I had a long discussion with a friend who’s an aspiring author about how to move the plot along and engage the reader at every turn. To that end, I thought I’d share some things about how I plan and outline my own work. If you find it helpful, good. If not, well, it was worth what you paid for it.
Let me say up front that there is no one or “right” way to write a novel. Some start writing with barely an idea, others do 50 page outlines. So I can’t advise the only way to write a compelling draft, I can only explain the system I use.
Here’s how I do it: First, I ensure that if it’s an action book, there are sufficient beats to keep the reader engaged. I do this visually, as I outline (I do single sentence summaries of each chapter, usually in three acts, approximately 15 chapters per act), by color coding my chapters with action beats or reversals. So if my typical book has, say, 45 chapters, and I don’t have a beat every two or three chapters, it’s probably going to be a snoozefest. I’d rather know that going in and contrive more story than discover I lack beats once written.
As discussed, my outline will be single sentence chapters, a la “Giant panda storms Tokyo,” “Protag introduced, narrowly escapes,” “Romantic interest introduced, helps her across river,” etc. The action beats will be highlighted red (or in romance, the conflict beats). I want to see a lot of red in one of my action adventure tomes.
When I do my single sentences, I focus on who’s in it, why they’re in it, and what’s happening. If it’s not essential to moving the story along or imparting important info of some sort, my philosophy is it should be cut – it serves no purpose but to occupy space, and it’s a better read if every chapter has impact, a specific purpose. Purposeful outlining, and then hopefully, writing, is a key in my opinion to making for a gripping read.
I also try for as many reversals as I can achieve. She’s being chased, the situation reverses, she’s now the hunter, the prey eludes her, and doubles back, putting her in harm’s way again. She was on top, now she’s scrambling. The love interest was making advances, now he’s distant. Reversals make it interesting. The more the merrier, and if you can achieve multiples within a chapter, so much the better.
Probably the biggest thing in a larger sense is to try to demonstrate qualities about the characters, what they’re feeling, attributes, without doing so explicitly, i.e. showing vs. telling, because even the fastest moving novel will lose reader interest pretty quickly if everything’s explicate and obvious.
And finally, on second and third draft, I ask myself with each sentence whether it needs to be there – does it tell us something vital about the story, characters, etc.? Is there a better way to say it? Is it repetition of something I said earlier? Is it setting a tone or mood? Does the reader already know this because of something I said or did 40 pages earlier? Are the characters logically consistent in their behavior?
One of my pet peeves is when a character has to behave stupidly or illogically (outside of the framework of the world I’ve crafted) in order to move the plot forward. So I’m careful to watch for that – although note that in something like my NA trilogy, I deliberately have the protag behaving in contradictory ways, but that’s because when you’re a teen, you can have contradictory impulses in a short period of time. That’s how it was for me. Part of becoming a mature adult is being fairly responsible, but being a teen is the path toward that, so I want that push pull of emotions, that should I or shouldn’t I instability. It’s the instability that adds to veracity, that even, while frustrating in a kind of “No, don’t do that!” way, feels true and real, even if frustrating that the character is doing something that isn’t in her or his best interests.
In summary, I strive for pacing and consistency. I’m not immune to the lure of prose, to the well turned phrase or the bordering-on-purple description, but that’s a personal style preference. I know many books and courses counsel the Hemingway/Chandler school of sparse prose and economic description, and that’s fine, but it’s a preference, nothing more. I do look for readability in the prose as a final check – is there musicality to it? Lyricism? Is there suitable difference in sentence structure to avoid monotony? Is there a cadence, and if so, is it one that I like, or could I do better?
The big takeaway is that color coding your chapters might work for you, might not, but I’ve found it a reasonable way to do what a content editor might, on my own, and ensure my characters get into sufficient trouble to keep it interesting.
Now, go buy my crap. JET – Ops Files, Terror Alert, is out and garnering impressive reviews, and Ramsey’s Gold is on preorder for release end of May. Both are worthy of a hard look. Terror Alert is as good an example as any of how my approach to pacing unfolds, so it’s not a bad place to look for the structure within the chapters. And Ramsey’s a blockbuster read. Trust me on this.
As to my situation, I’ve got a mountain of work to get done over the next ten days, so will be in and out.
Hope this little glimpse into my process resonates. Now go write something.