This week, as an extended Bank Holiday Bonus, we will be looking at how to outline your novel:
Taking the time to outline your novel can save you grief in the long run. An outline helps keep your story on-track and progressing past the initial thrill of beginning your work. Maybe you can’t wait to start writing, or maybe you’ve already started but are running into problems. This guide will explain all the techniques you’ll need to craft an effective outline for your novel.
Segment Your Outline Into Chapters
The timeline has given you a basic outline, but it needs to be more concrete and detailed. The story can be broken down into sections of four or five parts, or individual chapters or scenes.
This helps flesh out your novel and define roughly how many words or pages to allow for a certain plot point, subplot or character introduction. Otherwise your beginning might accidentally end up longer than the middle!
It’s useful to plan a few goals to achieve in each chapter or segment. These goals may be:
- Character-orientated: “reveal Character B’s low self-confidence”, “introduce character C and their personality”, “show that characters C and D have known each other for years”
- Plot-orientated: “find murder weapon”, “discover object hidden in ancient ruins”
- Setting-orientated: “make the marshes seem scary”, “reveal the clock tower’s history”
The goals may seem obvious, but having them clearly defined and written down can help focus you when writing that section.
“Working with story structure is not about ‘getting it right’. It is about making your story as clear and specific as it can be. Focusing on your characters’ desire or goal will lead you directly to the dilemma at the heart of your story.” – Alan Watt
One of the most common structures is the Three-Act Structure. While it’s not the only way a novel can be arranged, there are important aspects to include in the Beginning, Middle and End section.
Essential Components of Your Story’s Beginning
The first few chapters or so have a vital role to play, regardless of when in your story’s timeline the novel starts. The purpose of the beginning includes introducing and establishing character, setting and plot.
From the beginning, the protagonist and antagonist must be introduced and clearly identifiable, even if the details of the latter are hazy. The protagonist needs to own what is, essentially, their story. You want to introduce a proactive protagonist and make the reader care about them.
It’s best to introduce all major characters. If your protagonist has to travel for a while before meeting a certain major character, introduce them with a short scene from their perspective, or through rumours that the protagonist hears.
Before getting into the juicy Act 2, your reader needs to be grounded in your world. Show your reader where and when your story is set, including indications of the socioeconomic status of the location and characters.
You also need to establish the rules of your fictional world, even if that just means establishing that they are the same rules as on Earth-as-we-know-it. This doesn’t mean all of your settings secrets should be revealed at the start. Keep setting details rich but controlled.
In the early chapters, give your reader an indication of what life is like for the protagonist before the catalyst that propels them onwards. Typically, life is either peaceful or lacking something.
“Life before” doesn’t mean back story. This should be revealed more slowly, if at all. The protagonist may meet their first obstacle, which in itself can help reveal the protagonist’s “life before”.
Act 1 ends when the protagonist decides (willingly or not) to pursue the main goal of the story, known as Plot Point 1. It’s possible at this stage that the protagonist and reader don’t know the full, final goal, such as Frodo agreeing to take the ring to Rivendale, but ends up going all the way to Mordor. Either way, the journey of the main plot needs to be clearly introduced. You may also choose to introduce, imply or foreshadow one or two subplots.
Unless you have a prologue, the first chapter is a reader’s introduction to everything. A novel can start anywhere – even at the end of the story! Because of this, it’s often best to finish your outline before choosing when to start.
There are a range of key aspects to weave together for your opening. At this year’s Digital Writer’s Festival, Euan Mitchell had this advice for first chapters:
“For me, I’d come… with the protagonist straight up. There’s three trialled and tested techniques that authors use. There’s: show them in a situation of suffering or pain, show them with a sense of humour, or show them as a part of a family. There are others, but those are the three main ones.”
Key aspects to include:
- Introduce protagonist (including a couple of defining physical features)
- Show protagonist goal / an obstacle / both
- Establish setting (but don’t overdo details)
- Define the genre, voice, mood and tone
- Incorporate core message / main themes
- Don’t overload with new characters
- Don’t fill with back story
Advised aspects to include:
- Introduce main antagonist or idea of antagonist
- Treat as a mini story arc
- Have the protagonist make an important decision
- Start the main plot’s action / journey
To pick out more great ideas for the first chapter, grab a dozen books and read their first chapters. Check what is revealed, what is focused on and what is absent. Then do a more focused study with half a dozen or so books with a similar style or genre to your story.
If you are enjoying this post and finding it useful, then don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the next instalment…
You can find the previous parts here: