How To Write A Good Novel – Outline & Structure

Writing instruction and courses

Knowing how to write a good novel brings into play a balanced combination of creativity and structure. The first is inspirational, while the latter hints at craftsmanship.

All structures need to be build on solid foundations and the outline for a novel is no different – if they are wobbly, your readers will feel it and the story will suffer for it.

New Writers, Like Fools, Rush In

Like many aspiring authors, I wrote my first story by the seat of my pants, feeling sure that all would come together as the manuscript progressed. Although I did actually finish (and publish) the novel, it was painfully obvious to me and my readers that it wasn’t as good as it could be. The plot, prose, dialogue and characterizations were decent, but there were structural issues that reduced its impact. It just didn’t sparkle.

As authors, we need to ask ourselves important questions before we put pen to paper, or fingertips to the keyboard. The first important question is about understanding what the reader wants from your novel. I’ll give you a clue – it has nothing to do with the technicalities of writing plot, subplots, setting, dialogue or any of the other important element that make up a great read.

What Happens Next In The Story?

What Happens Next?If the reader is to finish the book then its vital that he always wants to know what happens next. It’s the core of every novel and a huge part of the writing process is to make sure that the reader does on thing – have a burning desire to know what happens to the main characters of the story and keep turning those pages!

I can’t emphasize how important this point is. Without this need to know, your book will not be read at all and a year of your blood, sweat and commitment will have been wasted. Planning an outline and building a strong structure reduces this possibility drastically.

In the video below a well-known author, John Grisham, describes his writing process:

https://youtu.be/q2XKhWRnR9A

Video Transcript:

I normally start writing a novel on January the 1st of each year, that’s kind of my ritual, with the goal of finishing the book in six months, and being done in July. And that’s been the schedule for the past probably 10 or 15 years.

When I’m writing, which is usually that time of the year, I get a lot of writing done in January, February and March, for obvious reasons — it’s a good time to write. When I’m writing it’s five days a week I start around seven each morning in my office. The routine rarely varies — it’s pretty structured. It’s the same spot, the same computer.

So the office is a separate building with no phones, faxes or Internet, because I don’t want the distraction, and I don’t work online, I keep it offline. It’s the same cup of coffee, the same type of coffee, the same everything.

And the hours between seven and ten are, you know, that’s the best time of the day for me, it’s very productive. On a good day I’ll write probably 2,000 words, a slow day is probably 1,000. There aren’t many slow days, because by the time I start a book I have a very good idea of where it’s going.

I don’t start a book — I don’t write the first scene until I know the last scene. And that’s a rule I’ve kept for 25 years. I just don’t start something unless I know where it’s gonna go. So once I do start it, there aren’t many down days.”

Story Structure Definition

Creative Writing - Beginning Your NovelSeveral story structure elements need to be in place when writing your masterpiece, and building an outline or template is the best way to ensure that everything is in place. Not only that, but in the right place! The basic building blocks are found in the principles of the Story Arc and Character Arc. Don’t worry – both concepts will be covered in later posts, but suffice to say that the process tends to grow from the broader ideas to the more detailed.

Some basic elements of a great novel outline are:

Genre – define the type of story you are presenting. For example, Romance, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Cowboy, Horror among many others. Each main category can be split into sub-categories and also combined with others to create split-genres.

Theme – every story has a message, whether in written or movie format. Examples might be ‘Is it better to be rich or to have friends?’ or ‘Can love conquer all?’

Setting – define the period and the location. Example: 19th Century, Vienna.

Narrative Style – who is telling the story?

Story Arc – this timeline notes the events that bring increasing conflict and tension to the hero, and also the conclusion.

Character Arcs – main characters are complex and three-dimensional. The events in the story impact and change their ideas and outlook. These changes are essential if the characters are to succeed in their quest. These changes are collectively described as the Character Arc.

Backstory – the early part of a novel that describes the lives and situations of the main characters. It sets the scene of normality before an event arrives that changes everything.

Plot – the sequence of interrelated events defined by the author to tell the story.

Characters – normally one, or a few, main complex main characters and any number of passing support characters.

Dialogue – designed to tell the story and drive it forward.

Prose – the result of writing simply and conversationally, expressing description and meaning effectively but adhering to (mostly) universally accepted rules of grammar and syntax.

Not Convinced? The Purpose Of Planning

Planning A Book

The biggest take-away and advantage from all the hard work that goes into writing a novel outline can be summarized like this:

  1. The template can be used as a planning tool, or a road-map to clearly show the writer where he or she is going. If the destination is clearly in sight, together with diversions and side-roads, then it will be so much easier to steer the story.
  2. The planning phase becomes more detailed as it progresses, exploring the plot and the characters in greater depth. By the end of the process, which doesn’t really have an end until the novel is complete, you will know your story and everything in it intimately.

Editing Your Manuscript

When your novel manuscript is finished, then the arduous task of editing begins. If, like me, you can’t afford the services of a professional, then its necessary to learn how to do it properly. Self-editing is the only option left to you. The process happens on different levels and each step has a purpose.

As you might guess, it involves a bit more than just spell-checking and correcting simple errors in grammar. Later posts on this site will explore each level and provide a good grounding in the requirements.

Publishing – The Final Step!

Finish the book

Publishing your novel is the crowning glory of all your hard work, which on average takes anywhere between six months to a year to write, and three months to edit. This time may be extended if the editing process reveals serious structural problems, in which case a partial re-write would be required. You have to be dedicated to the craft and really want that book to see the light of day.

In the past, when the traditional publishing process was all that there was, this was indeed a painful experience. Authors could wait for months for a simple rejection slip, perhaps with no notes for manuscript improvement. Luckily, the emergence of the inernet and platforms like Amazon have changed all that. Self-publishing is simple and best of all, free!

In the next post I’ll be looking at the Story Arc.

 

Novel structure and planning

 

How to write a novel in 20 steps – Caitlin from Ink and Quills:

https://youtu.be/qaDUt6ZL0vM

Video Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Caitlin from ink & quills and today I’m going to be walking you through my step-by-step process for writing a novel. So – if you’re new to writing you might be confused about how to go about writing your first novel, or maybe you just have no idea where you should even begin

Maybe you’ve gotten started but things aren’t going quite as smoothly as you’d hoped. The thing is, since you’ve never written a novel before, you don’t know what this process looks. Like you know what the end result looks like because you’ve read lots of published books, but you don’t know how to get there yourself.

How are you supposed to learn to do something if you’ve never seen an example of how it’s done? It’s like being handed a bunch of ingredients and being told to bake a cake without the recipe. That’s why I want to take you behind the scenes into the creative process of writing a story.

One of the best ways to learn how to do something you’ve never done before is by seeing an example. You probably know the ingredients you need for your story, like plot, character and setting, but you also need to know the process used to combine all these ingredients into a story.

Today I’m going to show you my personal writing process which I’ve developed over years of trial and error, but I want you to keep in mind that each writer has their own process and methods that work best for them so feel free to tweak this outline to fit your personal preferences.

I’ve also created a free checklist for this process and I’ll include a download link for that below the video. All right, so let’s get started. The first thing we need to do before we can start writing is to find an idea for our story. