Ken Follett’s intense novel outlining, and his thoughts on thriller essentials

Outlines. Mine generally take the form of scatterbrained, fast-and-loose Word documents packed with ideas, and I’m always in awe of writers who flesh out intricate visions beforehand. Take Ken Follett, who does some intriguing and intense outlining to give himself a concise framework for the direction of his books. His strategies are the latest from Promptly’s Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series. A regular prompt follows. Avoid the Midwestern blizzards!

No. 6: Eniltuo
It’s pretty detailed—it’s typically 50 typed pages. What takes me the time is that I change it a lot. I start out with a concept, and then I see what’s wrong with it, and I see how to make it better. One thing I quite often do is I go through it backwards and I write a one-line summary of each chapter, but starting with the last chapter. What that does is it shows me where the final scenes are not fulfilling the promises raised by the early scenes—which is terribly important. Whatever happens in the last few chapters must be something either feared or longed for by the characters in the early chapters. And a little trick for focusing on that question is to go through it backwards.”
—Ken Follett, The WD Interview, by Jessica Strawser, November/December 2010 (click here to check out the rest of the issue, which also features our writer’s guide to the Web)

[Also, here are some of Follett’s thoughts on the essential elements of a thriller—]

“I always say thrillers are about people in danger. And while it’s easy enough to think up a dangerous situation to put the people in, the challenge then is to draw that out for 100,000 words in such a way that the danger is constantly present, that the story is still developing internally. There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic. And a story turn is anything that changes the situation for the characters, so it could be quite minor—somebody telling a little lie—but it’s a turn. And so, the challenge for me is not thinking of dangerous situations to put the people in—that’s easy. The challenge is then drawing out that suspense, their responses to it, their interactions with one another, their interactions with the bad guys, and making that into a consistent drama that lasts 100,000 words.”


WRITING PROMPT: You Can Have Your Cake …
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a response (500
words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional
around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

You bake the cake, careful to place the secret ingredient inside just right …

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6 thoughts on “Ken Follett’s intense novel outlining, and his thoughts on thriller essentials

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  5. Mark James

    “I could kill you,” Cedric said.

    Sean was icing a double layer chocolate cake. “Yeah,” he said, “but then you’d have to drag my body down the mountain, hope the Night Crawlers don’t come after my blood scent, and then dump me in the river.”

    Cedric’s midnight blue eyes blazed with fury. “I can smell the poison.”

    “Good. You know which bowl not to lick. You sound hungry.” Sean made his voice a little too casual. “When’s the last time you fed?”

    “Don’t do this, Sean.”

    Silence filled the small kitchen. It seemed to glint off the black appliances and the dark marble countertops, making them gleam with half-seen, malicious shadows.

    “Don’t do what?” Sean worked to keep his voice level. “Don’t care about you? Don’t wonder how long till the Council revokes your license to be a Wulf? Don’t think about how you have to hunt rats to feed?” The slim leash that had held back Sean’s anger snapped. His next words came out low and brittle. “What don’t you want me to do, Cedric?”

    In a heartbeat, Cedric was behind Sean, taking him into his arms. “I’m a warrior,” he said. “I can do this. Risking your life isn’t the answer.”

    Knowing it was useless, Sean tried to pull away from Cedric’s hard body. “Let go.”

    Cedric ignored Sean’s struggles and waited for him to quiet before he said, “I’m going with you.”

    With Cedric’s muscled body so close, it was hard to resist the urge to give in, to surrender to his lover. “No,” Sean said. But even he heard the low begging tone in his voice. Cedric had him. Again.

    “I’ll ice the cake,” Cedric whispered. He slid his fingers down Sean’s arm and slipped the spatula from his grip. “Just tell me which way to rub.”

    Torment was Cedric’s specialty when he seduced Sean, but this time it didn’t matter that all his resistance was melting into the heat rushing through his body. All he could think of was ripping off Cedric’s clothes, and slipping to the tile floor and licking icing off his – –

    “Which way?” Cedric said, nuzzling Sean’s neck.

    Swallowing hard, Sean forced his thoughts back on track. Cedric could go from Warrior Hardass to smoking-hot-do-me-now in a blink. And he knew it drove Sean crazy, dissolved any form of ‘no’ before it ever passed his lips. “You can ice the cake,” he said, leaning back into Cedric, “if you take your clothes off. Everything. All I want to see is skin.”

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  6. D. Ebersold

    If my husband gives me new cookware for Christmas this year again, like he has done for the past 10 years I will take drastic action.
    To explain, I write cookbooks and I get paid to cook. I have the best in cookware already. Did he marry an oven or microwave or a woman? Can’t he buy gifts for a woman and not a worker?
    I’ve hinted many times that I liked the man I knew before we married. That man gave pressies to me, a woman. Somehow his gifts now are more like business giveaways. That too is odd, since he is in construction.
    So am I just supposed to be glad that I don’t get cement mixer? This just bets the question, in my mind: Couldn’t he give me a bouquet of roses? Or even some lingerie.
    You know, if he’d do some of the cooking and maybe a candlelight dinner for me, maybe I’d forgive him. If not, well, let’s see what could I do?
    I wasn’t sure but I sure had an idea for a cake I could bake him. Ah what a fantasy!
    You can imagine, right?
    A famous recipe for a sure fire holiday cake. My husband loved carrot cake with vanilla icing. I would add some spice, something nice, and something naughty.

    Recipe for idiot husband’s favorite, sort of, carrot cake.

    A bunch of carrots – shredded (Oh, I’d like to shred someone)
    A cup of unbleached flour
    One third that for baking soda and baking powder
    Three eggs

    And more of the – yadda – yadda -yadda. Of course, you have the secret ingredient ready to be placed where it explodes the taste buds. You bake the cake, careful to place the secret ingredient inside just right. By the time your husband has tasted it, he feels the explosion in his mouth and realizes that he’s been poisoned.
    Hopefully, I’d find something for me as a woman, as a lover, as a gift. If not…