Why I Never Outline My Novels, Preferring to Discover The Story As I Go Along

Some novelists outline their plots before they start to write. Others don’t. There’s no right way to do it. Each writer does what’s best for him or her.

I never outline my hard-boiled crime novels. In this guest blog I wrote for the Booking Mama website, I explain why I write that way and how it works.

Here’s the text:

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard

A few years before he died, the great Elmore Leonard strolled into the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan for a book signing, dropped into an easy chair, and told the crowd, “Something terrible just happened. I’m only halfway through writing my next novel, and my main character just got shot dead.”

I understood just what he meant. It’s the sort of surprise that can happen to a writer who doesn’t create an outline first.

Each time the late Robert B. Parker started a new Spenser for Hire novel, he jotted a brief plot outline, just two or three pages long. James Ellroy, author of some of the best noir novels ever written, creates detailed outlines first. In fact, he claims that his outlines are sometimes longer than his finished books. Timothy Hallinan, author of the remarkable Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender mysteries, doesn’t plan anything in advance; but once he’s ten chapters into a novel, he outlines each chapter to keep track of what he’s already done.

Leonard never outlined, and neither do I. There’s no right way to build a novel. Each writer does what works best for him or her.

VipersI begin only with a general idea of what a book will be about. I started my latest crime novel, A Scourge of Vipers, with the notion of exploring two themes—the hypocrisy surrounding illegal sports betting and the corrupting influence of big money on politics. Then I just set my characters in motion to see what would happen.

Writing this way frees the characters to take over the story as if they have wills of their own.

In my first book, Rogue Island, my protagonist’s ex-wife started out as a minor irritant and turned into a vengeful bitch. A big dangerous hit man shrank to five-foot five and developed a bad case of psoriasis. A fire chief who began as a minor character decided to become a major one. And then he decided he was a she.

In A Scourge of Vipers, the action took off when Rhode Island’s colorful fictional governor, a former religious sister nicknamed Attila the Nun, proposed legalizing sports gambling to ease the state’s budget crisis. Powerful organizations with a lot to lose—or gain—if gambling was made legal promptly flooded the little state with millions of dollars to buy the votes of state legislators. And then all hell broke loose.

First, a powerful state senator turned up dead. Then a mobbed-up bag man got shot down, and his cash-stuffed briefcase went missing.

I had no idea who killed them or who stole the money. All I knew was that my protagonist Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for the dying Providence Dispatch, was bound to investigate both the murders and the effort to corrupt the state’s politicians.

But when he started to dig into the case, Mulligan discovered that the bottom-feeding conglomerate that had just bought the paper had no interest in serious public-interest reporting. So he went rogue, digging into the story on his own. Soon, shadowy forces tried to derail him by threatening his reputation, his job, and finally his life.

I didn’t see any of that coming.

I write this way partly because it’s just the way my mind works—and because I figure that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. But the main reason I do it is that I enjoy discovering the story as I go along. It’s what sits me down at my writing desk every day. If I knew in advance how the story was going to turn out, my desire to write it would simply evaporate.

I write each scene very fast. When it’s completed, I go back over it and discover that a lot of what I wrote is trash. But inevitably, some of the things that spilled out of my keyboard turn out to be gems I would never have been able to think up in advance.

During the four decades that I worked as a print journalist, I often heard novelists talk about how their characters came to life and took control of their stories. Back then, it always sounded like mystical claptrap to me. After all, only one person—the writer—touches the keyboard. But when I became a novelist, I discovered to my amazement that it was true.

But I also learned that there’s nothing mystical about it. When fictional characters interact or speak with one another, what happens is a lot like what occurs in life. If you start talking to me, you begin with a clear idea of what you want to say. But then I react to your words, you react to mine, and soon the conversation veers off in a direction neither of us could have anticipated. The same thing happens with fiction—especially when you shun outlines and write first drafts of your scenes rapidly.

Final Paperback CoverWhen I finished my first novel, the Edgar Award-winning Rogue Island, I gave it to a half-dozen trusted friends to see what they thought. That was a mistake because it generated a lot of confusing and conflicting advice.

Since then, I’ve given my first drafts only to my agent, Susanna Einstein, the best story doctor I know, and to my wife Patricia Smith, one of the finest poets working in English.

Susanna’s advice deals mainly with the structure of the story. With my third novel, Providence Rag, she identified flaws that required a top-to-bottom rewrite. With A Scourge of Vipers, she had only a handful of minor suggestions.

Patricia’s advice deals primarily with the beauty of the language. She helps me make my writing more lyrical. Her writing style is sensual to the point of sensory overload while mine tends to be spare to the point of sensual deprivation. So she also encourages me to make my prose more descriptive.

Every writer should have such friends.

Booking Mama, the blog where this article was first published, has a lot of cool stuff. You can check it out here.

And A Scourge of Vipers, being published in hard cover and e-book editions on April 7 (with a downloadable audio version from Audible soon to come) can be ordered in advance by clicking on one of the links found here.

About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
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