Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Novel Outlines: 
A Case Study of Two Novels

Bob Marshall
2003, Bob Marshall

used outlines in drafting two legal thriller novels, STEALING SECRETS and a sequel STEALING LIVES. My experience may help other writers decide how to use outlines in their own work.


Sometime in 1995 or 1996, I decided to write a novel about high tech trade secret thefts. Patent law did not seem exciting enough to sustain a reader's interest in a novel, but trade secret theft did. On reaching about 27,000 words in the summer of 2000, I calculated that I needed 600 words per day to finish by the end of the year. My day job (and sometimes my day and night job) as a patent attorney didn't leave me much time for writing. However, writing at this pace was easier than I expected. It was enough to keep the work moving forward and not so much that it taxed my time and ability.

I started writing STEALING SECRETS the same way I had written short stories, with all the planning in my head. However, when I increased my writing pace to 600 words per day, I soon caught up to the plot in my head. I found I could not plot fast enough to sustain the writing pace. So I jumped past the current point to the climatic escape/chase scene. This scene had been in my head for a long time.

When I finished the escape/chase scene, I stalled again. Then I took the time to do some plotting and wrote a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel. First, I backfilled the outline for the parts I had already written. I then filled in scenes between where I had bogged down and the end. With a printed outline in hand, I returned to writing and was immediately back to 600 words per day. I used the outline as a guide and not a straightjacket. Sometimes the characters took me where I hadn't planned.

The outline helped beyond getting my writing back on track. While finishing STEALING SECRETS, I also used the outline to revise and expand the ending. Later, when I was editing, I discovered that I needed to rearrange scenes and even whole chapters. The scene-by-scene outline let me do this task at a higher level of abstraction. Still later, I used the outline as the basis for my synopsis.

Since completing STEALING SECRETS, I began work on the sequel STEALING LIVES. This time I started with an outline. As a result, I did not stall in the middle of STEALING LIVES.

My outline was a word processor table with a cell for each scene. Each cell included the point of view character and a few words about the scene. (Both novels use limited third person with a single point of view character per scene.)  I don't think the form I used mattered. The printed table was easy to carry with my computer. A bunch of 3x5 cards and a rubber band may have worked just as well.

Here's what the novel outlines did for me:

1. Muddled Middle -- In my first novel an outline got me through the muddled middle of the novel. In the second I avoided stalling out in the middle. With the outline I always had a plan for what to write next. This helped me get going after a hard day slaving over patent applications.

2. Editing Help -- For both novels I did a lot of editing after the first draft. In STEALING SECRETS, I re-wove the separate threads of the narrative near the end. The scene outline made this much easier. In several instances I decided I needed additional "narrative space" between happenings of one thread. The outline enabled me to find the right spots for relocating scenes. I cut much of the draft in both novels, leaving some chapters their original length and some very short. The scene word counts in my outline let me find the shifts I needed to re-balance the chapters.

3. Synopsis -- Had I known how hard it would be to write the synopsis needed to market a novel, I might never have started. I converted my word processor table outline into plain text. That gave me something to edit into the synopsis rather than staring at a blank computer screen.


Below is an example of the first page of my outline for STEALING LIVES. The table is divided into chapters by a blank row of cells.  The numbers in the right hand column are the chapter and scene word counts entered after writing.












Liao -- waiting in trail car for truck, opening scene truck hijacking, musing about problems working with "local" labor force









Liao --  semi-stopped at fake accident, driver snatched, truck taken to deserted barn, truck unloaded, when truck taken back to original scene renegade thief attempts to force Liao into revealing value of cargo, Liao disarms him and sends the group away



Don -- at his office getting ready for meeting with Katharine, he calls Katharine and she says finish and then come, he finishes and leaves his office



Don -- at Katharine's office discussing hostile take-over bid Inscon of Environmental Semiconductors, flip-flop control scenario, outsider takes control and insider incentive stock options exercisable problem with obtaining financing for employee stock options exercisable on change of control, difficult sell, they discuss other scenarios white knight and porcupine partners






Blow Up



Liao -- waiting on road for truck to come, musing about PRC and Taiwan the whys of organized trade secret theft, truck tries to run fake accident blockade, truck crashes, Liao tries to rescue driver, checks on thieves in one car, calls 911 with bad location, gets operative to unload truck, calls vans to help, calls to correct location, loads only part of cargo, cooperates with authorities



Bob Marshall has a day job as an in-house patent attorney for a semiconductor manufacturer. The U.S. government prints his best nonfiction as patents.