My new suspense novel, Crosshairs, has just been released and another novel is in the works. I couldn't have done either one of them without an outline.
I'm not talking about a Roman Numeral I, A, a (1) type of outline. I'm talking about a narrative outline that is broken into chapters. Without an outline, a story can quickly conform to the old Cowboy Posse Rule of "saddle up, and then ride off in all directions."
To complicate my novel-writing process, my short-term memory has always been made of Swiss cheese. Details dribble out of it as quickly as I put them in. The only way I can counter that is to get those details down on paper right away. And then to refer to them whenever necessary, which for me means constantly.
Because of the need for a clear structure combined with the persistent leaks in my short-term memory, I have had to develop a two-outline system. The first outline I call the Skeleton Outline because it includes only the bare bones of each chapter,the primary events that will move the story forward.
For instance, the following is my Skeleton of Chapter 2 of the novel I'm working on now:
Chapter 2. Thursday morning -- More details about Dani, intro to her twin sister, Deana (Dani is just thinking about Deana). There is suspicion about a letter Dani received. It looks like it might have been opened and then sealed again. Hint that there is something hidden in Dani's past, something she doesn't want to talk about. More details re: the Siesta Key/Sarasota setting and the people who live there.
I call my second outline my Detail Outline because, obviously, it includes a lot more details. My Detail Outline for the same chapter runs about a page and half. A small part of it looks like this:
Chapter 2. Thursday morning -- Dani takes a quick shower and gets ready for work. She has a rushed, light, healthy breakfast of yogurt, wheat toast, etc. She glances out of the window of her high-rise Siesta Key condo at the beautiful azure Gulf of Mexico. The sky is cloudless. She wishes she could go for a quick jog on the beach, like she usually does whenever she has the time, which will probably be less often now that the office is finally starting to get busy. Description of the type of clothing she wears, which is usually a lab coat or scrubs. But she prefers jeans and a tee like she used to wear most of the time in Pennsylvania, weather permitting. Subtle indication that she doesn't want to think about Pennsylvania right now. Maybe another hint that she has recently been hospitalized for an unspecified emotional disorder before she moved to Sarasota. Give more details about her physical appearance. Hint that she hasn't heard from her sister, Deana, for almost a week. She decides to call her this evening, and find out if she got that promotion. Etc.
Having a Detailed Outline gives me plenty of info to develop and expand upon during the first draft of the actual story. It also allows me to find the best place to insert clues retroactively as the story develops.
The Skeleton Outline helps me keep the basic structure sound and clearly stated. In addition, the Skeleton also reminds me to keep the momentum of the story moving forward. It also points out any sags that are bound to occur; sags that will then be replaced by additional hints of danger and suspense.
Whenever possible, I also try to have each chapter end with some sort of cliff hanger, or at the very least a question. The question should encourage the reader to turn the page and continue on to the next chapter.
Two outlines for each chapter? It works for me. Maybe it'll work for you, too.
Submitted by, Russ Heitz
Schedule and Location
Welcome to the Sarasota Writers Group Blog. We meet the first and third Wednesday of each month at the Nokomis Fire Station. Coming from Sarasota or North, proceed a few blocks south of Albee Road on US 41 (past Matthews-Currie Ford) to Pavonia Road. Turn right (West, toward the bay) at the Fire Station's flashing yellow caution traffic light. If you are coming from the south on US 41, we are 2 blocks north of Dona Bay. Turn left onto Pavonia Road at the flashing yellow caution light. At the Fire Station, drive to the far end, or west side, of the firehall. Please do not block the fire doors! We meet in the training room at the far end of the complex. We Gather for a meet and greet at 6:00 pm Meeting called to order: 6:30 pm Ten-minute break: 7:50 pm Meeting Adjourned: 9:00 pm