How to Make a Novel Outline (and Find the Right Plot Structure)
Here you'll find advice on how to make a novel outline, along with a great trick for coming up with a successful plot structure.
There's not a right or wrong way to make a novel outline, but here's one method you can try.
First, you come up with an idea for a novel, which includes a main character and a problem facing that character.
Claire is hired to discover the secret of a house where mysterious events have been taking place. As she investigates, she begins to suspect that the ghostly phenomena are being caused by squatters as a way to discourage anyone from buying the house. But it also becomes apparent that someone, or something, in the house is trying to kill her.
Then, write down ideas you have for scenes your novel might include.
- Claire gets job offer
- Argument with boyfriend about job
- Librarian tells her about the squatters
- Halloween activities in neighborhood
Once you have a whole list of possible scenes, then you can begin to put them into order. At the same time, you can start working out in more detail what will happen in the scenes.
- Claire goes to job interview in expensive-looking office. Employer explains that he wants to buy a house, but he's hearing strange rumors about it. He has rented it for the month, and he wants someone to stay there and find out what's going on. She asks what kind of rumors, but he says it's better if she enters without prejudice. The salary's great. He offers her the job, and she accepts.
Where you find gaps between scenes, add new scene ideas to fill in the missing pieces. If certain scenes seem repetitive or aren't serving a clear purpose, then take them out (but save them in a separate file in case you want to come back to them later).
One of the great things about a novel outline is that it lets you test ideas before you commit to them. It lets make sure your novel will work BEFORE you start writing.
Sometimes, you'll discover that your novel idea isn't going to work. For example:
- Your idea might not translate into enough scenes to fill a novel (though it might have potential for a short story).
- You might not have a strong enough story conflict, so the action ends up feeling flat.
- There might not be enough of a central thread tying things together. Your scenes feel like a series of episodes, not like a story.
If you discover one of these problems, you can either find a way to fix it, or move on to the next idea. Either way, figuring it out ahead of time can save you a lot of time and heartache.
And once you have a solid outline, actually writing the novel will generally go a lot more smoothly.
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a free excerpt from our e-book FICTION BOOT CAMP which describes some common problems to look for when you're testing your story ideas.
If you want to write novels, you probably also love to READ novels, so you already have an idea of how they're put together. But here's a good exercise. Take several novels similar in genre to the one you want to write, and analyze their structure. For each of the novels, make a list of all of the scenes in that novel.
What you're doing is working backwards, turning those novels into outlines that you can use as examples.
Looking at each outline, pay attention to...
- how the story’s action is divided into scenes
- why the scenes are in the order that they are
- the speed and rhythm of the storytelling
- how the author builds tension and keeps things interesting.
Of course, your novel will be different from anyone else's. But even very different works of literature tend to follow certain common patterns.
You may even find that you can use another story's structure as the basis for your own.
Helen Fielding did this when she wrote her popular novel, THE DIARY OF BRIDGET JONES. As she explains:
"When I first started writing the Bridget Jones novel, I just had a collection of columns, and no plot, really. And simultaneously PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was going out on the BBC, and I was infatuated with it, and so I just stole the plot, and hung my columns on it, and then the book increasingly began to mimic and nick stuff from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But it’s a very good plot."
Although Fielding used Jane Austen's plot, the main character she imagined and her writing style result in a very different book.
In Henry James's novel THE AMBASSADORS, the main character is sent to Europe to bring back an American expatriate, but his mission is complicated when he falls in love with the lifestyle of the young man he's supposed to bring back.
This *exact same* plot description also applies to Patricia Highsmith's crime novel, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. But the characters and the styles of the novels couldn't be more different.
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching Hitchcock's movie REAR WINDOW on DVD when I realized that Woody Allen's movie MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY has a very similar plot. Both movies are about couples living in New York City who begin to suspect that a neighbor has committed a murder. In both movies, one partner in the couple is fascinated by this, while the other partner is not... until halfway through the movie, where the second partner becomes interested too, and the shared interest ends up strengthening the relationship.
The styles and specific details of the movies are completely different, but the basic plot is the same.
Popular story structures
If you're writing genre fiction, there will be common story structures used in your genre. For example, countless mystery novels use this structure:
1) The sleuth gets drawn into a murder investigation.
2) The sleuth interviews witnesses and suspects, uncovering clues.
3) In the middle of the story, something happens to raise the stakes and increase the excitement. For example, another body might be found. Or the sleuth might get threatening notes, warning him/her off the case.
4) The story speeds up as puzzle pieces start falling into place.
5) The action builds to a climactic face-to-face confrontation between the sleuth and the murderer where the sleuth's life is in danger.
6) the murderer is brought to justice (or not), and any loose threads are tied up.
Many adventure and fantasy novels use a story structure that is sometimes called "The Hero's Journey". J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels are an example of books that follow this structure:
1) The story opens with a glimpse of the main character's ordinary life before something happens to disrupt it.
2) Something happens that draws the character into a special world or a new situation.
3) The character gets to know the new world or situation. He encounters allies, opponents, and tests. He may assemble a team to help him with his mission.
4) Half-way through the story, something happens to raise the stakes. After this event, the character can no longer go back to his ordinary life unchanged. He realizes that he must fight the final battle.
5) The character forms a plan and prepares for the final battle.
6) The character fights the final battle
7) The character returns to his ordinary life, but brings something back from these experiences.
You can use one of these structures and still have a very original novel. Your characters, your imagination, your writing and perspective will make your novel unique.
More on Novel Outlines and Plot Structure
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