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To Outline or Not to Outline?

02/17/2009

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.