(Or, as I was going to title this, ‘Every Cloud Atlas Has A Silver Outline’)
"OK," says my agent. "Come up with something for another book. Pitch me some ideas."
"Sure," I tell him, and then promptly collapse, clawing at my brain as the ideas well turns out to be horribly dry.
Eventually I cobble together some suggestions and email them to him. “Great,” he says. “I like that one. Send me an outline.”
"Oh, er, OK," I say.
Normally, when he or my editor asks for an outline, or a synopsis, or a plan (or, if I could get away with it, an actual book), I send him back a half dozen pages of rambling and unconnected material, mostly character and story background, the “befores”, with perhaps a paragraph of “oh, and yeah, I guess all that’s the stuff they’ve got to sort out, right?” plot tacked on at the end.
This time, I did it differently. Properly. Part of the problem I’ve had in the past has been that advice on what actually constitutes an outline (as opposed to a synopsis, or a pitch, or a book plan, or a searing discourse on 18th Century French baking) has been pretty thin on the ground. In the more production line-driven world of screenwriting, it’s all a lot more codified. So I stole from there.
And now I share my ill-gotten gains with you. Not to say this is the way to do it, nor the only way. Just one way you might, and the way I have.
What’s In A Name?
"Pitch": The core of the story - concept and hook - in as few a set of sentences as possible. Whether this is ‘high concept’ (i.e. single-sentence explainable, and usually a bit odd) or not. “What if the NYPD started using robots for law enforcement? And they decided the root cause of crime… was US?!” / “Snakes on a plane. Havoc ensues.” / “A man’s journey to discover the father he never knew, and the family that was kept hidden from him.” Blah.
"Synopsis": A short, usually one-two page rough overview of the plot. Think of it as the back jacket copy on a book, but (usually) giving away spoilers about the ending and how the story develops as time goes on. Not especially detailed, but more flesh on the bones than just your basic pitch.
"Outline": Well, here we come to it…
An outline, in this version of events, is equivalent to a ‘treatment’ for a film script. The latter’s a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film, two to three sentences apiece (at least, this is the case unless the internet’s been lying to me, and frankly I never trusted it anyway). For a novel, this means doing it chapter-by-chapter. A few sentences each, describing the main point to each, how the story’s moving along.
But I Don’t Know How Many Chapters I’ll Have!
Hush, you. Of course you don’t. That, frankly, doesn’t matter. These ‘chapters’ we’re planning are just stages, steps along the road. You’ve got a rough idea how long your book’s likely to be? Surely? I don’t mean a fixed point, “this will be 80,000 words on the dot or I’ll die trying” absolute, but a rough idea, either because you’ve got a vague idea how long you’d like/whoever you’re writing for expects such a story to be, or because you’ve written novels before, in which case you probably have a rough grasp of your natural range.
Example: If we count the unpublished/unpublishable, I’ve done nine books, nearly ten. Every single one of them, without exception, has been between 80-95,000 words. It’s safe for me to assume, when I sit down to plan out a novel, that 90k is a pretty good mark. Maybe I’ll come in way short of that, maybe I’ll run way over. Doesn’t matter. What matters for now is the baseline.
You also should have some idea of pacing. If you don’t, stop right now because you need to think more about your story. You want to be writing a rattling 24-style thriller, your chapters (again, assume quote marks around that word) are going to have to be pretty short. Stuff will keep needing to happen, characters will keep needing to develop, and so on, at a fair old clip or else it’s not 24 but maybe 48 or 72. For a more measured, slow-burning story, obviously you’ll take longer to develop each point. That means longer chapters.
Give yourself a rough number. Divide the total length by that rough per-chapter distance. That gives you the total number of chapters you’re going to be filling.
Example: I’m planning out another book in the world of The Levels and The Razor Gate. Both those, especially the latter, have short, punchy chapters, usually just a few pages at most, and a brisk pace. The way I write these days tends not to let me waffle on, so I don’t have much choice. Let’s settle on 1,500 words each. 1,000 would be even brisker, but might be too much. At the regular target length of 90,000 words, that’s a 60-chapter story. (And remember, in the actual written version, some of our “chapters” will be longer, some shorter, some split in two, some squidged into one. None of that matters right now.)
