Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Story Logic—Spell It Out

This post first ran here on January 1, 2009.


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.

Then 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 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 the 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 and editor and is the author of the Detective Jackson mysteries, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For. She also loves to edit fiction and works with authors to keep her rates affordable. Contact her at:
L.J. Sellers
Write First, Clean Later


  1. LJ, I do something very similar with my Kate Gomolemo mysteries. I get an A3 size paper (for some reason it must be big paper- I'd do bigger if I could find it). Then I map out all the connections between characters, even characters that may not turn up in the book; people in back stories. On the connecting lines I explain the connections. Once the map is done I start the plot outline.

    Like you've said so well, you must not rip your reader off, the twists and turns must be sensible and that needs planning. And it is a terrible drag to suddenly realise the last ten chapters must be scrapped because you have no where to go.

  2. That's a good idea, and I should really map the timeline better on my story. A high fantasy medical dramas could very easy have 48 hours' worth of events trying to happen in 10.

    But personally, I don't make very specific story logic outlines. I like the characters to guide me through any given scene, so that their motivation feels more natural. I plan out general plot points and the story's ending, then ask the muse questions every time I sit down to write. "He's deciding to help the sick people? Why? How would she feel about the decision?" Stumbling across interesting answers is my favourite part of the process.

  3. INsightful post! I also find that this applies to conversations, in particular ones involving more than three people. (I know, dangerous turf there!) But if you jot down your purpose, then map the logic of responses and the nuances you want to communicate can be compared to what you find on the page. It's a very enlightening process, too, and helps to trim and strengthen very talk-heavy scenes.

  4. I don't approach my writing logically. Wish I could.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Thanks for that. I've been having a hard time, becoming stalled very early on with no where to go. I think I will sit down tonight and work out my 'story logic' so that I can get back on track.

  6. I can do minor outlines, but I still have no idea how any book will end. It's great to see how other writers put it all together. I do think it's a great idea because the more complex the plot the more you really can get lost and miss important details.

  7. I outline, but I like this idea of story logic. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I use Excel for this: one "order" column so I never lose my original sort, then a column of chapter numbers, then a column of chapter synopses, then a column each for major characters, each one with themes or major actions; sorting on those gives me a snapshot of who knows what when, character/relationship arcs, who's got the MacGuffin, etc.
    Makes it easy to rework the outline as I go, and when I'm ready, I concatenate the chapter synopses for the bones of a full synopsis.

  9. I have never been organized enough to do a full-fledged outline, but I do think through the story logic. I can see where it would be helpful to write some of the story elements down as I think of them. (smile)

  10. I do massive pre-writing prep. I do character bios and an very very thorough outline. I want to know where I'm going and how I"m getting there. I've found (since I write rather complex mysteries) it's the only way to ensure all the clues are there and the conclusions are logical - not magical.

  11. It's always a good idea when you are writing a story with a bad guy moving the action that you consider his motivations and his backstory.

    Story logic doesn't work from the good guy's POV if the bad guy's story logic either makes no sense or is there simply for the sake of the good guy solving the case.

  12. I do character sketches and a general outline that gets the story started. Then I turn my characters loose to tell me what really happens. However, they don't get a totally free hand. I allow them latitude within certain perameters, but on occasion they're told no. While this hardly qualifies as hard-core story logic, it does lend a bit of control to the forward momentum of the tale.


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