Thursday, December 18, 2008

Story Logic—Spell It Out

by L.J. Sellersljsellerssmall

Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host the lovely and talented L.J. Sellers, author of The Sex Club, which I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. Without further ado...

For the last two days, I’ve been filling in the details of my outline, working out the timeline, and crafting a sizzling ending that brings it all together. I’m already 50 pages into writing Thrilled to Death, and it felt like to time to solidify some plot points. I know many writers don’t do this; they prefer to wing it and see where the story takes them. (Stephen King, for example) I rather envy that style.

But I write complex mystery/suspense novels, and the outline/timeline has become more critical with each novel. In a police procedural, so much happens in the first few days of a murder investigation that a timeline is essential. For complex, parallel plots with multiple points of view, mapping the story in detail is the best way to avoid writing yourself into a dead end or writing 48 hours worth of activity into a 10-hour time frame. I speak from experience.

TheSexClubThen yesterday for the first time, I put in writing what I termed story logic. I’ve always done this in my head to some degree, but this was the first time I put it on the page in summary form. In a mystery/suspense novel, some or much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened.

So I mapped it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

It was an enlightening process, and I highly recommend it. Summarizing the story logic forces you to think specifically about character connections and motivations. It points out holes and inconsistencies and gives you an opportunity to tighten and improve your plot. It may even force you to rethink and rewrite your outline. But it also may keep readers from getting to the end of your novel and thinking, How did he know that? Where did that come from?

I mentioned the process on a Twitter/Facebook update, and another writer asked me about it. So I explained it to her (in 140 characters!). She got back to me with this message: “I wrote the foundation of my book and did the ‘story logic’ for the rest before writing thestorylogic book to fill in details. It led me in a completely different direction. I took some risks in the outline and a lot fell into place. I'm psyched!”

I admit, all of this takes some of the spontaneity out of the writing process. But for me, writing isn’t magic. It’s work, and it needs the same detailed planning as any other project. Of course, I’m flexible. If better ideas or connections come to me as I write, I will modify my outline and resummarize the story logic.

Do you map the story logic? Do you outline? Can any of you wing it with complex crime story?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out next year. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.


  1. I'm a "fly by the seat of your pants-er" a la King...but you raise some good points here, I might have to rethink my process. Thanks for stopping by, LJ!

  2. Lj,

    Mark and I wrote the first Eva Baum mystery with a very loose outline - and no agreement that we wouldn't change things while writing. That first draft took many months to fix the timeline.

    For the second story, Mark wrote a very detailed outline and I mapped it in an excel spreadsheet - chapter by chapter - what does the reader learn about each character, what is the date, what is the weather, where are the red herrings, where are the clues. This helped. It never occured to me to include the things that happened off the page. I love the idea and plan to use it. Thanks for sharing.

    Charlotte Phillips
    A Death in Texas

  3. Thanks for guest posting L.J. The outline debate is right up there with Stones vs. Beatles and boxers vs. briefs. All my thrillers are co-written with Lynn Sholes so we have to use an outline or we'll wander off into the woods and never make it out alive.

    We also use what we call a matrix--no, not the Kaunu Reeves kind. It's a simple Excel spreadsheet with every character having their own column and every event or scene taking up a row. So if an event involves characters A and E, we still fill in what B, C and D are doing at that time. Not all the entries make it into the story, but it helps us keep up with everyone.

  4. Love the spreadsheet idea. I'm learning to use Excel and have started a character file with all pertinent information (description, car, address, likes/dislikes). It's very helpful.

  5. Thank God for this. I was beginning to think I was the only person left who didn't write detailed outlines. My usual method is close to what Charlotte describes, though I've been moving toward some of Joe's spreadsheet ideas. For my next project, I think I'm going to use a variant of something Patricia Highsmith once recommended: plot things out pretty tightly, but only for several chapters ahead, adjusting the outline as I go.

    Definitely Stones over Beatles, though I prefer The Who to either.

  6. I create an outline as I write each chapter and a character file as I introduce new characters. I'm not organized enough to plot the whole book at once, and I can't picture all the details of the story. But I like to hear what others do.

  7. Interesting concept, L.J. I'm a seat of the pants writer who never outlines a novel, although I'm forced to in nonfiction. I give my characters free rein and they rarely let me down.

  8. I think writing style can tell you something about the personality of the author. I'm clearly the over-prepared type who won't go anywhere without a map and/or a hotel reservation. (But I also jump out of airplanes, so I'm not afraid of a little adventure.)

  9. Great post, L. J.
    I totally agree. I think a procedural angle makes outlining that much more important, but with any kind of mystery, you must structure both the plot and the solution to the mystery; you have to figure out how you are going to reveal information both to the reader and the protagonist. I can't imagine doing that with any efficiency without an outline. That said, a fellow panelist at this past Bouchercon said that she was 85,000 words into her latest novel before she decided who had done it. For me, that's a nightmare on a par with "Being in school with no pants," but for her it was just part of the process.

