Category Archives: Writing

Writing outlines: Do what works for you

I was recently asked a question about outlining a novel:

“I’m now working on an extensive outline in hopes that doing so will better help me see a novel through to the end. It sounds like doing so made all the difference for you. I am wondering if you could respond and further explain your outlining and writing process and maybe even include some images from the Unsub outline. Do you plot down to the chapter and scene level or is it more of the acts of the story and major plot points? Do you sketch these out on a pad or are you strictly working on Word files? I’d love to see what that actually looks like when done by a pro.”

Here’s the gist of how I responded:

When it comes to outlining stories: Do whatever works. Over the years I’ve found it most helpful to write an outline that’s like a story summary—it will include the beginning, major turning points, and ending. That’s what works for me. The more I can come to understand the characters before I dive into a first draft, and ramp up their motivations and conflicts, the better grasp on the story I’ll have—and the more ideas for how to develop the plot to a slam-bang ending.

I don’t format the outline with Roman numerals or anything that stringent—I write it up as if I’m telling the gist of the story to a friend. I’ll include a quick precis of major scenes, and emphasize the twists and turns in the plot, with particular emphasis on the protagonist and antagonist.

That’s just me. Whatever helps pull ideas from the air (or the unconscious)!

Crafting a novel is a discipline that simply takes time and practice. We all careen along the trail, hoping there will be a brass band at the finish line.

__________

I promised the querier that I would expand on these thoughts in a blog post. So: 

Over time, I’ve come to outline my novels in greater detail and at greater length. For example, for The Shadow Tracer, I wrote a two-page outline. Here’s a screen shot.

Shadow Tracer excerptI hadn’t read that outline for several years. When I did, I was struck to see that it’s mostly summary and backstory.

Actually, I was taken aback. I mean, the outline continues: “Sarah has a desperate secret. Zoe was placed in her care by her dying sister, Beth, who sacrificed her own life to protect her. Beth had unwittingly been put in danger by Zoe’s dad. He was a good-hearted young man who’d fled a nightmarish upbringing.” And it goes on like that for several more paragraphs. It’s almost all setup. The outline doesn’t even reveal the ending.

Since then, I’ve come to understand that getting the central conflict on the page, and explaining it in terms of the push-and-pull between the hero and antagonist, are incredibly helpful. What matters is to tell the story in the outline with as much drive and verve as possible. So now when I outline, I write the summary the way I write the book: I dive straight in. The action comes first; any explanation or backstory comes later. What counts is to dig into the heart of the characters’ emotional lives and excavate what’s at stake in the story.

So I’ve moved toward writing what are essentially story treatments for the novel. These are longer documents that include some mini-scenes and bring the story more immediately to life.

Here’s the opening of the UNSUB outline.

UNSUB excerpt

The UNSUB outline runs to almost twenty pages. Writing it took me months. And months, and more months. But when I finished it, I knew who the characters were. I knew what they meant to each other. And what they would do to each other. The UNSUB outline put all the elements of the plot on the page, with every major twist and turn, from beginning to end. And, importantly, it did so while delving into the emotional connections between the characters, and highlighting every major conflict, surprise, and revelation in the story.

Because of that, it took much less time to write the first draft of the book than to write the outline. And that first draft didn’t meander or require extensive cutting. When it came to plot and character development, I’d done the heavy lifting already.

Your mileage may vary. You may decide not to outline a single word of a story or novel. But if you get nothing else from this blog post, take this away: Even after writing thirteen novels, I’m still learning how to do it better.

How do authors get readers to cheer for the bad guy?

I was searching the blog archives this morning and found a comment on a post from waaaay back that I never answered. The post is “My Breaking Bad injury, or why good writing is dangerous.” The comment is from loyal blog reader Dana Jean:

Maybe you can answer this for me. I can’t STAND Skyler. I just loathe her, but why? She has every right to be pissed. She has every right to feel betrayed and hurt. But, when she starts with that face she gets and that attitude, I really want to smack her.

Walt is a bad guy. He did wrong things for the right reasons — at first. And even when he continues to do very bad things, I see his reasoning behind it. I supported Dexter too.

How are these authors making me cheer for the bad guy?

