How To Outline Your Novel | Part Three


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.


Assess Your Plot-in-Progress

While your outline is still in its rough, overview state, it’s good to check that the plot is working. To make sure the plot flows, check for gaps both chronologically and dramatically.

A chronological gap occurs when an underdeveloped story jumps over a period of time. It can be disconcerting for the reader if your character is sweating it out in the middle of summer, and then, in what seems a few days, is at home trying to get closer to the fireplace.

Reassess your plot and check for unaccounted days, months, weeks or years. The significance of missing time is relative. If your story spans a period of a year or more, a few days or weeks won’t matter so much.

To fill the gap, you could think of an event to develop a character or a mini obstacle for your protagonist to overcome. Of course, you always have the option to tell your reader that a few uneventful weeks or a busy month passed with no plot progression. Doing this too often can be distracting, but at the same time you don’t want pages of nothing happening.

“References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction” – Beth Hill

A dramatic gap occurs when the tension of your novel declines when it shouldn’t. The best way to identify these gaps is to draw the story arc as a graph line. Use different colours for subplots to check that the main plot isn’t being overshadowed.

You may encounter lulls in tension shortly after an obstacle is defeated. This is where dramatic lulls are okay as long as they don’t last too long. Overall, the main plot should be increasing in tension as it heads towards the climax.


If you’ve decided to use 1st person perspective, or are considering it, draw the arc from both a generalised view and then from the 1st person narrator’s perspective. From here you can see whether the delay or lack of knowledge from the narrator’s perspective creates a better dramatic arc. To fill dramatic gaps, build more plot points in strategic places and work on increasing tension.

If it seems that your story isn’t working, trust your instincts. Readers can tell when something is a bit off and, as a writer, you’re a reader too. Be honest if something isn’t working – it’s easier to fix now than later.

If you can’t identify the root of the problem, take a break or ask some trusted writing buddies to look over it. Also research the genre’s conventions. If you’re writing genre fiction, look into a tried and tested outline such as the hero’s journey or the eight-point arc.


Identify the Core Message (Theme)

Novels have a core message, whether it’s clear or not. You could successfully write your novel none the wiser of its deeper meanings. Yet, by knowing the core, you can write a stronger novel.

Identifying your core helps when you need to decide between two possibilities, and keeps the novel feeling as one whole piece of work.

“Novelists, just like filmmakers, need to truly understand the story they are trying to tell and what impact or take-home feeling or message they want to leave with their readers” – C. S. Lakin

Your core message and themes emerge naturally with your story and can be a phrase, a word or a question. You’ll instinctively know when you’ve hit on your novel’s core or when you’re getting close to it. Here are a few ways to help identify your core message if you don’t already know it:

  • Identify 1 – 4 central or important themes
  • Look at your protagonist’s goal / desire or main obstacle
  • Sum up your story in one sentence (i.e. “pitch”) keeping note of the above two points
  • Make a list of published novels you think are similar. Can you identify their core messages?
  • Share your story premise with others

Once you’ve identified your core, it’s helpful to go back and tweak plot points or characters to align with this. Be careful to not undermine your story by making the core too obvious or preachy.

Consider if there is a motif or style that is appropriate for your core. There’s a chance that you may not like the core message you identify. At this point you have the option to run with what the story says, or rework the aspects of your story that portray the undesired core message.


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: 


How To Outline Your Novel | Part Two


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.


Establish Your Settings

Setting is vital to every story. It helps a reader fall into your fiction world, even if your story is set in Earth-as-we-know-it. It can also be critical to the plot: imagine if Grandma’s house wasn’t deep in the woods. Little Red Riding Hood may never have met the Wolf.

The setting also tells the reader about your characters. If Little Red lived in a castle, she may have been more aware of dangerous people, and the Wolf’s motives may have been more than hunger.

Setting can become vague in writing when the writer doesn’t know their setting well. The same way you have character profiles, settings need profiles too. The process of planning your setting is slightly different if your story is set in a real place, though it follows the same general steps.

Before you get to know your setting, you need to choose your setting. If you’re stumped for ideas, the best place to look is in your plot. Setting is tightly linked to plot, primarily affecting what is possible. Does a character need to be or feel trapped? Go for a fort, boarding school, or a safe house in the middle of nowhere.

Usually your story will take place in more than one setting, so go through your plot and make note of the best setting for each scene.

When you start working on details of your setting, you may already have an idea in your mind – Victorian mansion, sea cliffs, military base, Sydney Opera House. Even if you feel familiar with the setting, go around with a camera or search images online.

Make note of what aspects you notice first: is the colour gaudy, do the edges look harsh, are there hundreds of trees? To mix elements of more than one setting, you can put the images in a document and make notes such as “this roof, but that balcony and a bluer colour”. Create a collage or bring out the sketchbook.

