Tuesday, February 17, 2009

To Outline or Not to Outline?

The text of my February 2009 "Writing Tips" newsletter. If you'd like to subscribe, click here.

Okay, you’ve finally decided to sit down and write a thriller. As Robert Redford asked in the last line of The Candidate: “Now what?”

Outline or not?

This is the question I get most of all, whether by e-mail or at conferences: Do you outline or not?

It’s a good and important question, and here’s the thing: There’s no Right Answer. All of us writers make up our own rules as we go along. There’s no one way to do it.

Ask Harlan Coben, and he’ll tell you no way, he doesn’t outline, but he does know the ending before he starts. He says, “It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 60, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stop over in Tokyo . . . but I’ll end up in California.”

Ask John Grisham, and he’ll tell you he can’t write a novel without doing an outline first. He does a 50-page outline with a paragraph or two about each chapter, setting out the major events and plot points. He spends more time on the outline than on the writing. Robert Ludlum once told me the same thing — his outlines were often as long as 100 or 150 pages!

I once got into a public dispute with my friend Lee Child — well, it being Lee Child, it was cordial and amicable and polite, of course — who said he never outlines, and I should try it his way.

So I did. I mean, I’m a top ten New York Times bestseller (polite cough into fist), but Lee’s had repeated #1’s, so he must know what he’s doing, right?

I tried it his way with my last book, POWER PLAY. No outline. I just brazened my way through it.

And I’m here to tell you that writing without an outline is like doing a high-wire act without a net. Some people can do it, but wouldn’t you really rather have a net? I would. POWER PLAY wound up taking me several months longer than usual, simply because I wasted a lot of time on plot and on characters that I ended up cutting out.

My feeling is that writing without an outline is one of those “Don’t try this at home, kids” things. It’s okay if you’re a professional, or if you’re a “literary novelist,” not trying to write a thriller.

Thrillers have too many moving parts. They’re all about plot. They’re almost always too complex to write without doing some sort of outline in advance.

But the reason that writers like Harlan and Lee don’t outline is that they enjoy the serendipity, the surprises that arise when they’re not constricted by the steel girdle of an outline. And I get that too. Some of the best plot twists in my work have been ones that I didn’t plan on, including the ending to PARANOIA. One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is living in the story so that you “experience” it the way your characters do.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing a scene between two characters. You’ve decided in advance, on your outline, that the purpose of this scene is basically to advance the story a beat, to provide a blip of exposition. But while you’re writing it you come up with a much better idea. Such as: one character reveals something unexpected. Or suddenly lunges at the other guy and tries to kill him. That’s just the kind of unpredictable twist you want, because if YOU didn’t expect it, your reader won’t either.

So you don’t want to be hamstrung by your outline. You have to stay open to inspiration, serendipity. You have to let your imagination be free.

Why does not outlining work for Lee, but not for me? I think simply because that’s how he works. He’s used to it, and I’m not. But the truth is, I’m convinced that he actually does outline — in his head. He has a decent handle on where the book is going.

But here’s a bigger point: you can’t reverse engineer based on what bestselling writers do. For one thing, they don’t always tell you everything. For another, they’re often so skilled at their craft that they don’t have a linear understanding of how they do what they do. Lee Child and others don’t need to outline on paper – it’s in their heads. And what works for them isn’t necessarily going to work for you.

So my solution — and the one I’d urge you to try — is to do a very rudimentary outline, with just the basic “beats” (as they say in Hollywood), the basic plot points. Use it as a road map. That way, you know where you’re going everyday. But if you come up with a better idea while you’re writing — if you surprise yourself — that’s fantastic.

To subvert Harlan’s metaphor of driving from New Jersey to California: I’m the kind of guy who likes to Mapquest things out, use Google Maps or a road map. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t let myself take the scenic route. If I’m driving from Boston to Syracuse, and I know how I’m supposed to go, it’s totally fine if I get off the Mass Pike and take the local roads, because sometimes that’s more interesting. I know I’ll get to Syracuse eventually. If I were driving there without a map and I got off the Mass Pike, I don’t think I’d enjoy the detour as much.

To beat this metaphor to death: print out your Mapquest directions for the story. Follow it exactly if you like. Or feel free to get off the highway from time to time. As long as you enjoy the trip, your passengers will too.



Blogger Jeff Abbott said...

I cheat, Joe. I often start without the outline and about a hundred pages in, having a bit more idea about the characters, then I will go back and do a more detailed outline. Thrillers need structure. I'm going to link to your very good article about this on my blog this week. . .

5:06 PM  
Blogger Kendra said...

After hearing Lee talk once, I left with the impression that he'd sit down and write and write until half the book was done, then spend the second half tying all his "side trips" together. Obviously works quite well for him.

If I'm driving somewhere new, I pack my map, print out a mapquest page, and scribble reminders on a sticky note. Then plug the destination's phone number into my phone in case I get lost. I like lots of back up.

I won't start writing until I've brainstormed dozens of possiblities for each scene. I can't do the whole book at the begining--maybe three chaps at a time. But I follow a bare bones map that leads to the end. There's always some deviation along the way. I might crave a latte instead of a diet Coke.

