Taming the Novel Plot and Outline, a User’s Guide

Authorial Essentials
Authorial Essentials
This is a long post. I’ve run some variation of this as a mini-workshop for a few years and it’s helped at least one person. Maybe you’ll find it useful.

Before you construct a novel plot and outline, you need a few key ingredients, so we’re going to start there. You’ll need to know your characters (major and minor), your goal, and your conflict. So let’s start there.

Character: Without a character, there is no plot. Before laying out a novel, I always start out with the cast, which I type up and keep nearby while writing the outline. I like to print it double-spaced with decent margins so I can write in notes that come to me over the course of the novel. If the character has a name and has significant interaction with the protagonist, I give them a paragraph listing key physical characteristics, any mannerisms which might set them apart, their role in the novel, and motivations. There are two plot benefits to having a strong concept of character. The first is that it helps inform their decisions on the way to the novel’s resolution. Secondly, this helps build subplots with supporting characters that make for a richer and more realistic narrative.

Example: Tom Russell – Mid-thirties, he has curly brown hair in need of a trim. He is a shut-in, and tends towards wearing jeans and over-shirts with pockets to hold his cell phone and pen. He is a little out of shape, and prone to tapping his leg or working something with his hand when anxious. His family is the most important thing in his life. Tom has an easy going manner, and a self-deprecating sense of humor on occasion.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Keep in mind “the Hero’s Journey.” Conflict changes people, and it’s no different for characters. Things are no longer static, and your hero (at the very least) is going to have a dramatic arc which will leave them a changed person from where they started. Those changes can be subtle, and if done right, should be an organic outgrowth of the story. It’s not a bad idea to notate the character’s arc at this point so you can keep it in mind while writing the outline.

Goal: And by goal, I mean the climax of your novel, largely influenced by your character’s individual goals and how that is changed by the confict. Some writers skip this step, and would rather be surprised by the ending. But if you’re outlining it really helps to know where you’re going. A goal, a resolution, provides an anchor for the plotline. With a strong idea of where you’re starting and where you’re ending up, the plot stretches out like a bridge. In my experience, having a clear picture of the resolution can help keep the plot on track when things start to wander.

Conflict: Life is what happens when you’re making other plans. A plot is like that. You have to put obstacles between the character and their goals to build tension. These challenges can be internal (crisis of conscience, uncertainty, etc.), or external (an antagonist, the environment, even just bad luck). Without obstacles, Lord of the Rings would have been a short story. Additionally, it’s suggested that you build conflicts slowly, escalating towards the climax. For best results, when at all possible, resolve all of your conflicts by the end of the book.
NOTE: These don’t have to be huge challenges, especially early on. I’ve found that many of these early conflicts are either internal or challenges of will that can be resolved by dialogue or by thought.

With most risks comes the possibility of reward, otherwise it’s just action for action’s sake (which has its place). By keeping in mind this risk-reward structure, you can help motivate the plot, using the rewards as seeds that remove obstacles or give clues to help resolve the main conflict on the way to the ultimate goal.

Example 1: Early in the novel, Tom is an agoraphobic and finds himself committed to going to the market with his family. Conflict: Tom has to reconcile his fear of crowds and the outdoors with building a stronger relationship with his family. Risk: A high-profile panic attack. In the over-all scheme of things, it’s a minor conflict, so it’s a low risk. Reward: Not only will Tom learn to confront his fears (which grows the character, enabling him to move towards the climax), but it also gives us the chance to feed Tom some key plot elements. Little puzzle pieces like these will help pull Tom deeper into the story.

Example 2: Later in the novel, Tom finds himself in his son’s room when the antagonist (a troll), tries to steal his son Max from beneath the bed. Conflict: A direct physical threat to his family. Risk: Not only losing his son, but also being seen as crazy when explaining what happened to his wife and the police. Reward: Should he win, he keeps Max out of his enemy’s grasp for another day. He also takes his first aggressive stand against the antagonist, which will give him confidence for the travails further on.

Ok, on to plotting, by developing something known as the Plot Spine!

The Plot Spine is something I picked up in a screenwriting class and I’ve found it applicable for novel plotting as well. The biggest difference between a screenplay and a novel is that there is far more room for subplots and supporting story arcs in a novel, so the spine alone will only get us half way. But like a real spine, this gives a very solid core off of which we can hang the rest of the novel.

The Plot Spine has six elements which provide anchor points for the outline: the Fade In, Turning Point One, Midpoint, Turning Point Two, Climax, Denouement.

Fade In: Set up the key characters, give them a little grounding. Set the stakes.

Turning Point One: Our initial taste of conflict, it hits our protagonist with their first challenge and first setback. This is where they set out on the path towards the climax. In Lord of the Rings, this is where Frodo is given the Ring. In Greetings from Buena Rosa, it’s where Manuel makes the decision to return to Mexico to help his cousin.

