Outlining is Good: How To Outline

How to outline is one of the best skills a commercial novelist can learn. Pretty much every author who craves success will choose to create some kind of outline before they start writing. That’s got to tell you something.

outline_illustration_01Writing bestselling novels and high grossing screenplays is all about telling a great story. The latest Bond movie is admired because “It had me on the edge of my seat, how on earth did Bond manage to outwit SPECTRE?” and not because “I loved the scene where Bond and M talked about the nature of colonialism.” No one goes to a James Bond film because of great dialogue or to rave about a thriller novel’s wonderful sense of imagery.

Great stories sell. More importantly, they have the power to wash away other imperfections. Just look at the work of James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Dan Brown. Not one of them would win a literary prize, but when it comes to enthralling readers and keeping them on the edge of their seats, these guys are faultless.

Why outline your novel?

There are two types of authors of commercial fiction. Those who know how to outline, and those who don’t. Writers who sit down to a blank page and try and make it up as they go along are called ‘pantsers’, not because their fiction is ‘pants’, but because they write ‘by the seat of their pants’. Believe me, this makes it sound more exciting than it is.

The main advantages of outlining are:

  • The ability to see the overall story: does it work? If not, you can easily change it without having to throw away tons of writing.
  • Knowing exactly what you’re going to write speeds up the writing process and makes it more enjoyable.
  • If you research during the outlining process, it means you’re not wasting writing time.
  • Writing an outline gives you a clearer idea of the overall story, and so helps keep you focussed.

Why I believe in outlining

I’ve ghostwritten quite a few thrillers and detective stories in my time, and even more erotica. I’ve always worked from an outline. Usually the ‘author’ — that’s the person whose name will appear on the finished work, not the person who’s actually doing the writing — will have some kind of outline already formulated. It can be as simple as:

Danny McTavish is a private detective working in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland. He is an ex-policeman in his mid-forties, divorced and alcoholic. He is unsuccessful and is on the verge of giving up. Danny’s motivation is that he is desperate to be allowed to see his children, who have moved with their mother to Australia. Danny is offered a simple case that leads to him being framed for murder. Against all the odds, Danny proves his innocence, finds the real killers and uncovers a plot to blow up The Houses of Parliament in London. Danny may have succeeded but he does not get to share the glory. At the end of the novel, he is no closer to seeing his children.

It’s then up to the ghostwriter to fill in the gaps and write a detailed outline for the ‘author’ and the publisher to approve.

More About Ghostwriting

I’m told the more usual way it happens is for the ghostwriter to be presented with a complete and detailed outline. This will often be in the form of chapters. The outline for single chapter may read something like this:

Chapter 22: Danny awakes to find himself smelling of whisky and urine, in a strange room. Hung-over and barely able to function, he is lying on the floor, fully dressed. The sun is shining in through boarded-up windows. He realises he is in a derelict building, and it is some time in the morning. A male voice says, “So, you’re back with us, eh?” It is Dominic, leader of the Business Centre gang. They have a conversation that reveals that Dominic is looking for information about Sam. Danny realises the gang know nothing of Tracy’s involvement. After their conversation, Dominic leaves Danny with a warning not to interfere with the gang’s plans. Danny goes back to sleep.

james-pattersonThat’s how James Patterson does it.

How James Patterson writes a novel

Although he doesn’t work with ghostwriters as such, Patterson co-writes most of his novels with people who are really credited ‘ghosters’. I signed on for the James Patterson Masterclass to get some ideas for a series of novels I was thinking of writing. After all, he is the biggest-selling author in the world today and his books, co-written and otherwise, sell in their squillions. Although I couldn’t claim to be a major fan, I’d read a couple of the early Alex Cross novels and enjoyed them. I like his short snappy chapters, and I liked the way he adds twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.