“Tear images out of home magazines or catalogs and put them on your vision board. You can also draw floorplans, which can help when you’re trying to navigate your character” – Charlotte Dixon

As mentioned by Charlotte Dixon, maps and floor plans are also a handy tool. If a character spends a lot of time in a building, you need to know the layout so they don’t come from the kitchen into the dining room one time and from the ballroom another.

Likewise, if they travel a lot or go outside to a certain place frequently, maps will help keep you orientated. Draw the street of your character’s favourite coffee shop; what will they see as they sip on their routine morning hot beverage?

Maps and floorplans can be drawn by hand on plain, lined or grid paper, or done in excel by changing the cell sizes to square. Grid is particularly useful for smaller buildings. It may not matter if your castle is 100 or 110 metres long, but there’s a big difference if a house is 10 or 20 metres.

For smaller buildings, also make sure that it is reasonable to fit all the furniture you describe in a single room. If you want to go the extra mile, there are also free 3D modelling programs such as Sketch Up, but generally simple 2D maps are enough.

You may also want to create a setting arc if it undergoes a serious change in the story. This would likely be either physical damage or a change in emotion or meaning. For the former, make notes of what is damaged, how it is damaged and the differences (such as being able to see through a hole in a wall).

Conversely, perhaps a damaged place was fixed or renovated. If the emotions connected to a place change, pick out the details. A sagging roof that once may have seemed a sign of degradation could simply add character.


Choose the Shape and Style of Narration

There are three narration shapes your plot can take: linear, non-linear and circular.

Linear narration is when the novel progresses in the typical chronological order. For example, Little Red leaves her house, meets the Wolf in the forest and then again in Grandma’s house.

Non-linear narration shakes things up a bit. In the case of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, Little Red meets the Wolf at Grandma’s, recalls meeting him earlier, is saved by the woodsman, recalls her mum telling her to be careful, and so on, backwards and forwards. Two well-known non-linear novels to have a look at are Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

Circular narration starts and ends with the characters in the same place. This “place” can refer to a number of things such as a geographical location, an emotional or mental state, or a hierarchical position.

Whatever “place” means for the beginning and end, it should also be important in the middle. The novel The Chrysalids by John Wyndham starts with telepathic mutants being shunned by normal society. They attempt to create a safe place for themselves. However, when they find a whole town of telepaths, they’re looked down on again because of the weakness of their mutation.

If your novel is to be in a nonlinear or circular shape, it’s best to first craft your outline in a linear form. This makes it easier for you as the author to keep track of the story and helps prevent the plot from becoming confused and lost within itself.

“If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is” – Roz Morris


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 part here: 


How To Outline Your Novel | Part One


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.


Constructing a Timeline

The first step is to create a timeline or plot skeleton with your plot ideas. Be sure to include back story elements, both before the novel’s events and at the point they are revealed to the reader. Don’t worry if you have little to start with, it’ll quickly build up. Make sure to leave space for more details.

There are many ways to construct your story outline. Try a few techniques and see what works for you. You could start by writing out key events, or by writing a short paragraph for each narrative arc within your novel. Either way, you’ll eventually need to look at your novel as a compilation of separate events and as a whole.

If you’re stuck with what to do in the middle, or even at the beginning, try starting with what you want to happen at the end and then reverse engineer a path to reach that result. I call this method ‘The Stephen King” because he famously writes that he begins a new novel by writing the last scene, and then works backwards.

This works within minor plot points as well. For instance, if you know you want character B to disappear and the other characters to end up in a boat before moving onto the next scene, brainstorm with that ending in mind.

Depending on your story and how you like to work, the timeline could take on several forms. A dot-point list, an actual timeline or a mind-map are the most common, though there are other forms you can use. Often in the planning stage, it’s easier to use pen and paper so you can draw arrows and cross things out. This leaves a reminder of what you’ve tried and what hasn’t worked.

Technique: Write a List

If your story is relatively simple and short, the list-form is often the best way to start your outline. Focus on the core points of the story and jot down any additional ideas as you go. If you were writing “Little Red Riding Hood”, your list-form timeline may look something like this:

  • Grandma makes a red coat for her granddaughter
    – The granddaughter is called Little Red because she always wears red
  • Little Red goes to visit Grandma, who’s sick (novel opening)
    – Her mum asked Little Red to deliver food (or medicine?)
  • On the way, she meets Wolf and tells him what she’s doing
    – Wolf runs ahead, eats Grandma and disguises himself as her
  • Little Red is distracted by flowers along the way
    – Wolf wears Grandma’s nightcap and glasses, then hides the rest of himself under the covers
  • Little Red arrives, but notices that Grandma looks different
    – Wolf imitates Grandma’s voice
  • Little Red notices unusually big: ears, eyes, teeth
  • The Wolf reveals himself, Little Red screams and a nearby woodsman runs to her aid and kills Wolf

Currently, this is a basic outline and needs a lot more work if it wants to be novel-length. Writing prompts can often help you flesh out your story. Use your imagination and check out Part Four (coming on Thursday) for notes on characters, setting and plot.

