One outline good. Two outlines better?
edited: Thursday, September 06, 2007
By Russ Heitz
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Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2007
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This brief article illustrates my way of using two outlines for the same story.
My new suspense novel, Crosshairs, has been published and a second suspense novel is now 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 comform to the old Cowboy Posse Rule of "saddle up, and then ride off in all directions."
To complicate my own novel-writing, 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 ASAP. 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 a 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 think 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 a half. A small part of it looks like this:
Chapter 2. Thursday morning. Dr. Dani Michaels 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 or 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 indicate that 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 Deana that evening to find out if she got that promotion ... Etc. Etc. Etc.
Having a Detailed Outline gives me plenty of info to develop and expand upon during the first draft of the actual story -- usually more material than I actually use. It also allows me to find the best place to insert clues retroactively as the story develops.
The Skeleton Outline helps me to 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 potentially important question. The question or cliff hanger 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.