How indeed? What tricksy methods to writers use to get viewers, and readers, to cheer for villains and anti-heroes? Here are some reasons why we cheer for the bad guys:

They’re well-rounded. We see the entirety of their lives. And we see their lives from a compassionate perspective. Walter White starts from the most sympathetic position possible. He’s a brilliant, dedicated teacher, whose knowledge and passion for science are ignored by his students. To pay the bills, he has to work a humiliating second job at a car wash. He’s a devoted husband to his pregnant wife and father to his teenage son, who has a disability. And then he learns he has terminal cancer.

They have laudable motivations. Walter White starts cooking meth to provide for his family after he’s gone. He knows it’s illegal. It’s not a good thing to do. It puts him in danger. But time is running out, and he’s desperate. And the fact that he does something so dangerous actually makes Walt more sympathetic, at least at first.

They’re powerful. We like to read about (or watch) powerful people. We admire their power. We treat it — and them — with respect. Power helps them get things done. Think of The Godfather. Don Corleone is a mobster, but he can make miracles happen (it seems) for the helpless people who petition him for aid. In Breaking Bad, Walt starts out powerless, and we want him to gain agency, and respect, and independence, and revenge… and, yes, power.

Of course, power doesn’t solve Walt’s problems. By the time he says one of television’s all-time greatest lines to Skyler (“I am the one who knocks”), he’s far down the road to corruption. But we’re along for the ride with him.

The other guys are worse. Skillful writers make their bad guys look good by comparison. Who is Walter White up against? Tuco and Tio Salamanca. The cousins. Uncle Jack and his neo-Nazis. People who are remorseless and disgusting. Walt has to become tough to deal with them. We want to see him stand up and defeat these guys.

By comparison to Walt, Skyler can seem petty. Ungrateful, even. (Isn’t he doing all this for her?) She finds herself powerless, but the way she tries to strike back at Walt and get out from under the situation make us think poorly of her. (For example, at her wits’ end trying to get Walter to move out of the house, she sleeps with her boss, then tells Walt — in the kitchen at home, at dinnertime, as crudely as possible.) And, at heart, Walt is the anti-hero of the story. Skyler becomes an antagonist. She would stop him. And, thanks to the skill of the writers and Bryan Cranston’s brilliant portrayal, we don’t want that to happen.

Sorry it took me three-and-a-half years to answer your question, Dana Jean.

UNSUB book tour: Dallas added

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Here’s the latest on my book tour schedule for UNSUB. I’ve added July 5th in Dallas, where I’ll be talking to the amazing Don Winslow, discussing his hugely anticipated new novel The Force. 

UNSUB Book Tour:

June 26: Book People, Austin, Texas – 7PM
Moderated by Jeff Abbott

June 27: Murder by the Book, Houston – 6:30PM

June 28: Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Arizona – 7PM
In conversation with Spencer Quinn

June 29: Orinda Books, Orinda, California – 11:30AM

June 29: Bookshop West Portal, San Francisco – 7PM

July 5: Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Park, Dallas — 6PM
With Don Winslow

July 6: Best of Books, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma — 6PM

ThrillerFest XII
July 14-15, 2017
Grand Hyatt New York City

I hope I’ll see you along the way!

Writing writing writing… and UNSUB is coming

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My new thriller, UNSUB, will be published June 27th. This week I’m getting ready — planning my travel for the book tour, writing articles, doing interviews, and honing my ninja skills to a high level. As you do.

I’m also working on the sequel to this novel. So I’ve been editing a fight scene. Which means I asked the Husband to teach me how to take down a knife-wielding home invader, using only a leather belt and some momentum. As you do. Unlike a few years ago, this time I managed to act out the fictional fight without scaring the neighbors or my children. That’s a win.

And after going for my husband with a wrench (standing in for the knife), I feel confident that in real life he would have disarmed me and laid me out flat in less than a second. I’m glad I have him in the house. And I re-confirmed my decision never to take up home burglary.

The fight scene I wrote today will be published in 2018. In the meanwhile, you can preorder UNSUB.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book

Read an excerpt from UNSUB

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Over on Medium, my publisher has posted an excerpt from my upcoming novel, UNSUB. The excerpt includes portions of three scenes from the first chapters of the novel. Here’s the opening:

April 1998

The yelling woke her, the rough voice of her father, shouting into the phone.

“Listen to me. We don’t have days. We have hours.”

The black sky poured through the bedroom window. Shadows crawled the ceiling.

“Don’t you understand? It’s in his message — Mercury rises with the sun.”

