Move by Move: How to Outline

More than a decade ago, I had an idea for a series of thrillers featuring a one-armed detective. I attended a seminar by a well-known novelist who taught us to carefully and meticulously outline our novels and then stick to the outline. Well, I didn’t get very far in the one-armed detective project. In fact, it went absolutely nowhere. The process of outlining seemed daunting, not a whole lot of fun, and a very artificial way to approach an art form—sort of like an artist using a paint-by-numbers approach. Eventually, I ended up adopting my own process of asking three questions as I write, moving organically through my series of suspense novels featuring FBI agent Patrick Bowers: Opening Moves, The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight, The Bishop, The Queen and The King. The writing process is a bit like a chess game, approaching it move by move and trying to always be responsive to the way the game is playing out.Move by Move: How to OutlineFirst, I ask: “What would this character naturally do in this situation?” This focuses on the story’s believability and causality—everything that happens in a novel needs to be believable even if it’s impossible, and everything needs to follow causally from what happens before it. In other words, stories aren’t random; every move depends on the previous move.
Next, I ask: “How can I make things worse?” This dials me into the story’s escalation. Readers always want the tension to tighten, the plot to thicken, never thin. If the story doesn’t build, it’ll become boring and they’ll put it aside.
Third, I ask: “How can I end this scene in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?” Here I’m shaping the scenes around satisfaction and surprise. In one of the paradoxes of fiction, readers want to guess how a story will end or how it will get to that end, but they want to be wrong.
They’ll be frustrated if they solve the crime before the fictional detective does; they’ll be let down if there are no twists. So, the story has to move logically, one step at a time, in a direction that readers can track, and then veer from it as they realize this is the direction the story was heading all along. But they don’t want the ending to come out of nowhere. They want it to be organic to the story. It’s cheating to solve the climactic struggle through chance, coincidence, or having someone show up to give the protagonist the answer to his problems or solve them for him. The storm can’t clear just as the ship is about to be smashed to pieces on the rocks (chance). The main character can’t suddenly know karate at the climax and fight off all the bad guys (coincidence). The protagonist can’t just go to a wise answer-giver and have that person tell him the lesson that he needs to know to overcome the climax (sermonizing). And the main character’s friend can’t just show up and shoot the villain to save the day (deus ex machina).
Writing a story isn’t a straightforward, step-by-step, mechanical process. It’s more like growing a houseplant than drawing up the blueprints to the house. When you draw up blueprints, you’re imposing your view of what the house should look like. When you grow a plant, you provide the right environment by watering it, giving it the nutrients that it needs, making sure it’s in the sunlight, and then trusting that it’ll grow. In the end, it’ll never look exactly like you expected it to and it’ll have a life and beauty of its own.
These three questions form the environment I use when growing my story. They’re a way to water it, to allow it to grow in the right direction. In a sense, they are the strategy I use in moving through the game of the tale step by step, move by move, and watching it all unfold. I have very astute readers, and if I can sit down and outline the story and not be surprised by the direction it goes, I’m guessing that some of them will be able to as well. I want jaws to drop by the twist and then I want readers to nod their heads as they realize that’s the most logical outcome to the game.
Robert Frost wrote, “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” It’s the same for poetry as it is for storytelling. It’s always an interplay of responding to the unfolding narrative, going back and forth from my idea files to the story, and watching how everything merges and reforms itself into the final product, the outcome of the game. The one in which I’m hoping readers will be the winners.
Steven James is the author of more than thirty books, including the best-selling Patrick Bowers series. His latest Bowers novel, The King, is due out from Signet Select in July 2013.