Everyone should experiment until they find what's right for them. And be willing to test out new grounds. But I know my true nature when it comes to plotting. My husband has a rude word for it.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Edward G. Talbot said...

Hi Joe -

A good topic. All my comments can be taken as "we", since I work in a co-author team - I do most of the writing, co-author does most of the plots and editing.

With the second book only halfway done, I suppose I am still feeling my way, but I lean towards very sparse outlines. For the first book, I never really had one - at most, I'd have a few three sentence bullet points for each of the upcoming 5-8 chapters. Book two has more moving parts - in the scene I just finished writing, about halfway through, five different plot threads all met at once. So the outline essentially consists of what to reveal when and possibly how/by whom it is revealed. maybe two pages of outline for the first 50,000 words.

I do not outline at the beginning. In the beginning, it's just a few ideas and a sense of what the conflicts will be. Somewhere in the first 10,000 words, something more solid takes shape and that's when the outlining begins.

I only write 60-90 minutes a day. I think if I wrote 5-6 hours a day, I could do it without any outline. But I don't think I would. As you say, it's easy enough to take a different route if I so choose. I like having the road-map.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Chester Campbell said...

Enjoyed reading your views, Joe. Basically, I'm a seat-of-the-pants plotter. I tend to get the story started, then follow wherever the flow takes me. I do more plotting in developing characters. As I write sketches of the characters, the path takes me along where they appear to be headed. When I get into the writing, it all comes together.

When the story takes an unexpected twist, I realize this works if I go back and tweak something earlier. The ability to change history is what makes fiction so much fun.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Robert Liparulo said...

I've tried it both ways and have ended up with what I'd call a loose outline. I know the high points, but not necessarily how I'll get to each one. And, as you said, I'm not married to the outline. If my characters want to go a different direction, I let them.

Great article, Joe.

4:10 AM  
Blogger ~ Brandilyn Collins said...

I'm pretty much in Bob's camp here. Since my books are all about twists, I have to know each of those twists so I can effectively work in the assumptions I use to fool my readers, and the bits of foreshadowing truth. But I don't know how I'm going to get to each point. Wish I did. With every book I tell myself, "I'm gonna totally outline this thing so the writing will be easier." I can never do it. So I slog on. Sigh.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous James Scott Bell said...

In the great NOP and OP debate (No Outline v. Outline people) I've sensed that the more character driven folks like to frolic in the freedom of the creative tulips each day. The more "moving parts" in the thriller genre seems to demand more outlining. But I'm always pleased when characters take me off script, and I refind my way.

I know my act 1 pretty well, and signpost scenes after that and a sense of the ending. And then I go.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

I like the high wire act/net analogy but think the "would-you-build-a-house-without-a-blue-print?" analogy is better.

It's all about the foundations of story-telling.

Aristotle came up with the three-act structure - and the great, most memorable books that have stood the test of time follow these story telling basics.

12:02 PM  
Blogger moik said...

Thanks, another helpful writing tip.

Here's a question: do you use any writer's tools like scrivener, or other available organization software. I never have, but am curious.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Bill Cameron said...

My first book, I did a loose outline. Mostly I knew the ending, and mapped a few key points, then filled in the gaps.

I had no outline for my second book. I didn't even know the ending until I got there.

I'm neck deep in my third book, and while I didn't formally outline, I did start with more pre-planning than in the past. At this point (probably 95% done with the first draft), I wish I'd more diligently outlined.

That said, I don't think my second book suffered from not having an outline. In the end, I think I will work through my problems with the third book as well. I do think the third book would have been easier if I'd been more organized in my thinking up front.

For my next book, I am going to attempt a strict outline. I've never done it, so it's an experiment, but my experience with this current project has given me reason to believe it will be a worthwhile experiment.

12:27 PM  
Blogger moik said...

speaking of outlines - I just made an outline of how I'm going to clean my room/office/library - so what does that tell you?

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Therese Walsh said...

Syracuse=Dinosaur BBQ love

I think any writer drafting a story with complex, moving parts should try an outline--thriller or not. Great post, Joe!

12:50 PM  
Blogger Seth Greenwood said...

Maybe this is why it takes me 3 weeks to write a chapter. Thanks for the blog Joe. Very helpful!

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Bradley Robb said...

When I was 20, the idea of outlining raged against the entire concept of writing. The written word was art. And art was truth. Outlining truth would only generate artificial circumstances.

Nearly a decade later, when working in novels which juggle the lives, complete with dreams, schemes, and fears of a dozen characters, and I now live and swear by the outline.

I've to make a minor outline before really setting out on a novel. Then, after eight or ten thousand words, I have a good bearing on the story and can juggle out a more complete outline which encompasses a few dozen pages.

While not touching on the 100 or so pages that Ludlum used (however, I've read enough of his works to see such an outline as fully necessary), the outline allows for enough flexibility to be structurally strong while still leaving room for the story to be artistically fulfilling.

5:45 PM  

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