Technique: Map the Events on a Line

For stories that span several weeks, months or years, time becomes a big consideration when placing events. Simply writing the same points you’d write on a list along a line can help create a realistic sense of time.

When deciding the duration between events, remember realistic limitations of time. For example, there is time lost when travelling, and there are only so many meals a person can eat or disasters a person can prevent realistically in one day. Many other factors change with time, such as characters’ ages and the seasons.

Line-form can also help when comparing two separate time streams, such as in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.


Lines are more difficult to edit than lists, but a good trick to keep your line flexible is to use index cards or sticky notes that can be easily shuffled and switched around – This is a personal favourite trick of author Julie Cohen (to whom I refer as “The PostIt Queen”). If you are limited for space, Scrivener and Aeon Timeline are two programs popular with writers for this and other purposes.

Technique: Master the Mind-Map

Mind-maps work well for stories that start with a single point and then diverge into several threads, often alternating between characters. Alternately, the story could be several threads converging to one point, like the musical Into The Woods.

To depict the passage of time in a mind-map and be able to easily compare one thread’s time state with another’s, put the point of convergence at the centre, and then draw circles going out. Just like tree rings, each circle you draw can represent another segment of time. When you expand your mind-map, the points in each thread can be placed in its ring-like time “zone”.



Explore Your Character Arcs

Character profiles are useful in the initial planning stage. However, when outlining your novel, you need to go beyond this static document. Character arcs show the change or growth a character goes through, and the stages required to get there. The changes could be greater or smaller self-esteem, mastering that ninja technique or realising that money doesn’t solve all your problems.

“Change, transformation, is a constant in our lives and if you can impel some kind of emotional change within your character, it creates an arc of behaviours and adds another dimension to who he or she is” – Syd Field, The Screenwriter’s Workbook

First, determine exactly what part of the story is reflected by the character profile. Often this is the start of the novel. Make a list of any changes you want the character to go through, or changes they need to go through to achieve their profile. Then, check the plot and make another list of possible changes that story events could cause in your character, making note of which changes you want.

If the two lists are contradictory, you may need to reassess your character or plot, or be prepared to work hard and write a character that is believably contradictory. From here, you can continue with the list form, or use a line, mind-map or paragraph to detail out your character arc.

For characters that go through significant change, or for stories that look closely at the human psyche, you may want to do several mini-character profiles. Consider dropping aspects that won’t change, such as physical appearance, unless your character becomes severely ill or can shape-shift.

Another way to use character arcs is to compare them to each other. Firstly, make sure all your characters don’t share the same arc, unless you’re purposefully trying to make a point. If a few characters have similar arcs, try to use one as a comment or opposite reflection on the other, or demonstrate the difference a decision can make.

Also check if any character arcs can assist or become an obstacle for another character’s arc. This can add a new depth to characters’ relationships, and maybe spark off a subplot.

Character arcs can then be used to flesh out your plot. Once you’ve done the arc, make sure the plot supports every small change the character undergoes. If it doesn’t, use this guide to inspire several new plot points.


If you are enjoying this post and finding it useful, then don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the next instalment…


25 Things to Know About Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel


A reader walks into a bookstore. Spies an interesting book. What does she do? Picks it up. Flips to the first chapter. Or, if I can find the first chapter online somewhere, I’ll read it there. One way or another, I want to see that first chapter. Because that’s where you grab me by the balls or where you push me out the door. The first chapter is where you use me or lose me…


How I went from Writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day…

Concept image with What is Your Story printed on an old typewriter

When I told people that I’d gone from writing 2k words to 10k words per day, I got a huge response. Everyone wanted to know how I’d done it, and I finally got so sick of telling the same story over and over again that I decided to write it down here.
So, once and for all, here’s the story of how I went from writing 500 words an hour to over 1500, and (hopefully) how you can too…

How To Supercharge Your Writing With This Cinematic Technique


Would you like to know how to supercharge your writing?

Today, novelists are using cinematic technique to create visually dynamic scenes.

Readers, used to watching movies and TV, have come to expect a more ‘cinematic’ experience when they read.

They want to watch the story unfold before their eyes rather than be told what is happening in summary or exposition.