Caitlin curled into a ball, hugging her bear. She knew what Mercury meant. It meant flashing lights and BREAKING NEWS and everybody so scared. A body bag sliding into the coroner’s black van. KILLER CLAIMS EIGHTH VICTIM. It meant you could never close your eyes or turn your back. Because he could get you anytime, anywhere.

Click to check out the rest. UNSUB: excerpts.

And remember: The book’s out June 27, but you can pre-order today.

Indiebound | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Book People | Murder by the Book

Questions about writing: Beginnings, middles, ends… and tension

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Today I’m re-posting more of the Q&A with my students in this year’s ITW Online Thriller School.

1. I wonder if you have a sense of Beginning/Middle/End markers in your books and the relative proportions given to each?

Beginning/middle/end: There are no hard and fast rules for when one of these turns into the next. But if you consider them the first, second, and third acts in a drama, you probably won’t go wrong by thinking in terms of the beginning as first quarter of the book, the middle as the next two quarters, and the end as the final quarter. Your mileage will vary according to the needs of the story.

2. Although a 200 page Middle has many scenes, do you think a small number of locations is okay? David Corbett says that tension, not action, keeps readers reading, and through the earlier scenes of my Middle the hero is in one place, ‘safe’ from immediate danger, gathering information, but with a sense of a ‘gathering storm’ beyond.

A small number of locations can work perfectly well if the suspense and level of conflict continues to build. That’s the whole idea behind the “crucible” of the story — the characters are in some sort of cauldron that limits their ability to escape the conflict. Limiting the setting can accomplish that.

3. And what do you think tension actually is? Is it different to suspense? Lee Child says suspense arises from unanswered questions. Is tension similarly about questions? Is it about danger? About twists and turns? About peaks and troughs, the rollercoaster? And is conflict different to tension, conflict really about the opposing forces in the crucible?

Tension is distinct from suspense. Tension means to draw something tight or put it under strain. For thriller-writing purposes, consider tension equal to excitement. It comes in brief bursts. Danger, confrontation, friction; time running out; deadlines approaching. Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension is felt in seconds or minutes.

4. You talked about ending chapters with questions. You didn’t mention ‘cliff-hangers’. I’m thinking that questions and cliff-hangers may be a bit like tension and action. Lots of questions good. Too many cliff-hangers not so good!?

Use cliffhangers whenever, wherever, and however you can. Always end a chapter on some kind of cliffhanger. Just remember, they can be emotional as well as physical.

5. You talked about the antagonist thwarting the protagonist’s desire. Do you think sometimes the protagonist’s desire is simply to stop the villain, a desire that didn’t exist until the villain appeared? You also mentioned the cliché of a hero’s family being threatened, but in many thrillers the hero must rescue those close to him. Do you think sometimes cliché vs not cliché is a fine line?

Stopping the antagonist can certainly be the core of the protagonist’s desire. That’s how almost all police procedurals work. But remember that the protagonist is trying to stop the antagonist from doing something awful. That’s what adds resonance and tension, in a lot of cases.

6. I’d wondered about plot and story and concluded that plot was ‘contrived’ by the author, while story was driven by the characters… and the more you let the characters do what they do rather than try to control them the better. I’d almost decided plot was a negative thing! Your podcast helped me realize that plot and character together make a story. And perhaps plot is in every thriller, but it’s the degree of ‘plotting’ that varies from author to author? I wonder if you draw a distinction between plot and story?

Plot is the series of events the author chooses to portray on the page to tell the story.

What you’ve clarified is that plot is the series of events or storyline, connected by causality, used to tell the story. And that plot develops from what the characters do, so in effect they create the causality, they do drive the plot, so as you say plot and character are two sides of the same coin. I hope that’s a fair understanding? And I think you’re saying it’s ALL story (what has happened), and plot is what we use to tell it (how it happens, whether or not we devise that plot beforehand or it develops as we write)?

You’ve got it.

Stories are metaphors for life. In stories, we recognize ourselves — our struggles, our striving, our quests. As a writer, when you create fiction, you’re designing how you’ll present your story to readers. That’s plot.

And you’re right: Don’t overthink it. Know that there are classic, archetypal ways to tell stories, and figure out if the tale you’re writing fits with any of them. But don’t tie yourself in knots. Plot is what the characters do, and how you choose to depict their journey on the page. Some writers create a detailed itinerary ahead of time; others have a sense of where they want to go, and strike out, breaking trail. You need to know what works best for you.

And always enjoy the trip.

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.)