The Honeymoon Period…

Patterson is a gig fan of outlining. He says the biggest mistake new authors make is not using one. During the Masterclass you’re given his own outline to Honeymoon (written with Howard Roughan) to look at. Here’s a typical chapter:

Ten
On a Friday at dusk, a Lincoln Town Car pulls into Gordon’s Belgium block driveway. The hired driver steps out to open the door for Nora but it’s Gordon who gets there first. He’s that anxious to see her. And by the way Nora jumps into his arms and straddles him with her legs, the feeling would appear to be mutual. As the driver shakes his head and grabs Nora’s luggage from the trunk, the two lovebirds are all over each other. “You’re insatiable,” Gordon says. “And aren’t you the lucky one,” retorts Nora.

Take Note…

You’ll notice that Patterson advocates writing the chapter outline in almost the same way he’d write the finished novel. He even adds notes to himself, such as for chapter seventy-seven:

The suspense doesn’t let up. O’Hara looks around outside the cabin. Her car is gone. Then the police arrive. O’Hara’s cell phone rings. “You fucked with the wrong girl, O’Hara! Now I’m going to hurt you where you live . . . for real. Can you say New Canaan?”

During the Masterclass, James comes across as a nice guy, and very open about how he works. If I saw him on the street, I’d be tempted to rush over and say, ‘Hi,’ even though I know he doesn’t know me from Adam.

Reading To Learn

I picked up an armful of his more recent novels (he’s very prolific, especially now that he only works with co-writers), and started to read them, looking for guidance on straight-ahead plotting. It pains me to admit this, but I was amazed by how awful they were.

You’ll probably say I have a cheek criticizing the biggest-selling author in the world, and I probably have. Even so, I genuinely couldn’t read Step on a Crack without grimacing, which can get you some very odd looks when you’re reading it on a train.

The main character of Step on a Crack is a New York detective who, for reasons known only to himself and to the authors, has adopted ten (deliberately cute) children. Christmas is fast approaching, his wife is dying of cancer, and Michael Bennett s put in charge of a major hostage situation at St Patrick’s Cathedral. The action alternates between the schmaltzy wife dying/ cute kids set-up, and the brutal actions of the hostage-takers.

James Patterson’s Big Secret: How To Outline A Bestseller

step_on_a_crackUsing Step on a Crack as an example, I could see how James Patterson (and co-author Michael Ledwidge) set about constructing the story. In the Masterclass he revealed he starts off by setting the scene, introducing the central plot point before asking himself, ‘What could happen here?’ As you’d expect, he piles on the pressure (conflict!) and the twists and turns in the plot are mostly unique.

All the way through, he repeatedly asks himself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen here?” All well and good, I thought, but I had a nagging feeling that something was missing…

Patterson revealed the answer almost in passing. At one point, he said he worked out who his reader was going to be and he wrote for them. Straight afterward, he casually mentions that most of his books are bought by women. Although taking up less than a minute of the entire Masterclass that, for me, was the big Eureka! moment.

The Reveal…

In Step on a Crack, you can tell the novel was written for a certain type of woman reader. I’d guess, someone aged between 35 and 65, who maybe likes to read a lot of Romances and Mysteries. When Patterson was plotting this book, I’ll bet he was writing for his target woman, so let’s call her Madge.

He was asking himself, “Would Madge want Michael’s wife to die or be miraculously cured?” “Would Madge prefer it if Michael’s humanity be punished or rewarded?” And so on…

Obviously, there’s more that to plotting a bestseller, James Patterson-style, than imagining what a Madge (or a Jeffrey, or even a Scarlet) would expect and like, but it’s a good place to start. You can adapt it to fit any commercial author. Who was Tom Clancy writing for? Ken Follett? Dan Brown? JK Rowling? James Elroy?

How I Outline

My newfound interest in outlining arrived when I came to plan a mystery series of my own. It’ll be centered around a medical detective called Dr. Lucian Gentle and his assistant, Professor Harold Wise. Their first outing will be a trilogy of linked novels, which I’m intending to publish myself on Amazon Kindle. I’m expecting each book to be around 80,000 words, containing a standalone mystery as well as a continuing plot concerning events from Gentle’s past that will progress through each book, before being solved/explained in the final volume.

catch22I’ve spent time inventing and developing my central characters and I’ve worked out three individual mysteries I think will baffle the reader, as well as the bigger puzzle. Working on a complicated plot means you have to think differently. My poor little brain couldn’t cope, especially with all the other things I’ve got on the go.

