Skip to main content

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
writersdigest@fwmedia.com, 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 …

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

Short story writing can be a gateway to writing your novel—but they’re also fun and worthy stories in their own right. Here, author Dallas Woodburn shares 5 ways to use short stories to grow as a writer.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.