You stare at your blank page. You type Chapter 1, just so there’s something there. You think: I have no idea what comes next. You reassure yourself it’s fine, there are some people who write without an outline. But how do they do that?
First, “without an outline” is not really…quite true. You do have an outline. You’re writing a book. A book has a format. You’re telling a story. A story has an arc. You’re writing a certain genre of novel: a mystery, a thriller, a police procedural. There are expectations for what that book will be. When you type the words Chapter 1, even though you don’t know what will happen in the plot, you know what kind of book you are writing.
You’re making a contract with the reader and with yourself: a certain type of a book is coming.
There’s another thing you know: the book will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You know it will start with an inciting incident, some out-of-whack moment that propels the main character into action.
You know that after about 100 pages a lot more things will happen. Complications, new characters, twists, reversals, subplots, and surprises.
You know that as the story winds down, there will be the dark night of the soul, a huge realization, a big confrontation, a climax with exciting page-turning action, and then your thematic coda, where the emotional loose ends of the book are tied up.
So, no matter if you think you don’t have an outline? You do. You understand the structure of a story. Now what?
First choose a main character, with a personality, and a time and location where your book takes place. Do you have a crusading reporter on the trail of a murder in contemporary Des Moines? A damaged private investigator who decides to take one last case in 1940s Los Angeles? A suburban mom in Darien who suspects the mysterious next-door neighbors? You need to understand who you’re on the train with, and where their train station is located.
PRO TIP: It’s helpful to have a log line. One line of what this book is about, even if you don’t know what really happens. It’s the one gorgeous gem of an idea that set you on the path to write this story. What if an adoption agency were reuniting birthparents with the wrong children? What if a suburban mom’s husband was a secret serial killer?
And you write that book. Just that book. From that log line, you don’t know the answer to the “what if.” And that’s what you’re searching for as you write.
Ask yourself: what happens to set my character on this journey? What surprising twist in their otherwise regular lives will start the dominoes falling?
At that moment, your character will set a goal. Your character will say: “I need to do this thing, because… “ And that will set your story in motion.
After you decide that, ask yourself what happens next? What would really happen next, if this were real life? Because you are writing the real life of the book. There would be obstacles, and other people involved. There would be surprises, and action, and, most important: decision-making. Your main character has a goal, remember, and everything they do will propel your story forward toward that goal.
Because it’s crime fiction, they’re not going to be successful in that goal, not for about 385 pages at least. So what will happen is they will try something, right? And that attempt will have an outcome. The outcome will probably be surprising, and often it will result in the meeting a new person, or having a new experience, or facing an obstacle.
When that happens, your character will have to do something again. They will have to make a decision. And this is key. How a character makes a decision in facing an obstacle and what they do next not only propels the action of the story, but also reveals your character’s personality. Do they do the reasonable thing? Do they do a crazy thing? Do they do the wrong thing? An unexpected thing? Why?
You’re writing now, right? You are writing a journey of a person with a goal and a motivation.
As your story progresses, this sequence will be repeated: your character’s goal will change, their motivation will develop, and the conflicts will get even greater. The obstacles will be even more powerful. Your antagonists, if not by name but by action, will begin to be revealed.
As your character advances through the story, they will begin to see clues about why the inciting incident happened, and who might have caused it, and why, and what their ultimate goal is.
At this point in the writing you should be just as excited to see what happens as the reader is. Of course you don’t know, because you’re still exploring the story. Just like a journalist working on an investigation, or a detective with a case, or anyone with a goal, you are seeking the answers to what really happened. As an author, you don’t need to know the ending.
PRO TIP: It may be better if you don’t know the ending. Sometimes if you know the ending, your subconscious will compel you to telegraph that ending in ways you won’t even realize at the time. But if you as the author honestly don’t know, then your book will be purely and seamlessly surprising. So trust yourself here, just keep going, you are creating the mystery, and soon you will solve it.
About a third or more of the way in, you will start to fret. Oh, no, you’ll think. Whose idea was this? I have no idea where this book is going. Don’t worry. That’s one of the momentary pitfalls of “writing without an outline.”