Look at the photograph at the top of this page showing Norman Mailer’s outline for Harlot’s Ghost. Similarly, the example (right) is what Joseph Heller used to write Catch 22. This proves outlining is a very complicated business. Before you end up with James Patterson’s neat chapter by chapter outline, there’s a lot of working out and timeline planning to do.

How James Patterson Helped Me

To help me work out how best to create a workable outline for my Lucian Gentle books, I decided to research the subject. What began as a weekend project has occupied me, off and on, for the best part of a year. Taking the James Patterson Masterclass was just one avenue. I decided to write a guide to Outlining Fiction, to share what I’ve discovered. It’s fair to say that the methods I use have radically altered.

Outlining for Fiction is a subject worthy of an entire book, so there’s only room here for a very basic overview. The first step in the process is to break down what story you already have. For most people, this will be a basic idea: for example, a detective operating during World War II. That’s an idea, not a story. We need to put flesh on its bones.

I’ll stress at this point that I have no idea where this is going: I’m working out the options as I go along…

After you’ve got you When?, the next question to ask is, Where? There are plenty of places to choose from: likely candidates might include Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Paris, London, Casablanca (sound familiar?), New York, Singapore, Jersey (under Nazi occupation), Cairo, neutral Lisbon or Geneva? For the sake of argument, let’s say Ramsgate in Kent. I chose this partly because I live there, and partly because it’s less than 30 miles from what was then Occupied France. Plenty of scope for spies and intrigue.

How A Mystery Is Outlined

Mystery thrives on murder (fiction is always better when the stakes are high), so our detective will be assigned a seemingly straightforward homicide. It’s not straightforward, of course, but he doesn’t know that when he arrives at the murder scene. Before we start work on the characters, perhaps we should fix the time more precisely. Ramsgate was an exciting place to be just before the D-Day Landings, and Hitler would have considered sending in spies. Of course, no one outside of the top brass in the military and government would have been aware the invasion was imminent, and we can use that to our advantage.

ramsgate_world_war2_01We need to make our central characters believable and lifelike. We need to decide on a scenario the hero is presented with. Two German spies come ashore from a submarine and are taken to a house owned by a Nazi sympathizer in Ramsgate.

The murder victim could be a neighbor who heard German being spoken, or maybe a fisherman who saw the spies arrive? Perhaps even the sympathizer, who wasn’t quite as sympathetic as the Germans were expecting? In this scenario, I think it would help to make the spies sympathetic. Villains must always come in shades of gray and they have to be at least as accomplished as the hero. If the reader thinks it’s going to be a pushover for the detective, what’s the point in reading on?

You’ve got to tease out your story, adding embellishments as you go. As we’ve discussed, pick your target reader and ask yourself at every turn how you might be able to surprise them. Keep expanding on your original idea until you have enough to make a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.

Conclusions…

That, in a nutshell, is how to plot and outline a novel. There’s obviously more to it than that. For example, you’ve got to ask questions about how you’re going to structure your story. In this case, it might be fun to alternate chapters between the detective’s viewpoint and that of the spies. List the questions that are raised in the course of the outline (eg, Who murdered the fisherman and why? Why did the vicar leave the church door open? How did the spies know it was Inspector Wells who was knocking on the door?), and make sure you answer them.

outline_your_books_02_200x125I’ve finally finished my Outlining/Plotting ebook. Outline Your Books Or Die! (not at all over the top) is available exclusively available for Kindle at Amazon. I aim to add a print version soon, but that’s still in the pipeline, and I wanted to get my system working 100% before I published. Finally, I  managed to get it right!

To be honest, what I’ve been learning has helped me improve plotting my own stories immeasurably. Sign up to my email list and you’ll get my tips on how to outline, plus get the chance to buy all my books for a big discount.

Comments

  1. BruceJenkins says:

    I’m new to writing with an outline, but I’m going to use this method moving forward. Thanks….

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