This next outline technique is brand-new to me. I just picked it up from the book How To Write aDamn Good Mystery by James Frey. I’ve been reading a slew of How To Write Mystery books because I’ve decided to include a Mystery subplot in my YA urban fantasy, and I am clueless about how to go about it. Wow, I wished I had learned this earlier. It’s good stuff.
I can see why this style of Outline is of particular importance to mystery writers, but I think it’s useful for anyone. The basic idea is that you are writing two stories: the plot and the plot behind the plot.
There’s the action that the reader sees. This is what happens “onstage.”
Then there’s what happened a long time ago (backstory) or what is happening to other characters besides the current PoV character. This is what happens “offstage.”
In the Onstage and Offstage Outline, you write about both, in chronological order—not necessarily the order that it will be revealed to the reader.
In a mystery, the detective, and through her, the reader, is usually working backwards. The murder has already taken place, and the detective has to re-create the event through clues. The newbie author mistake is to write the book the same way. Instead, the author needs to write a prequel and parallel book (in outline) from the murderer’s PoV. The other suspects should also have their own, ongoing storylines, most of which are offstage both before and during the onstage action of the novel.
Like all brilliant ideas, this is headsmackingly obvious once you think about it.
Could this Offstage/Onstage idea be combined with the Post-It Outline? I’ve never tried it, but the idea intrigues me. Another approach is to use an Excel or similar spreadsheet program. Write down each characters name in a column and the time and day in the rows and keep track of where each person is when. The more complex your story is, and the more you need to rely on misdirection, the more useful this kind of outline will be.