20 June 2015 by Published in: Uncategorized 24 comments

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.

Spreadsheet capture

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.

Trees in Monkey Forest in the city of Ubud. Bali, Indonesia




  1. Sat 20th Jun 2015 at 10:07 pm

    This post is a keeper, for sure. I can’t have much respect for any author who says that they “never” outline. If their stories are any good, they do, even if the basic outline is in their head as they write, instead of out there on paper. So if they insist that they don’t, they’re lying, to themselves and to the neophytes who are trying to learn how to write successfully.

    I just finished a book about Agatha Christie that examined the outlining and plotting and character notes that she produced for each of her books. There was not a huge amount of it for each book, but it was definitely there. She didn’t just sit in a chair one day and let loose her muse and end up with a hit.

    Success takes work. You’ve shown that and have been generous in your sharing of your information. Now if we could just get you to stop saying “could care less” and stop using both indents and spacing for each of your post paragraphs, we just might start to think that you’re a pretty good writer. 🙂

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 20th Jun 2015 at 11:02 pm

      Know me by my flaws, not my conceits.

    • J R Tomlin  –  Wed 15th Feb 2017 at 6:05 am

      I will just have to live with you calling me a liar then. I do not outline.

      • Russell Blake  –  Wed 15th Feb 2017 at 10:02 pm

        Not sure what you are referring to. Nowhere in the blog does it say that you are a liar if you don’t outline, or that it’s impossible to write books without outlining. I’ve just found that it takes a lot longer, and it’s far harder to create coherent, complex plot lines. Can some people do it? Sure. Some people can also live on nothing but McDonalds food. Question is whether it’s wise to be one of them.

  2. Thu 25th Jun 2015 at 6:33 am

    I love the checks and balances that the color provide. Great stuff!

  3. Christiana
    Wed 13th Jan 2016 at 4:14 pm

    I love this post. I can’t tell you how much. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. I am sooo doing this for my next book. I do have a question for you… You said you keep a timeline on the right side of the grid. Do you have a screenshot of a sample of it? Or is it as simple as Day 1, February 1, Morning 9:00 a.m.? Thanks!

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 13th Jan 2016 at 5:30 pm

      It’s that simple. I just put when in the relative timeline the scene occurs. Such as, today, morning. Today, afternoon. Tonight. Tomorrow morning. Etc. Doesn’t have to be all that difficult. I don’t spent a lot of time on it, more use it to ensure I don’t have any occurrences that require use of a time machine.

      • Christiana  –  Sat 16th Jan 2016 at 3:05 am

        Thanks, Russell! I also have a book in rewrites right now and the pace is uneven — I’m going to retroactively apply your outlining system to it, to see where I need to cut scenes and where I need to add them. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Sat 19th Mar 2016 at 8:59 am

    This is so awesome. I winged (pants) my first 60,000 and it took forever. Dark corners to write out of, mind blanks, dead ends… Now I’m learning outline methods and it’s helped SO much. Your excel sheet is another step forward for me. Thank you Russell.

  5. Joe
    Sat 21st Jan 2017 at 2:08 am

    Perfect timing to see this in a Facebook post. I have scraps of paper and legal pads by the dozen with all these ideas and needed a way to get them organized. Thanks!

  6. mg
    Wed 19th Apr 2017 at 9:47 am

    Picked up this site recommendation from James Patterson’s MasterClass on-line course. Most of us neophytes are confused HOW to outline and this info most helpful. Thanks for giving.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 19th Apr 2017 at 4:16 pm

      Really? I’m mentioned in the course? That’s a surprise. Can you direct me to where? Gracias.

  7. Jim Miesner
    Tue 17th Apr 2018 at 7:15 am

    Great info Russell. Hope you’re still monitoring this thread. You said you know if you only have thirty chapters that it is not long enough for a story. How many chapters do you consider your minimum for a good story?

    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 24th Apr 2018 at 10:04 am

      Depends on chapter length. I tend to average 1800-2000 words per chapter, so minimum is usually 40 chapters, or 80K words, mas o menos.

      • Jim Miesner  –  Tue 24th Apr 2018 at 11:17 am



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