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

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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."

***

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