I outline. Mostly. Kinda. And I know a bunch of authors who don’t outline at all and a few who write much more detailed outlines than me. It is true, what I’ve (probably too) often said, that if you get a hundred working authors in a room and ask them about process you’ll get a minimum of a hundred different answers—and that’s certainly true of outlines as well. Your outline won’t look like mine, if you outline at all. Yours will be longer or shorter, concentrate on different things. Yours might contain some dialog (I’ve seen that), while mine almost never do. Yours might be a list of plot points, without much thought put into chapters, scenes, etc. You might have some of your research and notes filtered in. I do that sometimes, too.

I’m not going to tell you how to outline your novel. I might take a week’s post to tell you how I do it, but I promise that I won’t try to tell you it’s the only way, or that it’s the best way. This is creative writing. There’s never one way to do anything, and never a best way, either. We’re making it up as we go along, one way or another.

That having been said, let’s assume you have some kind of an outline, some document that you’ve used to map out the plot, the unfolding narrative of your novel.

Here are three questions that I think every author will have to answer for each scene. It wouldn’t hurt to try this exercise. Actually write down these questions for each scene, each chapter, each plot point/bullet point . . . however you do it:

Why here?

Why now?

Why them?

That one-word question just can’t be asked enough: Why? If a story is characters + conflict (and I think that’s a reasonable definition) then the essential craft of storytelling is conveying those characters in conflict in an interesting way.

It’s hard to figure out how to be “interesting.” But I think people tend to be emotional creatures. We’re rational and studied at times, sure, but we still see the world through either a fog or a lens of emotion, depending on your point of view. And when we sit down to read fiction we’re hoping to engage that emotional, social, “fuzzy” side of our brains. If we have an inclination at that moment toward the rational, there are non-fiction books aplenty that can satisfy that urge. So if you’re writing fiction, you want to keep in mind that what your readers are seeking from you is a fundamentally emotional experience.

I don’t believe that I’m being “formulaic” in my thinking here, but the more successful of the so-called “mainstream” authors have a great handle on this. That emotional connection between character and reader is what made Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo international best-sellers. And it’s what’s made Moby Dick, Dracula, and The Great Gatsby literary classics.

This question of “why” goes into character motivation. Why is the villain doing this terrible thing? Why is the hero trying to stop him? And why do we (the readers) care either way?

I think that when I encourage writers to ask these questions, you think I mean in some sort of vague, subliminal way, but that’s not it. Actually write these questions down wherever you write notes for yourself. I have notebooks and legal pads spread all over my house. You might just use a Word file. Maybe you use one of the other outlining software applications out there—wherever, however you do it, write these down, then stop and think.

Anyone who teaches writing will tell you that you have to learn by doing, you have to sit down and actually write, and that’s very true, but you have to think, too. A lot of my writing process is spent staring at a point in space somewhere in the vicinity of a TV screen, ignoring the show or movie and thinking about my current work-in-progress.

So write this question down: “Why here?” and start thinking about place.

Things don’t tend to happen divorced from or without any regard for the place they’re happening in. Think about this: If you’re arguing with your significant other, how might you change your demeanor and choose your words if the two of you are sitting in a movie theater, walking in a public park full of children, at a dark and noisy bar, or at home alone . . . or at home with the kids in the next room? Where you are does matter. And there are people who will go ballistic in public, but that’s pretty rare, and will elicit a whole different package of responses from everyone involved, including the innocent bystanders. So if one character is just losing it, but the other is embarrassed and just wants the first character to calm down until they get home, that’s a very different conversation than if both of them feel comfortable unleashing their emotions in a private place.

This being the case, people will often put forth enormous effort to choose the place for this conversation, that meeting, the other confrontation. They might be conspiring to get someone alone, cut off from eavesdroppers, or maneuver the other into a public place where violence, or a “scene,” is less likely. Give your specific setting (this building, this room, this street corner, this mountaintop, etc.) as much thought as you do your characters, then think about them in relation to each other.

Next question: “Why now?” And if your answer is “because my story’s getting boring and I need something to happen” . . . yikes. People don’t always choose the perfect moment. Sometimes we have no choice in when something happens. But humans (and any other sort of fantastical creature or alien you’re subbing in for humans) do try to control the way time moves around us. We hurry in order to not be late. We lay people off on Friday afternoon. We plan the perfect engagement, the epic surprise party, or the most effective sneak attack. If your characters aren’t doing this they aren’t acting like people, and that’s not good.

And finally: “Why them?” Why are the characters in this scene in this scene? Why does it come down to this group of people, however big or small, capable or incapable, experienced or inexperienced (and so on) to solve this problem—or at least be confronted by it?

This tends to be a crucial conundrum for the mystery writer, at least a more obvious one, but all fiction still needs strongly-motivated characters. The villain in a mystery and other genres (including fantasy and SF) is the one to get things moving by stealing the Crown Jewels or murdering the gardener, and as often as not in a mystery or thriller, the hero is a detective assigned to the case. The villain has all sorts of reasons for committing the crime, but if the hero’s only reason for trying to intervene is that it’s his job and he randomly drew the assignment, that’s not terribly engaging, even if it is lots more realistic.

And remember, screw realistic, this is fiction!

How about this for an example that might cause you to think, Oh crap, Phil wants us to be hacks.

First of all, who says “hack” is a dirty word? Some of my best friends are hack writers, at least some of the time, and as proud as I am to call myself a geek, I’m happy to be identified as a hack, too. But that’s another post for another day.

Back to the example: the movie Speed.

Screw it, just crash the damn thing.

Screw it, just crash the damn thing.

Yes, that Speed, the Keanu Reeves vehicle (no pun intended) probably best known for it’s openly-stated high concept log line. Think back to that movie . . .

The villain is a mad-bomber ex-cop who has some kind of gripe with the system . . . admittedly a little weak on that end. And our boy Keanu is a bomb squad technician who first encounters the villain when he’s more or less randomly assigned to a bombing in an elevator. Keanu solves that problem, and in so doing, incurs the wrath of the mad bomber—now it’s become personal for the villain. He doesn’t just want to hold the city hostage for money, he wants revenge against Keanu as well.

The mad bomber then sets up a bomb on a bus, and directly challenges Keanu to a fight: Can you defuse this bomb before I blow up a busload of innocents? Now Keanu is getting more emotionally, more personally involved in the problem at hand. And that’s not enough for this movie’s “hack” writer. In pure pulp fashion, we begin heaping on not just the obstacles in Keanu’s path but his personal stake in the bus bomb.

The mad bomber rigs his own house to explode and kills Keanu’s partner. Now Keanu wants revenge, too. Keanu meets Sandra and sparks fly. He doesn’t want to see Sandra get blown up—or any of the other amiable bus riders for that matter. He’s becoming emotionally involved with everyone from the villain to the victims, not just physically involved or professionally involved. There’s even some very heavy-handed dialog between Keanu and Sandra that cements the fact that they aren’t just temporary bus bomb buddies, but destined to be together.

Your challenge is to be a bit more subtle, more artful than that, but the example stands. The more Keanu cares, the more the audience cares,  and that doesn’t come from his not wanting to spoil his perfect record of mad bombers defeated, or avoid being written up for dereliction of duty. It comes from Keanu personally wanting these people, especially Sandra, to get out of this alive, and for this one mad bomber to be held responsible for the death of Keanu’s partner.

If it doesn’t matter to your characters where they are, what they’re doing, and when and why . . . why would it matter to your readers?

Or lack thereof.


—Philip Athans




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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