The International Thriller Writers organization recently asked me to participate in a discussion on outlining and plotting novels. You can read the full discussion here. But I wanted to post this again here in case it helps anyone think of how to map out their next book.
For me, long-form fiction is a big project to tackle, and so I need to break it down to small tasks. This is where the outline helps for me. I wish I were one of those writers who could just start typing and go with wherever the moment takes me, but it usually winds up an unfocused mess.
I’ve developed a process that’s helped me. It’s methodical, and possibly way too anal for some writers, but with the hope that it might offer some structure and process for those who want it, I’ll outline it briefly.
(1) Premise. I’ll usually come up with some kind of premise that intrigues me. In the case of the book I’m about to release (The Euthanist), I had an interest in people that work in end-of life care and the right-to-die movement. I wondered what someone might be like who chose that line of work. The story germinated from this basic interest in the subject matter.
(2) Characters. Before I started on the first draft, I wanted to get to know what kind of people would be part of the story. I did create a story outline that helped give me a rough idea of what characters I might need, but I spent months developing biographies on each of my lead characters before I ever started with the manuscript. For each character, I answered the following questions (this is not my questionnaire either—it’s Frankensteined from several different sources). You might decide you don’t need this, or that this is way too formulaic for your approach to writing. Everything is valid here. But here’s what my own questionnaire looked like:
• What does character want (what do they care about)?
• What is getting in the way?
• What must they change to be happy?
• Basics (sex, race, age, height, build)
• Where do they live?
• Attitudes (outlook, prejudices)
• Speech Patterns, Mannerisms
• Most embarrassing moment
• Greatest achievement
• Greatest disappointment
• Most proud of
• Most ashamed of
• What makes them feel safe?
• What terrifies them?
• Biggest secret
• Goals for the future
• What do they not like about themselves?
• Greatest strength
• Greatest weakness
• How do they feel when entering a room full of strangers?
• What do they admire most in other people?
• What do they like least in other people?
• Who are they attracted to?
(3) Plot. Once I have a sense of who my characters are, I’ll keep refining the plot outline. Essentially, I stole my method from the screenwriting technique of outlining a beat sheet. That way, I can outline the basic elements of action in a one-page bulleted list. In each chapter, I know what I need to cover. If I know what the overall story is, and know in advance something isn’t working, I can overhaul that one-sheet of bullets instead of having to overhaul a 300-page manuscript.
All of this probably takes me three months to do it thoughtfully. If I were Joyce Carol Oates, this would probably take me six hours, but I move at my own pace. Then I start the draft. Of course, I’ll deviate from this outline a number of times as I get a better feel for how the characters interact, and what the story really needs. Sometimes I need to change characters, and sometimes I need to change plot. Nothing is fixed in the outline process. However, it’s a lot easier for me to modify the outline than to change a thirty-page chapter once I realize that I need to change something. For me, it comes down to managing my time. The more I outline and prepare in advance, the less time I have to spend making major changes to my manuscript during the editing process.