  10. I need a lesson on excel, but still cannot imagine all that mapping! I heard Peter Abrahams talk about writing YA books recently and he also addressed the issue of the parts that are never written in the story, though the reader must understand them by the end of the book. We all must do this, right? But thanks to LJ's post for making the process explicit. I am definitely taking the approach with a new book of writing some pages, then pausing to figure out what's going on...

    And ps, I make reservations and take maps but I would definitely definitely not jump out of a plane.

  11. LJ thanks for stopping by. I'm an outliner but both you and Joe have made me think more about the process and given me some great ideas. I need my roadmap when I write otherwise I am all over the place!

  12. Plot, absolutely plot! No way I could've produced 72 manuscripts in 15 years without a timeline. I might-coulda cranked out ONE book, writing 'seat of the pants', but then they'da had to put me in a padded cell, and given me a wardrobe of jackets with sleeves that tie in the back. bwwaahahah

  13. I'm far too analytical to NOT outline. There have been times where I started a story without an outline, but about 50 pages or so in, I had to start an outline. By the time I commit myself to a story, the story has been played several times in my head, so I immediately outline the story, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, to the end.

    Having said that, the outlines always change because the characters change once I put them on the page and they dictate where the story will go.

    Some people choose not to outline because they don't want to feel constricted; however, I outline so that I can feel FREE once I begin writing the actual story. Great post! Sorry for longwinded response, LOL

  14. I spent two months trying to organize everything into a detailed outline for my first novel. I ended up with a broad outline of seven parts with seven chapters each. I have a summary for each part and each chapter of what I expect to happen, but it's mostly writing by the seat of my pants.

    When I'm done in six months, I'll have 700 double-spaced pages. Half will get tossed out, half will be distilled into a new outline, and I'll write the whole thing over again. I'm hoping that the subsequent drafts will take six months or less to finish.

  15. I do a little of both (actually, I co-write so I should say "we" do a little of both). We don't do an outline per se, but we do jot down the kinds of twists LJ is talking about. This is to keep track of them. As we go through, we discuss what to reveal in the upcoming chapter or two, and we refer to and expand the original notes.

    But. . .fundamentally we are seat of the pants in many ways. And the irony is that both of us are very organized and logical with most tasks. And in fact my actual way of coming up with my words in my brain is very mechanical, almost like analyzing things (which is what I do in my day job). To counter those tendencies, which if followed to an extreme would result in very mechanical writing, we try to let as much of it as possible happen without a lot of planning. Especially endings. Our story ideas are essentially conflicts, and almost none of the story specifics are part of the original idea. Our first book we didn't know the ending until 80% done, and the current one we don't have any clue yet even though we are well into it.

    Bottom line - whatever it takes too get the words onto paper. I'll also agree with Loree. If we had to write 3 books a year (or more), we would have to get much more methodical.

  16. Endings are the one area where I try to be very open. And often I get new and better ideas as the story unfolds. But I still like to start out with one in mind.

  17. Great interview, Michelle and LJ!

    You posed an interesting question about writing by the seat of your pants. I happen to concur with you LJ, it's near impossible with a complex story such as crime or mystery. I've learned it is imperative, otherwise you can go in too many of the wrong directions and oy, what a waste of time. But as a general rule, I write like Stephen King, by the seat of my pants.

    The good thing is, as an aspiring author, it's comforting to see the parallels between how you write and how I write. Maybe there's hope for me after all!

  18. I have to outline even if it's a bare minimum. I have to know who did what to whom and why before I start. Much of the story falls in place later (kinda winging it) but the main story has been plotted and outlined. :)

  19. I was a little more than surprised to see the definition of "story logic" and how close it resembles my own process. Mapping out the whole thing makes the book write smoother which means less time spent of revisions and smoothening the story out. I find it helps to organize the ideas and figure out your sense of flow. I mainly write dark fantasy and horror and find this style works extremely well. Winging it always takes me in directions I didn't want to go and regret later. In my world of chaos, a little structure is always welcomed.

  20. I mindmap everything including my grocery ;) list, per the old Tony Buzan technique I learned three decades ago. I mindmap books I'm editing for other authors, too, to make sure their plots hang together. It's a fantastic tool that puts all the pieces right into your face, not to mention shows up the holes. Great technique. I'll have a post about it at The Blood Red Pencil soon.


  21. L.J., I enjoyed the article. I'm a big fan of mapping. I'm no stranger to spreadsheets and have always been methodical in my approaches anyway. Some critics of continuity would argue the point, though. They refer to continuity 'freaks' when talking about stories that meticulously connect all the details. And I'm always ready to take on the debate with them.