Example 2: I’m now planning out a horror novel. Creepy, slow-buiding. Time to dwell on things and let tension build. That means a slower pace and longer chapters. We’ll say 3,000 words each. Same likely length, so that’s only a 30-chapter story. With that limitation, this one’s going to have to be less chaotic - there’s not as much room to introduce lots of different elements - but probably richer and deeper for it.
See? Easy. Now you know.
It’s What You Do With It That Counts
It doesn’t matter how long it is, or how big the climax is, the technique’s much the same. When planning a book, I mean. You’ll need:
- Characters. Seriously. The main characters, both good and bad, should be in some way fleshed out. At least know what they want and what they’re planning to do to get it. Especially the bad guys. Don’t make any of them merely reactive, responding to events as they occur. This is Basic Writing 1-0-1, but I always cock this up.
- A setting. Obviously. Got to set the stage, right?
- That pitch you made earlier. Since that’s your basic plot idea, best keep it in mind, eh? Even if - and this does happen - you abandon it for something you come up with halfway through.
- Some idea of an opening. Helpful, otherwise you’ll never get off the ground.
- Some idea of an ending. Not the details, the imagined glint of light off every bead of sweat in the Grand Finale, but a vague “… and the good guys win” or “… but she ditches him and he dies alone and bitter”. At least. You’re going to A to B here, so think about B.
- Some idea how to structure a story. If you can’t do this… well, stop reading this, go do some research. I’d recommend The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, or (although my senile memory refuses to remind me how much into plotting this one gets) On Writing by Stephen King. Understand how tension builds, when to pause and let the reader breathe, how to pace character development, the fact that there needs to be character development in the first place, and so on.
Now you’ve got your basics, you can start sketching out. Write out key events on post-its or index cards (so you can move them around) as they occur to you - “McCluskey needs to discover they faked the moon landings somewhere around the middle, else there won’t be time to build on that before the end”. Move them around to fit, see where they work best. Cover the key stuff for each main character if you have more than one thread (personal tip: if you are, start thinking in terms of timelines as well as you do. It’s a bitch trying to fit two disparate stories together if one skips time in awkward places and the timelines need to match).
Each post-it or card (or clay tablet or Arcturan Memory Slab) is one chapter, one of your however-many, determined by your pacing and length. This means you’ve got to concentrate on the key events, your main plot beats.
You’ll soon see that there are blanks. Maybe the first few points, the establishing stuff from which the bulk of the story will blossom, come easy, but then you’re not sure how to take them. Maybe it was easy to work back from your idea of an ending by answering “how would they get there” and “how would they know that?” questions, but then you hit a block. That’s OK. You’re building your skeleton here, and it’s fine to have gaps.
You’ll also see some that, in the grand scheme, aren’t actually that big a deal. It’s fine to admit this to yourself. They don’t seem major enough and can probably smoosh in to a neighbor. Smoosh away, leave the space blank. Find something else that’s a big deal that’d follow on from your smooshed scene.
You’ll see places where your plot just doesn’t work at all, where everything relies on coincidence and unlikely levels of luck to move things along. Rework them so they’re believable. Keep the blagging minimal.
As you’re filling out your list, and it’s starting to shape up nicely, you’ll also be able to see stretches where the pacing or interest levels are off. This is one of the golden things about outlining. You don’t have to get 40,000 words into your magnum opus before you realise that your middle section is as flabby as my uncle Harry and half your readership is going to commit grisly suicide rather than wade through the 20,000 words before the story gets good again. It’s like having an editing pass before you’ve even started the book and it’s lovely.
And… I’m Spent
Good, good. You’ve got your final structure. Now just type the damn thing up, two to three sentences per chapter, covering what you’ve just settled on (two to three as a guide; I seem to go over on a regular basis, but I’ve always been over-eager). What you’ll end up with is something like:
"1. It’s a dark and stormy night. Bad time to be digging up corpses, but that’s what MARTY and CASS BISHOP are up to. They’ve dodged the cemetery guards and the law, and it’s looking like another night’s work when their last corpse sits up and starts screaming.
2. We flashback to the pair as kids. Street ragamuffins stealing groceries and scuffling with other children. MARTY has a crush on a girl called AMANDA JENNER, but she’s out of his league: book-smart, well off, and sights firmly fixed on being a doctor. He promises her that one day he’ll be part of the medical profession too, somehow, and that this’ll keep them together.
3. The corpse isn’t just screaming, it’s grabbed one of their shovels and is fighting back…”
Example 2: (And this is a real-life one, though this ended up being edited out. My fake one was probably a lot better.)
