Writing a Leapfrog Outline keeps you going



For every novel since my first one, I used what I call a “leapfrog outline.” I figure out how the book will start, and then I simply start at the beginning with a working outline which goes only three or four chapters ahead of where I am.


For my first novel, Kill Cue, because I had never before written a novel, I wrote an extensive 18-page outline.

As I wrote the book, things changed. Thank goodness, I went with the changes rather than sticking to the outline. After I sent in the finished manuscript to my editor, like a dummy, I actually revised the outline to match the book. (Guess I expected to get a grade.)

That experience taught me that I had devoted far too much time to writing an outline, the time I should have spent writing the book.

As a consequence, for every novel since my first one, I have used what I call a “leapfrog outline.” I figure out how the book will start and approximately how I expect it to end, and then I simply start at the beginning with a working outline which goes only three or four chapters ahead of where I am. I write up to that point and then outline for a few chapters more.


A leapfrog outline is really just a few sentences telling me what is probably going to happen in each of the next few chapters:

“Kate drives to the office to meet her new client. When she gets there, Zack Weaver hires her to look into the background of his new girlfriend.”

It’s simple information intended only for you, to help keep you focused. A leapfrog outline is a road map, showing you where you intend to go. You can change it as often as you wish. I like this method because it allows the novel to grow organically as I write. For me, writing a novel while adhering to a previously-created outline was like writing a term paper. It became a cold, unemotional project; homework.

Another danger of an extensive outline is that it tends to water down creativity because you don’t think about alternatives as often; you write only what you decided, weeks or months earlier, you were going to write. And that has a chilling effect on what could otherwise happen.

Personally, the best way for me to write a novel is to get a general idea of where I’m going, jump in and write straight through to the end. Then I can go back and repair, rewrite, and polish.

It’s like the way an artist works. She throws a big gob of clay on the table first, then she creates a work of art from it. She doesn't start with a little bit, make it into a perfect ear, then add more clay and make a perfect nose. She creates a whole.

That’s the way I like to work.

Probably from high school or college, some writers got the idea you have to create an extensive outline in order to write a novel. That is not true. 

If you are motivated to create something unique and interesting, a novel that will seize the attention of your readers and reviewers, outlining, can really screw up your book. Some authors take months to do their extensive outline, planning, analyzing and restructuring the story before it’s even written. Not a good idea.

Writing fiction is creation, not homework.

When you do an extensive outline and create character biographies for every single character before you start writing the novel, you are extracting the creativity from your book.

As Margaret Atwood wrote in The Paris Review, “When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. The structure or design is worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.”

Write without advance planning and you create.

The best writing will come to you, as you are creating it when you are discovering what happens. Listening to the characters you’ve created supports your plot.

Outlining everything ahead of time leaves no room for you to discover what the book is about. Paraphrasing Margaret Atwood, it replaces the creativity of your writing with “write by numbers.”

Outlines written before you begin can cause you to eliminate much better ideas as they come along. Out-lines water down creativity because you don’t consider alternatives as often. If you write to the outline you created weeks or months before, you will write only what you had decided you were going to write before you had even begun the book. That has a chilling effect on what could otherwise happen.

Start writing wherever you want to, whether it’s beginning, middle or the end. Write until you arrive at the point where you have no idea what comes next. Then, keep writing and discover what the next sentence is. Push on to the next one. Keep finding words, which turn into sentences, and each one will lead you to the next. The less you know before you start, the more you stand to uncover as you write. That is creativity.

Let out your anguish, concealed enigmas, dusky depths of despair, all the things you wanted to write but didn’t have the nerve. Just do it, find out where your real energies are, your real beliefs. It’s less expensive than a psychiatrist is and your cat already knows all about you.

About a third of the way through the draft, you might lose momentum. Don’t worry. This is the secret draft. You may feel frustrated and discouraged, but don’t let it stop you. No one will know. If you’re having problems, create a storyboard to keep you going.

Storyboards are or writing, not advance planning.

A storyboard can be as helpful for writing your novel as it is for animators and film directors. Write on an index card the basic idea of a scene.

You can color code the cards to mark different kinds of scenes, or for different chapters in your novel. You can include specific information about a scene.

Each card might describe the scene in a few sentences and you put it on a pink card for "advancing the plot" or a green card for "developing a character."

Use the storyboard the same way you did your leapfrog outline. Use the index card storyboard to ‘troubleshoot’ your secret draft. With storyboarding, you can literally write down the ideas behind the big moments of your scene and you can plot just ahead of where you are. It helps you write in a linear fashion.

Of course, storyboarding is a common approach to scene writing used by filmmakers. Storyboards give you the opportunity to see how scenes link with one another and the larger story. Planning scenes in this way, as you are writing, won’t kill your spontaneity. Some scenes and events will only occur to you as you write. Once you have your secret draft done, you can go back, delete and consolidate scenes using your storyboard cards.

Breaking your novel down into scenes while writing the secret draft can help you ensure your novel has a strong narrative drive and the pieces of it connect to one another. Remember, your readers want your story to keep on keepin on.

The greatest Novel Secret is this: your characters will help you write the novel if you simply learn to stay out of their way. A secret draft is a perfect place to over-write, the place to be too romantic, too cute because you can always fix it later. However, you do not need to do it alone. Characters help you plot and write the book. If you let them!

I almost cried the day a person on Facebook said, “I am getting ready to start writing my novel. I have almost all of my characters created. Now, I just need to find a plot for them.” 

Extensive outlining and planning the characters before you write is almost a textbook example of how to ruin your novel. I wish I was capable of getting across how important this is. Write your novel and leave planning to the accountants and the folks who plan air schedules.

Let your characters write your plot.

How characters behave toward one another is exactly what creates the plot. To create the characters before you begin writing the book is like trying to put two dozen round pegs in two dozen square holes. It’s not going to work at all. The secret to writing good fiction is to allow the characters to interact with one another to help you create the plot. Writing your novel is so much easier when you can ask the characters what they are doing today and then write it down.

Now, I need to plead my case.

Please don’t create characters before you start the book (except your protagonist). 

Please don’t create an extensive outline before you start the book. 

Please go with the flow and let the characters help you write the book. 

I want you to have an enjoyable trek through writing your first book and I’ve done it five times. (Sorry, I got emotional there, but I really do care.)

There is no wrong way to write a secret draft, so feel free to let it all hang out. You're at the beginning of the long road between first thought and finished product. Almost all writing begins with terrible first efforts, but you have to start somewhere. Just write with the characters help.

For now, just write like the wind. Thinking "it's only a secret draft" makes it easier to keep going. It’s a raw and unfinished product, which eventually needs work. The secret draft is like a first love, vivid and passionate. Enjoy the pleasure and delight which comes with the invention, by writing the secret draft without editing yourself. The editing, revision, and rewriting come later. 

A secret draft is an efficient way to find out where the story is going. Once your first secret draft is done, you have the entire story in front of you. It will make sense or it will not, in which case, you change things. With a finished secret draft, you know where the story has been, and where it is going. It lets you see the entire story from beginning to end. 

(From NOVEL SECRETS (paperback or Kindle)







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