Midpoint: This is a where the character hits a huge snag, a huge setback, and despite the name, it isn’t always exactly in the middle of the novel. This is a point of no return, and it’s important for a lot of reasons. If you have a supporting character important to the story, they should be introduced no later than the midpoint, otherwise they feel tacked on. (You might not have them in a scene, or see them physically in the novel by now, but they should be introduced at least in concept.) Additionally, this is where the character realizes that the stakes are higher. The conflict has escalated, things aren’t necessarily going their way, risk of loosing is very high, and there’s no way to back out. In LOTR, it’s where the Fellowship is founded. In Buena Rosa, it’s where Manuel realizes he won’t be able to buy his cousin’s freedom and has to put on Gato suit again.

Turning Point Two: This is the big turning point, leading into the climax. In many ways, it’s the calm before the storm. It’s where everything that’s been building up throughout the novel hits the boiling point, pushing the action over the edge into the climax. At this point, it’s rarely about your antagonist’s choice – the final conflict is inevitable here…it only falls to your hero how he steps into the fire – willingly or kicking or screaming. In LOTR, it’s where Boromir steps up and tries to take the ring from Frodo and the trust of the fellowship is shattered. In Buena Rosa, it’s where Gato realizes that Deputy Aldovar is the big threat, and that he has both Snowflake and his cousin in custody in the jail.

Climax: This is the big culmination of your conflict. All the tension and all the threats which have been building since turning point one hit the fan in the most dramatic way you can imagine. You don’t have to tie up ALL the sub-plots here, but you do have to resolve the main one. You might conveniently tie up some of the sub-plots at the last turning point (like rivalries between your protagonist and a supporting character, enabling him to join in on the action in the climax, for instance), or you might save a sub-plot resolution for the last chapter…a tactic that works well for secondary mysteries or romantic subplots.

Denouement: This is the conclusion of the story, where a degree of normality is returned to the hero. The knots you tied through the novel are untied, and everyone who survived and can breathe a sigh of relief for having survived. Usually this doesn’t take more than a chapter…at least it rarely has for me (I can only think of one example where I had two chapters of denouement…but your mileage may vary.)

Moving Beyond the Spine

Once you have the spine, you can begin hanging some meat on the bones. For me, this is a chapter-by-chapter outline which does me much more good than the spine in the long run. With the spine in mind and the conclusion strongly in mind to act as an anchor, I outline the entire novel by chapter. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it’s a nightmare.

The advantage is, once it’s done, you can spot and plug the holes in your novel. An added bonus is that it makes it easier to project the length of the novel, and it sets short-term goals. Sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a novel,” can be overwhelming. Sitting down and tackling a chapter, however, has the perception of being much more manageable.

You are going to be the best judge of how long your chapters should be. I’ve read novels with chapters only a page or two long. I’ve read some that go on forever. For reference, mine average about 10 pages a chapter, with 20-30 chapters per book. Every Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novel ever written is exactly 20 chapters.

Writing down the outline can be as easy as popping into a numbered format on the word processor, then doing one paragraph per chapter. With the climax giving you direction, play a game of “What next.” Your hero starts off, start throwing plot elements at him. How does he react? What happens as a result of that? What else is going on, happening parallel to your hero’s journey that needs to be explained?

If you find yourself getting stuck, try working backwards from the climax. What do you have to set up to get there? What sets THAT up?

Also, look at your support characters and sub-plots. Do any of them need their own chapter? Admittedly, it can be jarring if the entire novel is from one perspective only to shift for one chapter or half a chapter over halfway through, but handled well, it gives the readers a perspective that they haven’t seen before. If that character needs another chapter later on, maybe they deserve one earlier in the narrative as well. At which point you’ve added two chapters instead of one, so, hooray word count!

A final suggestion for filling in chapters, especially in novels with action sequences: think about set pieces. By now you’ve probably thought about some of the conflicts and challenges your hero is going to face on their way to the climax. Think about WHERE that happens, and bring the environment into the equation. Sometimes, that consideration not only ads some extra pages to your novel, it also ads a memorable sequence that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Was the speeder-bike chase central to Return of the Jedi? Not even remotely. Was it a hell of a lot of fun? Undoubtedly. In Buena Rosa, I knew I wanted a sequence of Gato on his cycle, because it’s kind of central to his identity. So I engineered a chase through the shantytown, which had been foreshadowed when Manuel went to the shantytown the first time.

Finally, take a step back and look at the chapter outline. Does it all make sense? Does the timeline work? Are there any gaps? Try to look at it as objectively as possible. By now, hopefully, you’re starting to get a feel for the story, and it’s easy to overlook things that you have in your head for the story that aren’t down there on the paper. Make sure that you have what you need in that outline to get all the things in your head…not dialogue and such, but scenes, important actions, etc.

Look at the outline. Does everything fit or do chapters need to be moved around? This is particularly in complicated novels with several points of view, numerous flashbacks, or other literary tricks. You’re not married to where those chapters are. You’re always free to shuffle them around. Doing the chapter outline on index cards makes this incredibly easy…so much so that if I’m doing a novel with that kind of structure, I’ll start with the index cards. In that case, it’s one card per chapter. I color code key sequences (like flashbacks, if I have a lot of them, or action sequences) to help spread them out better for pacing.

Also, and maybe most importantly, don’t ever feel that you’re bound to the outline like some Satanic blood-pact. If you have a better idea mid-way though, change stuff. But when that happens, I suggest that you notate the outline not just at that point, but anywhere those changes touch other story elements to avoid problems later.

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