How to Outline a Novel for NaNoWriMo 2015

Before I start, I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not the only way to outline a story, nor is it a guaranteed formula for success. I don’t believe there are formulas for success. However, it is my hope that this will help someone, as these methods and techniques have helped me over the years.

Anyone who has been writing for a while knows there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters figure out what’s going to happen in their story before they ever start writing it. Pantsers sit down and write with no idea what comes next. If you’re a plotter, or curious about the outline process, NaNoWriMo may be the perfect time to exercise your outlining skills.

Why does outlining make a difference? Because it is always easier to identify and fix problems with a story before you write the script. One technique I’ve shared with the writers I’ve worked with is to take your initial idea and break it apart so that it fits the following model:

A PROTAGONIST lives in an ORDINARY WORLD. Then, the INCITING INCIDENT happens and EVERYTHING CHANGES. The protagonist enters a NEW WORLD and tries to attain a GOAL (such as returning to the ordinary world) but fails because of the efforts of an ANTAGONIST FORCE. The protagonist must overcome a SERIES OF OBSTACLES with which may result in limited progress but also results in setbacks. Finally, at the CLIMAX, the goal is reached. Upon reaching the goal, the protagonist discovers the END WORLD.

The model above is based on the 3-Act structure, which itself is a source of debate among the writing community. Many writers see the 3-Act structure as dated and formulaic, some even think it’s so general and vague that it serves no purpose. However, for the sake of this blog post, we’re going to set up a 3-Act outline that’s heavily influenced by The Hero’s Journey model popularized by Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey.

As it happens, NaNoWriMo is perfect for working with a 3-Act Structure. Why? Because, despite the name, the 3-Act Structure can effectively be used to divide your story into 4 semi-equal parts:

Act One (roughly 25%): Beginning of story.
Act Two (roughly 50%): Middle of story.
Act Three (roughly 25%): Climax and ending of story.

How is this four parts? Because we’re going to divide Act Two in half at the mid-point of the story. Now, instead of a second act that takes up half the story, you have a midpoint that effectively divides the second act, creating four distinct “chunks” of story:

Act One (roughly 25%): Beginning of story.
Act Two-A (roughly 25%): Rising action.
Act Two-B (roughly 25%): Continued rising action.
Act Three (roughly 25%): Climax and ending of story.

See what we did? We took the classic 3-Act Structure and essentially created 4 equal parts. That means you can effectively devote one week of NaNoWriMo to each section of story.

Okay, great. Now what?

If you read my previous post on writing a novel in 30 days, you may remember my non-outline outline:

• Opening image — The first impression readers get from your story.
• Inciting incident — This is the moment where the story kicks into gear.
• The mid-point crisis — I always try to create a crisis around halfway through the story.
• Stair step to climax 1 — After the midpoint, I try to plot three twists leading to climax.
• Stair step to climax 2 — Each stair step represents a problem, obstacle, or challenge to overcome.
• Stair step to climax 3 — Each stair step challenge ends in failure, raising the stakes for the protagonist.
• Climax — This is the BIG BANG of the story. It’s what everything is building toward.
• Resolution — I try to keep this as short as possible. You want readers to have enough of a wrap-up after the climax so that they walk away satisfied, but not so much that they end up bored.
• Closing image — the last thing the reader “sees” before the very end.

What we’re going to do now is combine these lists to create a skeleton outline:

Act One: Opening Image: Inciting Incident:
Act Two A:
Mid-Point Crisis:
Act Two B: Stair step 1: Stair step 2: Stair step 3:
Act Three: Climax: Resolution: Closing Image:

See the outline starting to take shape? There are still some gaps, particularly with Act Two A, but that’s okay for now.

Diving Deep into the 4-Part Three-Act Structure

Let’s look at what each part of the outline represents in the world of your story.

Act One — This is the foundation of your story. Act One has many, many things to accomplish. The first thing you want to create is a memorable opening image. One of the moment memorable opening images I can recall was a novel that opened with its hero, an ex-special forces officer, tied spread-eagle to a motel bed with no idea how he got there or even who he was (confession — I read this book so long ago I can’t remember anything else about the book or even the title, but that opening image has stuck with me all these years).

Act One is where you establish the world of your story and it’s characters. For many writers, this is the fun part — the world building. Here, you must establish the rules of the ordinary world. Establishing the rules of the world is something that every sci-fi and fantasy writer instinctively knows they must do. However, even if the ordinary world is intended to reflect the mundane, everyday world that the writer and his or her intended audience inhabits, the writer still must establish the rules for this world.

