Questions about writing: Do I outline? Do I plot?

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This year I once again taught a course on Plot for the International Thriller Writers’ Online Thriller School. As I did last year, I’m re-posting portions of my questions and answers with students, for anybody who wants to learn more about plotting a thriller.

To start:

What is your process for outlining novels?

Are there sources that you like to draw on? There are many different plot structures; [Robert] McKee advocates a three-act structure. Do you have any favorites?

When I develop a novel — through brainstorming, outlining, and drafting — I need two things first: a compelling main character, and a sharp hook for the plot. In any novel, but especially a thriller, the hook will involve the antagonist, and the threat they present. Outlining means working out the most surprising, challenging turns of plot that I can imagine. Then reworking them to be even more challenging and surprising, and to drill deeper into the characters’ lives — their fears, loves, and desires — so that the story is satisfying on every level. It can take months from the initial idea until an outline is in decent shape. I don’t outline every single scene, but I do make sure to include the inciting incident, all major turning points, and the ending.

McKee recommends the classic three-act structure (what he calls arch-plot) for the majority of novel (or feature) length stories. (He also discusses minimalist plots, and anti-plots.) Three-act dramas have been drawing audiences since plays were performed in Greek amphitheaters. There’s a solid reason they work so well. AKA: they have a beginning, middle, and end. You can play around with the structure of a plot if you understand how to build a story to a satisfying conclusion. My own novels follow a three act structure, sometimes with another major turning point in the middle of Act Two.

I love three-act dramas. They work, and work well.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you have a process that helps you keep track of all the moving parts, or can you just keep it all in your head?

I am most definitely a plotter. I have to be. The last time I tried to write by the seat of my pants, I ended up lost in the woods, without a paddle, a creek, or any path out of the trees.

I tend to keep several initial documents in a computer folder: an outline, character sketches, and research. It’s always good to write down ideas as soon as they hit me. I keep a small notebook and pen handy so I can put thoughts on paper — even a few words. That’s better than forgetting the idea that came to me while I was at the check stand at the supermarket.

I’m interested in your thoughts about choosing and handling Point of View when creating the protagonist and antagonist, particularly within the principle of antagonism.

The choice whether to write scenes in the antagonist’s POV — in addition to the protagonist’s — will depend on the story, the writer’s voice, and how close you want to get to the antagonist’s mind. It can work brilliantly but isn’t always necessary. In The Silence of the Lambs, we’re never in Hannibal Lecter’s POV. Showing him solely in opposition to the other characters is powerful enough. And of course, in a story written in first person, the antagonist remains necessarily opaque to a certain degree. You just have to try it and see what works best for your own work.

More questions and answers coming soon.

(If you’re interested in taking next year’s online course, check it out here.)

2 responses to “Questions about writing: Do I outline? Do I plot?

  1. It sounds like 12-bar blues when it’s done by a master. It sounds simple, but it’s often deeply complex and ultimately very satisfying. Love your style, Meg; it’s why I’m a fan.

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