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On the plus side, every writer has an answer. On the minus side, it’s always the same answer — it depends on you, the writer.
Some writers thrive on outlines. Others eschew them in favor of the idea that writing an outline locks you into plot points that you must adhere to, lest your idea fly apart at the seams.
There is validity to both arguments, but rarely do we ever hear why. So let’s take a look.
When To Outline
Outlining is almost essential for non-fiction books, for the same reason it was essential to your report on the Greek Empire in World History class in high school. You don’t need the Roman numeral and the indents per se, but if you’re tackling a long or book-length non-fiction piece, having an outline breaks things into manageable chunks, secures the timeline, and reminds you that you’re not just pulling stuff out of your … hat. The very advantage of non-fiction (that it’s something real and tangible) makes it a good idea to have something that will keep you in line as a writer. An outline will allow you to see your plot points, develop your story arc, and pace yourself.
Outlines are also good for genre fiction. Unlike the elegiac nature of prose, genre fiction, such as western, romance, or thriller, have certain conventions that benefit greatly from outlines. You don’t have to figure out what to do in every chapter ahead of time (though developing a killer formula has mad Dan Brown a soaring success), but knowing the plot sequence, when to meet the bad guy, when to meet the girl, when to reveal the red herring, will help greatly in the construction of a genre piece.
Just don’t let yourself get locked into rigid plot points that give you no wiggle room. Your writing will show signs of panic and of speeding through events just to get to a turning point (did you see Attack of the Clones?).
When Not To Outline
Short stories, even long ones, don’t typically need outlines. I’ve never known a writer to outline a short, though some jot down the beginning, middle, and end, which I suppose qualifies loosely.
Prose writing, which is an umbrella term for fiction that does not qualify as genre-specific, could surely benefit from outlining, but this has to come with a caveat. The real joy of prose writing is to be surprised by your own story. Prose fiction is considered “character-driven” rather than “plot-driven,” but a better way to say it would be that it is story-and-character driven, rather than formula-driven. The characters move through an actual story that unfolds, rather than through situations to which they have to react.
I can’t tell you not to outline if you write prose, but I would caution you to not get tied down in a step-by-step outline. I had the good fortune to ask Sam Lipsyte (click here to read his short “The Dungeon Master” in The New Yorker) about pacing and plotting and he told me not to worry about that kind of thing. Maybe I wanted my hero to get from the cafe to the stairs to his bedroom, but he said “Maybe something happens to the guy and we never get to his bedroom.”
The point is, trust your writing. Let your story tell itself, let your characters do what they do (because they’re going to do it anyway). If you need an outline, knock yourself out, but never let your it get in the way of your writing.
And besides — if you don’t know where your story is going, your readers won’t be able to predict it either. (OK, that was from Sam Lipsyte too … But he’s right).
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I‘m about to give away a really big secret in genre fiction. And when I tell you it will seem so obvious, you’ll want to kick yourself in the butt for never noticing it yourself. Which is all right by me, because at least it means you won’t be kicking me in the butt.
Genre fiction, particularly of the thriller and suspense variety, all starts with the same formula. By which I mean it all starts with the same five-step setup.
Knowing the steps doesn’t mean you will end up crafting a Da Vinci Code or churn out books at a Dean Koontz pace, but not knowing genre fiction’s fabulous five will cause you years of rejection if you’re trying to become the successor to Michael Crichton or any other popular, mainstream author.
The first five chapters of your thriller should be:
1. Prologue: The bad guy kicks off the action with a grisly killing, a daring robbery, whatever. Or, perhaps, you want to take the Clive Cussler route and set up the general direction of and reason for the ensuing story by spinning a historical yarn. Or maybe you want to take the Michael Crichton route and set up the action as if you’re reciting a news story or citing an annual report. Whatever, the point is, everything you are about to read stems from this introductory chapter. Something major has happened — the curator is killed, the keeper of the secret is kidnapped, a dinosaur that got off the island attacks a child — that intrigues and tantalizes, but does not answer anything. All you should know from the prologue is, things are serious. The game is afoot. And you should be saying “Oh, my God!”
2. Call Upon the Hero: The hero, reluctant or not, is an expert in something related to what you just read in the prologue. He’s a naturalist, a historian, a cop, a deep-sea diver. Whatever is called for because of the prologue. We meet the hero, going about his day, when suddenly, someone calls upon him to tell him he’s needed. Not why, of course, just that he’s needed. that only he, an expert, is the right man for the job. He’s assigned the news story no one else wants. He’s asked to visit the scene of the crime. He’s asked to counsel a powerful figure. He accepts, not knowing what hell he is getting himself into. There is a hint that he could say no and call it a day. But would we have a thriller if he did that?
3. The Hero In Transit: Once the hero has decided to check things out he has t get there. This travel time allows us to get to know the hero in surface ways. To know what he’s thinking about, to learn what would have been on his mind had some jerk not knocked on his door in the middle of the night and asked for his help. The transit phase often involves air travel, but can be a car. Once in a couple blue moons, it’s a walk. Whatever it is, it just needs to be long enough to let us get a feel for how confused the hero is, to let us know what few details he’s been told, and his uncertainty as to why he has been chosen for the job ahead.
4. Significance Revealed: Now we find out why the hero has been called upon. This is when the hero gets to the scene of the crime or to the place where the prologue happened. Here is also where we meet Basil Exposition (with apologies to Mike Meyers and Austin Powers). The hero will learn about what happened in the prologue, get more of the real reason he is here (because it has to go deeper than he though in the helicopter on the way out to the oil rig), and learn why keeping a lid on things is of the utmost importance. Some thrillers set up Mr. Exposition as a menace or a possible red herring, but that’s not written in stone. What is chiseled is the fact that the hero has a choice — but once he says yes, he’s in it until the end.
5. Meet the Girl: The Girl, i.e., The Partner, i.e., The Excuse for the hero to explain the proceedings to someone so that we all know what the hell is going on, enters by Chapter Five. Typically, she’s young, gorgeous, smart, and is a counter-balance to the hero’s expertise. In other words, if the hero is an ace archaeologist called upon to track the ancient ruins of a Mayan tablet, the girl is a linguist capable of reading it. She is somebody whose intelligence and skills complement the hero’s and will save his butt later on, proving yet again that behind every good man is a better woman.
So there you go. The beginning of your bestseller. But you’ll have to figure out the next one hundred chapters on your own.