What does it mean to establish rules? If you’ve ever seen The Lego Movie, you’ve seen a masterful example of establishing rules. The audience follows the main character, Emmet, from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to work. In this sequence, we see the somewhat dystopian world in which Emmet exists. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, we are eased into the rules of the story through the eyes of the narrator, an outsider named Nick who is befriended by the enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby. In essence, we learn the rules of the ordinary world as Nick learns them. Quite simply, establishing the rules of the ordinary world is a process through which the writer develops the setting of the story. The audience needs to know what the protagonist can and cannot do within the confines of these rules.

Remember that, generally, audiences identify with the first character they spend significant time with. Not every story starts out by introducing the protagonist, but understanding this tendency can help you create a bond between the audience and the character that will intrigue them enough to develop an emotional connection to the character that will compel them to stay with the story until the end.

Many writers I work with tend to overwrite Act One. For novelists, overwriting Act One doesn’t have the same kind of consequences as it does in screenwriting, where there are some serious (and necessary) space restraints. However, too much first act can cause a reader to get bored because they’ll get the sense that nothing’s happening.

There’s a rule of thumb in screenwriting to start every scene as late in the sequence of events as possible and to end the scene as quickly in the sequence as possible. In other words, don’t write things that aren’t absolutely important. As Jerome Stern said in his book, Making Shapely Fiction, you don’t start a story of a mountain climber with the moment when he first becomes interested in climbing mountains, you start with your mountain climber hanging off the edge of a cliff.

Inciting Incident — This is the specific place where the story kicks into gear. This is the thing that changes everything. In the movie Back to the Future, this is the moment when Marty McFly gets the Delorean time machine up to 88 miles per hour and finds himself 30 years in the past, with no way to get back to the present.

The inciting incident needs to be something significant, substantial, and irreversible. The inciting incident changes the ordinary world into a new world, even if that new world exists ONLY for the protagonist.

In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the inciting incident would be the moment when the shut-in and oppressed Eleanor steals her mother’s car and drives to the country to take part in a sleep study at Hill House. In The Hunger Games, this would be the moment when Katniss volunteers to be tribute in place of her sister.

The new world, as viewed by the protagonist, is uncomfortable. Even if every other character in the story is content with this world. Even if every other character in the story views the protagonist’s new world as their ordinary world. Alternatively, the new world may be extremely comfortable for the protagonist — if so, then there must be forces at work threatening to take that new world, and its comfort, away from the protagonist. These forces represent the antagonist force.

The antagonist force may be a person or it may be a confluence of circumstance. In the movie Casablanca, it was the encroachment of the Nazi military regime rather than any one single character that doomed Rick and Elsa’s romance in Paris. Likewise, in The Hunger Games, it is the totalitarian government and the society it created that threatens Katnis more than any single character. Usually, when the antagonist force is a system or ideology, there will be a single character through which the protagonist force acts–much as Darth Vader represented the Dark Side of the force throughout Star Wars episodes 4, 5, and 6, this antagonist character should be a spokesperson for the greater antagonist force at work, giving that force a mouthpiece through which to speak and “hands and feet” through which to take actionable steps. This antagonist character is not absolutely necessary, but it helps the audience by giving them a focal point for their negative emotional energies throughout the story.

Act Two — This is where the protagonist identifies a goal and starts working toward it. In The Hunger Games, this is where Katniss decides she must win the games in order to survive. In Back to the Future, this is where Marty must figure out a way to get back to his own time from the 1950s.

The goal here may or may not change at some point in the story. Countless love stories have been told where the goal at the beginning of Act Two is for one character to have sex with another character, only for that goal to change by the end of the movie into the more noble goal of winning the other character’s heart instead of their body.

The important thing at this point is that the character has a goal, however significant or insignificant that goal may be.

Act Two A is also where you will introduce any B-stories, and this is the point at which the new world can be explored and exploited for storytelling fun. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder called this the “fun and games” part of a story, where the audience gets what the title promises.

Mid-Point Crisis — This is where many writing gurus call for a reversal of fortune. For instance, if the protagonist struggles through the first half of Act Two, this is the point where those struggles turn around and the protagonist starts to settle in to the new world and see the scope of the new world in a bigger way.

In John Grisham’s The Firm, the first part of Act Two was where Mitch enjoyed the riches of his new position at the law firm. However, sometime around the midway point of Act Two, Mitch began to realize that he would have to compromise his morals in order to continue working there. However, he knew too much for the firm to let him live. The midpoint crisis brings this dilemma into full focus.

It has been said that if the protagonist is rich during the first half of Act Two, then they should be poor through the second half of Act Two. The midpoint is where they lose their riches. If they’re struggling to attain power and success throughout the first half of Act Two, then they should attain that power and success in Act Two and the mid-point crisis should be the point at which their ascension is complete.

