Complementary Outlines

The Minimalist Photographer: Green &emdash; Paperclip

A Complementary Concept

I’d like to be able to sit down and type out a story from beginning to end, or in complete scenes that will somehow form a story when strung together the right way. In practice, however, this just leads to chaos and a lot of wasted time. An outline is the only way to keep me on track so that I don’t have to go back and do endless rewrites. Or worse, there’s so much chaos that I just end up sitting there and staring at the screen, not knowing where to go with what I’ve written so far.

At first, an outline seemed overwhelming; how could I possibly work in all the elements of a story in a succinct way? Creating such an outline was more formidable than just hoping I could wing it and rewrite–until I realized that in a mystery, there are not one, but three story lines, each meriting it’s own simple outline: the story of the crime (how the villain and the victim intersect), the sleuth’s personal story and/or subplot, and the story of solving the crime. When each of these are summarized and outlined, they can be interwoven along a single timeline, so that key events are coordinated. Doing this automatically tells me what has to happen in each chapter–and if the various dramatic elements are placed for best effect.

The story of the crime is likely to have a lot of back story–in both An Uncollected Death  and in the work in progress, An Unexamined Wife, the origins of the crime or of its solution go back decades before the crime itself or Charlotte’s involvement in solving it. Uncovering the larger story around a crime contributes to Charlotte’s understanding of what motivated it–and then deducing who did it. Solving a crime this way reveals a lot about the nature of Elm Grove, Indiana, both in what is peculiar to it and what it shares with the larger world.

Uncovering the larger story has to happen in as believable way as possible. I don’t want to rely on coincidence or comedy or just plain good fortune. I’ve always believed that a lot of information about people and places can be had just by looking at them carefully enough. This might be second nature for an artist or a deaf person (and I’m both), for whom visual cues and patterns can say more than actual words. It doesn’t have to happen on a Holmesian or CSI level, either, where the tiniest bit of dirt on a shoelace places the suspect at Such-and-Such Heath during a typhoon, etc.

Crime, after all, doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Nor does solving it. Charlotte has her everyday concerns and connections, and so did the criminal and the victim. Sometimes those concerns and connections overlap, and to the detriment of one or the other. In An Uncollected Death, Olivia’s pathologically cluttered house gives Charlotte a wake-up call about her own house and lifestyle. Likewise, Charlotte’s first-hand experience in dealing with estate liquidators contributes to trusting her instincts when it comes to knowing what is valuable and what isn’t–and what is real and what isn’t.

The character of the sleuth needs to drive the plot as much as the characters of the victim and the villain. I think if the story of each of these personas is heading in the same direction–driving the plot of the the same larger story–they are more likely to complement one another and make a pleasing whole.


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2 thoughts on “Complementary Outlines

  • Elizabeth S. Craig

    Great tips for outlining a mystery here, Meg. I think your advice that crime doesn’t occur in a vacuum is especially important. It took me forever to realize (well, after editors pounded it into me for years), that readers do care about the protagonist and recurring characters *outside* of the crime. Can make for interesting subplots that reveal a lot about the main character.

    • Meg Post author

      Thanks, Elizabeth–I think it’s also particularly helpful in a series, because then you can see if you’re repeating yourself from book to book. This might not matter for some series, but if the main character experiences personal growth, it can be hard to pace without giving it its own outline. At any rate, that’s what I think in the middle of writing book #2. We’ll see what I think at this point in book #3. Could be something different!