Tag Archives: Outline your novel

Designing the story #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo month. If you are interested, join Camp NaNoWriMo to take on any writing project, novel or not, and set a word-count goal of your own. Yes, any goal, any project.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemI think of stories as if they were ponds filled with words. A pond has layers, and so do good stories. I see the three layers of a story as:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. We change the look of the surface layer by choosing either realism or surrealism or a blend of the two.

Realism is a common form of storytelling. It is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of story. The setting can be anywhere and told using the tropes of any genre. The reality of that world is solid and never changes.

Surrealism takes the feeling of a real world and gives it a slightly hallucinogenic twist. Everything feels real, but on the surface, it makes no sense. One must find understanding in each small increment rather than the larger chunks we are used to absorbing.

Beneath the story’s surface lies the middle: This is the area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: events and reactions. We see why these characters’ lives are important enough to be portrayed and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters. It is a layer where inference and implication come into play.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Voice/style
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only. The same is true for a novel.

If you want to write anything, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting a novel, but if you don’t get the original ideas and entire story down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

Many people say they intend to write a book. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

I draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points, destinations where each section of the story will end. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts. Acts two and three are really one long extension of each other.

short-story-arcAct 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

Act 4: Resolution: Let’s end this misery in a way that feels good.

Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

PostItNotePadI have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

If it’s an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the important characters by name and list the critical places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

On page two of the workbook, I create a page that outlines the projected story arc chapter by chapter.

Page three of the workbook is most important—it is the list of made-up words, names, and places. The way they appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I plow along, laying down prose.

Update the glossary page anytime a name is added or changed, or new place or made-up word is added.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central piece that keeps the events happening in a logical way.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.

screenshotStyleSheetLIRF06262021We never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters you need to devote to that section.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

Creating a project for Camp NaNoWriMo is a good way to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.

You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.


Credits and Attributions:

DangApricot (Erik Breedon), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, ‘File:PostItNotePad.JPG’, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, 26 August 2020, 17:42 UTC, <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:PostItNotePad.JPG&oldid=443715836> [accessed 26 June 2021]

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The outline for pantsers #NaNoWriMo2019 amwriting

NaNoWriMo is prime “pantsing it” time. For those who don’t know that term, “pantsing” is writer-speak for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I always begin with an outline, but my story always goes in directions I never planned for.

Sill, the outline helps me stay on track.

I outline in advance because (when writing in any genre) if you are pantsing your way through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.

Making an outline helps you keep your story arc moving forward.

Everything you write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that epic quest for the unobtainable something.

By the end of the book, the internal growth of the characters may have caused them to change their personal goals, but something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters.

As I said above, I’ve never yet written a story that stuck strictly to the original outline.

Characters develop lives and personalities of their own, and stuff happens that wasn’t planned for.

Screen writers have it right, so the layout of my outline is divided into acts and beats, with a brief description. So, how do we approach this little task? First, NaNoWriMo says 50,000 words is a novel. How long do you think yours might be? Divide it into manageable chunks.

Act One – not more than 25% of total words: Where does the inciting incident occur?

  • Opening scene–characters in “normal” environment–/ Hook
  1. Introduce the characters. In your outline, ask, “What does each desire?” List each character and make a note of what they want at the beginning, what stands in their way at the middle, and what they get at the end.
  2. Foreshadow the incident that takes them out of their normal environment.
  • Inciting Incidentthe event that changes everything.
  1. characters are thrown out of “normal” and into new circumstances.
  • Things start to get crazy.
  1. Characters react to the inciting incident.
  2. Characters try to get control of the situation and fail.
  3. Characters regroup. They must continue, but what are they willing to risk?

Act Two takes up 50% of the novel—it is the second quarter and third quarter combined.

  • Pinch Point #1—a dangerous situation orchestrated by the antagonist.
  1. The antagonist applies pressure to your character. This demonstrates the threat presented by the antagonist and forces your character into action.
  • Midpoint
  1. Regroup, process what just happened, plan to achieve the goal. What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section fraught with uncertainty but still moving the protagonist toward their goal? If not, cut them and insert events that propel the story forward.
  2. Move toward the next encounter.
  • Pinch Point #2—Calamity. When and where does this occur?
  1. The protagonist is thwarted and may not win the goal after all.
  2. How are their attempts to achieve the goal frustrated?
  3. Someone dear may die.
  • Crisis of faith
  1. The costs of the battle are weighed against what is gained.
  2. Faith is restored, plans are laid for next encounter

Act Three, the final 25% of the novel:

  • Climax
  1. The protagonist faces the antagonist, and the battle is on.
  • Final resolution
  1. The protagonist wins, but at what cost?
  2. Do they achieve the original goal in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal as the story progresses?
  3. All threads are wound up, and the book has a finite ending (NOT a cliff hanger if you are an unknown author, even if a book two is planned).

Sit down with a notebook (or if you’re like me, and Excel spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must happen in each “act.” In my outline, each chapter has a brief description of what I think will occur in each scene, such as:

Chapters 15 – 22

15 Aeddie sick – Mendric can’t heal his heart-take him to Hemsteck
16 Three days into the journey Elgar and Raj battle Thunder lizard
17 Star stone falls outside Waterston
18 Aeddie sick, nearly dies, Mendric nearly burns out gift keeping him alive
19 South of Kyran, water wraith
20 North of Kyran, a mob attack
21 Nola – inn
22 Maldon, highwaymen, and William

>>><<<

If I take the time to note all of my changes to the story line, I have a guide showing me what those changes were. I can make sure the events are foreshadowed logically and don’t appear to be a clumsy Deus Ex Machina. (Pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah.) (God from the Machine.)

That means a plot twist that is pulled seemingly out of nowhere and used to miraculously resolve an issue. Miraculous is the key word. If you rely on this, your plot will be unbelievable.

What is the underlying theme? How does this theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story? (See my post: The interpretive layer of the word-pond: Theme.)

When you assemble your outline, ask yourself these questions:

  • What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
  • What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it, and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?

I always feel it’s necessary to have an outline of the story arc even if my novel has multiple possibilities for endings. Winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating, but my years of experience with NaNoWriMo have taught me that winging it for extended lengths of time means I might run out of fresh ideas of what to do next.

If you begin with a simple outline, you won’t become desperate at the halfway point and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up. Many times, someone must die to advance the plot or fire up the protagonist, but readers get angry with authors who kill off too many characters they have grown to like.

Besides, you might need that character later. Bringing them back from the dead is a whole different Deus Ex Machina.

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