Act Two B — The second half of Act Two is where the protagonist is actively engaged in trying to defeat the antagonist force. This is where the momentum of the story is in full-swing. Here is where your protagonist will formulate a plan in order to defeat the antagonist force… and will suffer setbacks.

Stair step 1 — This would be the protagonist’s first attempt to defeat the antagonist force. This attempt will fail, typically because the protagonist underestimates the power of the antagonist force. This could also be where the B-story interjects with the main story, and forces beyond the protagonist’s control–but not necessarily under the control of antagonist force–prevent the protagonist from succeeding. Often this failure is a direct result of character flaws within the protagonist, which forces the protagonist to be introspective.

Stair Step 2 — A second attempt to defeat the antagonist force. This attempt, too, will fail. Typically, this is a reactionary plan. If the first plan failed because of a character flaw, this is the protagonist’s attempt to prove that they don’t need to change themselves in order to defeat the antagonist force.

Stair Step 3 — This is the third and most desperate attempt to defeat the antagonist forces. By this point, the shape and scope of the climax should be clear. The audience should see the climax coming as an inevitable–preferably ominous–consequence of the story’s momentum. The protagonist, too, should be aware of the coming climax and this should be a desperate attempt to avoid that climax. At the point of this failure, the audience should be left with the assumption that all hope is gone. This should be the bleakest point possible.

Climax — The entire second half of the second act should have been building toward this moment. The climax should never come out of the blue, but foreshadowed throughout the story. The audience should accept the climax as a foregone conclusion, perhaps even looking forward to this as the moment when the protagonist receives comeuppance and the protagonist is vindicated, or perhaps dreading this as the protagonist’s ultimate downfall.

A good climax is a battle between protagonist and antagonist. It is the moment when the good guy stands alone against the bad guy. Or it’s the moment when the good guy outwits the massive antagonist force. Or its the moment when the protagonist finally decides that he or she cannot remain unchanged, that letting go of whatever they’re holding on to or sacrificing whatever it takes to rid themselves of the character flaw that has led to previous failures. Perhaps the character recognizes that they have already changed, and that whatever they’ve refused to change throughout the second half of the second act is now irrelevant.

In any case, much like the inciting incident, the climax should be a point of no return. The audience should understand that if the protagonist fails here, they might as well die. There’s no middle ground, no “soft solution”, no possibility of a win-win outcome between these two opposing forces. The climax is all-or-nothing, and after it is over, everything should once again be changed.

Resolution — Think of the resolution as a victory lap. This is where they victor gets the soils of their victory. If the protagonist wins, this is the moment where they get congratulated, celebrated, and rewarded. The guy gets the girl. Indiana Jones gets the Ark of the Covenant (and the girl). Marty McFly gets to revel in all the positive changes his trip back to 1955 resulted in after his return to 1985.

Closing Image — Just as the opening image should be memorable, the closing image should pack an emotional punch for the reader. Many writers recommend bringing the closing image full-circle with the opening image. I like to think of this as the treat at the end of the journey, the emotional thank you for going on the journey. This is the cliché cowboy saddling up and riding off into the sunset, the lovers kissing at a wedding altar, the swashbuckler getting ready for the next adventure–in a Nicholas Sparks novel, this would be where someone dies or some other tear-jerking conclusion.

Creating the Step Outline

Now that we’ve talked about the parts of the outline, let’s go back to the skeleton outline I posted earlier:

Act One: Establish the protagonist and their ordinary world. Opening Image: Give the reader something memorable. Inciting Incident: An event that changes everything for the protagonist.
Act Two A: The protagonist identifies a goal and works toward it. Also, B-story.
Mid-Point Crisis: A reversal of fortune, much like the inciting incident. Things change.
Act Two B: The protagonist rallies to overcome the antagonist force. Stair step 1: First attempt fails. Stair step 2: Second attempt fails. Stair step 3: Third attempt fails.
Act Three: Climax: The showdown between protagonist and antagonist. Resolution: The aftermath of this showdown. Closing Image: The candy that closes the story. Could come full-circle with opening image.

All you need to do now is map out a series of events for your story to follow that matches this structure. By creating a step-outline, you can make sure your story is balanced and follows a natural progression. You can also see if you have enough story material plotted to spend a week on Act One, a two weeks on Act Two, and a final week on Act Three.

Or, yanno, you can just sit down and write for the next 30 days. Whatever works best for you. I hope all of you finish your 50,000 words over the next 30 days and love every minute of the journey.

Happy writing!