Friday, 2 April 2021

So you want to write a crime novel: Part 4. Outlining


Outlining aka A Can of Worms

 In many ways, crime novels are no different in terms of structure from other genres, but they certainly differ in details, character traits and action scenes and sometimes these need careful plotting.

 I am going to say right up front that “how to” books can be helpful to a writer of any experience to help them write better and faster. There are hundreds of authors who earn more money by writing books on how to write than by their fiction and thousands of books out there telling you how to outline your books for surefire success. If you are a novice, it is easy to glaze over at the amount of advice, some of which is in direct contradiction to other advice. Even experienced writers who remain alert to the possibilities of new ways to look at how they write can get stuck in a rut of reading advice after advice. You may think that buying several books – I have at least 9 – on structure, outlining etc., will make you a better writer.

 I am here to tell you it doesn’t work like that. Because you are you and your thought patterns and how you see the world is different from mine or anybody else’s. In short, you have to read, try and keep it if it works for you and discard it if it doesn’t. Otherwise you will spend all your time trying to find that perfect system and no time doing the creative bit, which is why you wanted to write in the first place.

 There are two types of writer when it comes to outlining and plotting. The pantser and the planner. Whichever you are, a crime writer will need a crime (murder, usually), a detective, clues, red herrings and several characters including the villain(s).

 If you are a pantser (someone who sits at the keyboard without a thought in their head and who puts fingers to keyboard to see what happens), you will say you never outline. I beg to disagree in part. Yes, you might have no idea when you start, but I certainly believe that your first draft is, in effect, your outline to see what has and has not worked; what needs changing and what needs discarding. By the time you have finished that first draft, you will know your characters and their motivations, but you might have written yourself into a couple of corners and need to do some major re-writing.

There are varying degrees of planner. Jeffery Deaver, for example, plots every nuance so meticulously, he almost writes a short novel in the plotting phase. Hybrids – and I am one – write a loose road map but allow enough wriggle room for change when you are in the heat of the first draft. Following the road map analogy, I know the beginning and the end and which towns (clues) I have to go through to get to my destination. But whilst on the journey I am more than likely to go off the main road at a tangent. Sometimes that strengthens the story; sometimes it leads into a cul-de-sac. Sometimes getting out of the cul-de-sac gives a glorious opportunity to seed a really obscure clue.

 Some successful authors, such as Minette Walters, have no idea who the villain is until over halfway through. There is a certain logic in this. If the author doesn’t know, then the clues will not point to one particular person and you have an opportunity to confuse the reader still further.

So, let’s look at a few ways of outlining your crime novel.

 Physical – and usually cheaper – methods.

 Index cards. I use these, even though I have Scrivener (more later). I prefer a physical system where I can jot down disjointed ideas — clues, character actions, events — on separate index cards. They are useful because you can rearrange them to see if you have the best flow line for your book. Sometimes shuffling them up will lead to a clue or red herring you hadn’t thought of.

 Notebooks with sections. You can use one section for the characters – a page for each; one section for details of your setting; a section for your plot, i.e. the events in your book and a section for clues and red herrings.

 Whiteboard or very large post-it notes/pieces of paper. When you have that first what-if? thought, it might be the central tenet of your story. It might be a what if X is found dead in a locked room with no weapon in sight? It might be the theme of your novel and every novel has a theme whether or not the author realises what it is. It might be the motive for the murder(s). Write that in the centre of your whiteboard/post-it note/paper. From that central point, you can make a mind map – simple or complicated. As ideas come to you, you look along the arrows out from that central point and make a note along the most relevant arm. Or, it may be more relevant for you to jot down the events, bits of character traits and the clues in different colours. I sometimes do this, then take a picture of the whiteboard, download it to my computer and use it as the basis for my outline.


Techno methods

 Most writing software includes sections on research, characters, settings, and things to help the writer write the book. My only advice is to be familiar with what the package does, but only use those parts of it that are relevant for your way of planning your book.

 Instead of giving my opinion here, I will put a link to a review page and you can make up your own mind.

Book Writing Software (2020): Top 10 Pieces of Software for Writers (

 Mind maps: As with the writing software, I state no opinions. But you can find out more here: 

Compare The 10 Best Mind Mapping Software of 2021 - The Digital Project Manager


Whichever methods you use and I emphasise they must suit your writing methods, only take from them what you need.

 So my last advice is to take a look at all these methods, try them out – many software packages have a one month trial – and see what is the best fit for you.

 Next month, I shall be covering Plot and Theme in your crime novel.


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