats, but I haven’t come across an explanation that would actually allow me to incorporate the idea into my own outlining process. I can’t imagine starting a project without an outline, but I often find some of the popular methods get too detailed (for me). I think I’ll try your one sentence method for my next book.

    Excellent explanation on drama vs melodrama in the above comment.

    If you ever get a chance, I’d love any expanded thoughts your have on creating lyricism and musicality and cadence in your manuscripts. It’s a concept writers often refer to but I rarely see discussed in depth.

    Anyways, great post as always!

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 20th Apr 2015 at 11:41 am

      My view of lyricism and musicality in prose comes from the cadence I hear in my head when I craft a sentence correctly, and group it with other sentences. Like poetry, as with iambic pentameter, there’s a meter to it, a rhythm, and as with musical composition, you want to have melodic bits, jarring bits for effect, use shorter sentences to increase pace as the action increases, finish paragraphs and chapters with something that has a rhythmic resonance as the final words are read. You especially get a sense of this when listening to audiobooks. Much writing is workmanlike, has little or no rhythm and cadence, and simply gets the job done. Nothing wrong with that, but I’m deluded enough to want to try to accomplish a bit more, make the reading for the pure pleasure of the way the words flow as important as the story being told.

      I try to do that with lyricism in the prose. I often fail. Such is the process.

      It’s also somewhat amusing to me that much commercial fiction put out by the big houses fails to strive for that musicality – if anything, it’s often viewed as poor style, overly purple, etc. But the problem I have is that when you remove the musicality that’s inherent to the way words spill onto the page, the result is more of an atonal monotony, in which everything sort of sounds the same. Part of the joy of writing for me is shooting for a higher bar with each outing, and I aspire to a grasp of craft like someone as gifted as James Lee Burke possesses. It’s not lost on me that Burke was declined 111 times over 13 years for one of his best written books. All the experts felt it sucked for one reason or another, and they were all, every one of them, wrong. Of course, they might have felt it couldn’t be easily sold, which is valid, but they were also wrong about that.

      Because I’m only concerned with what actual readers are willing to pay for, rather than what speculators are willing to pay for one of my books (that’s what publishers, myself included, do – they speculate on what readers will like enough to buy), I have some latitude that I wouldn’t have been afforded were I mainstream published, I’m more than sure. Perhaps as I season, I’ll see the wisdom of the collective view, but for now I’m more than happy to try for something a little more elevated, and get paid handsomely to do so.

  7. Mon 27th Apr 2015 at 7:24 am

    A very illuminating insight into outlining, I’m going to try this with a future work, I’ve always flown by the seat of my pants but I can see the advantages of outlining as you suggest. I’ve also re-blogged this, thanks for sharing.

  8. Wed 27th May 2015 at 11:05 pm


    Can you explain a bit more by what you mean when you say “beat”? I’m used to that word being used to name the back and forth within a scene. Are you talking about changes in the progress the protagonist is making? For example:

    – A new obstacle
    – Added trouble or disaster
    – A new conflict
    – A revelation or insight
    – A failure
    – A reversal of position (as you described above)
    – A success (movement toward the goal)
    – A significant decision

    I’m not quite clear on what you mean 🙂


Add comment

Powered by WordPress

Join Russell Blake's Mailing List

  • Get Latest Releases
  • No Spam
  • Exclusive Offers

The best way to get the latest updates from Russell Blake