How to outline your novel
Structure. Structure. Structure. If you want to build something, you need a plan. It may very well be that you find your way to the outlining process the long hard way like I did. Most people teaching writing – for some inexplicable reason- do not know how to explain the function of outlining. This is not the case for Nicole Criona of LA Writers Group. What follows below is the very practical information I’ve learned from her classes about what an outline should have in it and why. If you can understand its function- you will LOVE outlining because it is the key to getting your story flowing to a completed work.
Outlining is like learning the alphabet of storytelling. Remember when you didn’t know how to read? Letters and words were mysterious. You could hear them and understand them when spoken but when it came to reading — the information was elusive. The same is true for learning how to write a story. You need to become outline literate. It will set you free. If you do not know where to begin and end you will write beautiful words into eternity that will not hold anyones attention.
To hold people’s attention- including your own- there are key events every story needs to be a story. Here are those points:
Outline Structure Per Plot Point
- SETUP: Here the character functions in limited awareness in the ordinary world. We establish who the main character is, where they are, what they want in life, and what they have to lose if they don’t get it. We establish that the main character has a major flaw in their understanding about something important in their life. This flawed perspective is the setup for how they will change at the end of the story.
Setup questions: Who is the main character of the story? Are there two? Where do they live? What is their social class? What is one of their biggest weaknesses? What do they want more than anything in life?
- INCITING INCIDENT: Something happens that causes unbearable conflict for the main character forcing them to make a decision to take an action to relieve the pain that the event has caused. Here we want to establish what they will lose if they do not take action and what they risk if they do.
What event causes the main character’s world to change forever?
- END OF ACT I: A decision is made in relation to the event that has caused the main character unbearable conflict. This decision is based on flawed thinking.
The event of the inciting incident forces the main character to make a choice- a decision – in an effort to respond to or deal with the event that has caused terrible distress. What action do they take in response to the distressing event (inciting incident)? So – your main character decides to take on the task of achieving some goal. What is that goal and what is their plan?
Here is the main secret about the success of good stories. The decision the main character makes in the beginning is a bad decision. It is misguided and it will NOT lead them to their goal- It will ultimately lead them to a break down and a realization about something they did not previously understand. But they think their plan is the best thing to do so they move forward with that flawed perspective. And we love watching that…
- LOW POINT: After giving everything they have to an impossible situation- the hero is broken. They are forced to face the flaw in their perception and realize something more about the nature of their struggle. At this moment they change. They experience a shift, an awakening and arrive at the final battle a changed person, more aware and accepting.
- MID POINT: Up to this point all the hero’s efforts do nothing at all to move them closer to achieving what they want. Then- at the mid point of the story- something happens which pushes the situation into an even tighter state of emergency. This causes the hero to double up on their flawed efforts and become hell-bent on overcoming the obstacle to achieving an external goal they believe will solve their problems- But what they believe about their goal is still flawed. What scene is the midpoint of your story?
- 1st HALF OF ACT II: The main character takes action based on the flawed decision they made which seems productive but ultimately only leads them farther away from peace and causes more pain. Their behavior at this time is reactive, urgent, impulsive, not well thought out. This is the series of action and reactions that are set into motion by the decision made at the end of Act 1. The main character tries something which causes a reaction which then requires them to react to the result of their action with another action- causing yet another problematic reaction. Every decision and action they make is an attempt to resolve the conflict caused by the inciting incident which only makes things worse.
- 2nd Half of Act II The main character’s resolve and commitment are beginning to crack in the face of zero progress. Their actions become even more daring, risky, and desperate. But also more committed and methodical. And these actions are still based on a flawed understanding about the nature of their problem.
- FINAL BATTLE: Confronting the primary obstacle to their desire in life with a new understanding of that obstacle. Or- being presented with the opportunity to do so and refusing- failing to grow or change.
- RETURN: How is the character different than they were in the beginning? Were they fearful in the bringing and now behave with courage? This is where you show the transformation that has occurred for the main character. If your are writing a cautionary tale this is where you give the main character one more last opportunity which they decline- and break our hearts. This is also where you wan to tie up of loose ends for subplots and offer a final commentary regarding the journey.
I hope this summary was helpful. If you want help applying it to your unique story development- I highly recommend taking a class with the LA Writer’s Group. No, you don’t have to be in LA. She offers skype and on-line classes.
So that is how to outline your novel. Answering these questions takes days, weeks, and months… alas, years… but it is deeply enjoyable. Just keep in mind an outline isn’t going to happen in one sitting. If you put on your calendar writing assignments based on these questions and you answer them each week- you will have a story in no time.
For Science Fiction/Fantasy writers- because we are dealing with the imagination to such a greater degree than people who write about reality – it is vital to have the skeletal outline of your story in practical terms even as you world build. SciFi and Fantasy stories are ultimately just complex metaphors referencing some aspect of the human condition indirectly. So be as direct as possible and OUTLINE your story events!