It’s fine. Just as in real life, you don’t know what will happen next until it does. So at these points in writing, ask yourself the key questions again: what does my character want, how far will they go to get it, why would they do that, why would they make that decision? Who is going to stop try to stop them? Why would they do that? What will happen as a result?
Sometimes when I hit that point, I stop and simply make a list, on paper, of all the things that could possibly happen. Stream of consciousness. Your brain will start coming up with realities. Someone gives them an envelope. What could be in it? A list, a note, a recipe, a will, a summons, a photo from the past…
When you start considering all the possibilities of what could happen, there will be one that your brain will choose. It just will. Keep writing. See what happens.
Because you know about story structure, you know that at about halfway through, something huge and tectonic will happen. A massive reversal, a betrayal, a horrible mistake that your character has made, a stranger comes to town, someone leaves, something explodes or blows up or somebody dies or someone you thought was good turns into being bad. Hooray, this is what you want.
Now the process of “what your character wants and how far they’ll go to get it and what they need to do” is going to amplify.
At this point, the bad guy begins to realize that the good guy is after them, and their focus changes from pursuing their dastardly project to preventing the main character from stopping them. Conflict is the engine that powers your story.
So mine that territory. The conflicts are different now, right? Because now not only does the good guy have to pursue their goal, they have to fight the bad guy in some way, whether it is physically or psychologically or emotionally or however the tone of your book requires. And then something more will happen.
Now your story is developing. Now you have your good guy in pursuit of something, and the bad guy trying to stop them, and all kinds of conflict and twists and emotional subtext and subplots. Something has to happen. Your characters will take action, have reactions to what others do, make decisions.
And take action again. And always, your book requires forward motion. Ask yourself: how can I advance this story? What’s the most interesting thing that could happen? What’s the worst thing? What’s the most surprising but inevitable thing?
But now comes a tough part. Eventually you have to begin deciding what will finally happen. And put your book on that one path.
How? I’ve written 13 novels of suspense now, and at this point in every one, I think: oh my goodness, I have no idea.
But as it turns out, I finally wind up understanding what really happened when I am about seven-eighths of the way through. It’s what Sue Grafton used to call “the magic.”
To find the story, I go back to the beginning of the book and start reading. And at some point, my brain will connect the puzzle pieces of the story in a way I’ve never understood before, and the outcome will present itself.
Yes, I wrote it. But I didn’t realize what I had written.
Those who study thinking call this emergent design. Artists do it this way, don’t they? There’s no way to know exactly what a painting will look like until you paint it. Writers who use emergent design let the design of their book emerge as they’re writing.
You will see the end. And when you realize what you’ve created, you will power forward to tell how it ends. At this point of the book, I am writing so fast that I hardly even realize I’m typing.
Yes, this takes a certain confidence. And a certain trust that you know how to tell a story. But as you push forward, sentence by sentence, the story you are searching for will emerge.
When you’re finished with your first draft, hurray.
You’ve figured out by traveling the path of “what does someone one want and how far will they got to get it and what would happen and what will they decide and then what” that you have a book. Now what?
I start at the beginning again, reading like a reader, to see what makes sense. To see what clues my subconscious has put into the book that I didn’t even notice. Things that happened that I didn’t realize had a deeper significance or thematic meaning–and I tweak and polish and twist to make the book even better. And cut cut cut.
There’s a graphic on my bulletin board that says “Leap and the net will appear.” This is the perfect metaphor for writing without an outline.
You remember you’re telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Let your mind release itself from the fear of not knowing what will happen next. You don’t know. Just like in your life you don’t know. Allow yourself the power to see what happens, let it unfold, line by line and scene by scene.
It’s a tightrope, I agree.
The key is to stay on track: you’re telling a specific story with a character who wants something and is going after it and will face obstacles and in the end will triumph. No tangents, no digressions, just that story. Remember your gem of an idea. Remember your log line.
And in the end, here’s the joy: you will surprise yourself. You will create a story you never expected. And the reader will share that excitement.
It can work–just trust the process. And your imagination.
Do you use an outline? Or not? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page!