"23. Next morning, mist still in the streets, ALEX is out and about in town, on her own. She goes to score a gun off someone who’ll sell off the books; even in a town like this, there’s always one. The seller’s borderline paranoid and a survivalist nut. He doesn’t seem to have been sleeping well, and keeps insisting “the whole world’s gonna burn”. He also mentions, as she leaves, her boyfriend, though she’s pretty sure it’s just more nutty rambling. She doesn’t tell NICK about the gun."
That’s a lot more than three sentences, but who cares. The key point to the chapter is that one main character gets herself a weapon on the sly and doesn’t tell the other. I also apparently decided that it would be an ideal juncture to throw in a spot of foreshadowing regarding her recently-dragged-away boyfriend and the doused-in-gasoline finale to the tale. All of this is useful information, and means that there’s enough there to follow the story just from its skeleton, without all the good fleshy bits that constitute the actual prose.
Incidentally, since I mentioned knowing your characters, here’s Alex’s description in the ‘Main Characters’ part of that outline:
ALEX MALONE: The other end of the criminal career spectrum to NICK, she’s smart and sharp, full of piss and vinegar, but hasn’t yet learned the lessons he did. She’s in this to save herself: her dipshit boyfriend owes a pile of cash to some very bad people, and they’ve made it clear they’ll take it out on both of them if it doesn’t get paid off. She doesn’t care about FRANCIS - he’s a dick - but she does care about the directions he has to the cash stash they were going to dig up. At the end, though, she redeems herself a little and has a classic “do the right thing” change of heart.
Nothing especially (or at all) original in that, but it tells us what we need to know about her. I even explain her piss-poor excuse for a character arc, just in case it gets lost in the chapter-by-chapter.
My total length for the outline that example came from, incidentally? Nearly 8,000 words. Too bloody much, but it was helpful. In this particular instance, it showed my agent that I didn’t have a clue what I was thinking and that I was clearly trying to combine two (or more) stories in one horrible mess of a whole. (I have since separated them out and both are now living happily as individuals.) Better to find that out now and not when I turn in a 90,000 word manuscript.
It’s A Con
Are there downsides to this technique? Why yes, mysterious stranger, there are. Now what are you doing in my house? At least, there are apparent cons for all the pros.
- It’s a lot of work. True. But remember what I say about it being like a free editing pass before you start. I speak whereof I know when it comes to getting bad news from editors; my first drafts have often been very, very different from the final ones because, left to my own devices, I can’t plot for shit. This technique means more heavy lifting at the front end in return for less at the back. And we all want a lighter back end, right?
- There’s no point writing if I know the story already. I want surprises! Don’t be bloody silly. (A) You think in, say, a 3,000 word ‘chapter’ there won’t be anything you haven’t mentioned in your 3-sentence summary? Really? (B) Even if you do consider, say, the end of your book a surprise, all this does is just shift the moment at which you experience that surprise back by a few months/weeks/however long it takes you to write. Since you’ll be spending probably an almost equal amount of time after finishing re-editing the bastard thing (not to mention proofing. Oh, the proofing), it’s not like you won’t already have to spend a long time knowing everything that’s happened. (C) If the main point of writing the thing is not to know what’s going to happen, rather than, say, the pleasure of a brilliantly-crafted passage, a genius patch of wonderful prose, or an unexpected block of snappy dialogue and one-liners, you might want to reconsider your profession. If the main thrill is the not knowing, you might be better suited to being a reader rather than a writer. Sorry. Quite apart from anything else, you’ll only ever be able to re-read your own work with a feeling of disappointment, and how much would that suck?
- It’s so mechanical. Not very creative. An outline is just a guide, remember? It’s a tool for getting your ducks in a row, to make sure you’re not back-loading all the good shit in your story and leaving a swathe of waffle in the middle (or vice versa). Just because I’ve told you to settle on a rough pace doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t vary according to need. It’s not set in concrete and no one’s standing behind you with a riding crop to make sure you follow the damn thing to the letter. It just provides you with a framework within which to move. It also frees you from (some of) the paralyzing “what will I write next?” moments we all suffer from, keeping your writing flowing steadily. That can only be a good thing.
Idea. Sketch. Figure length and pace. Post-it. Arrange and order. Fill out each one. Done. It’s a suggestion, not scripture. My own personal take on the technique. Use it or don’t.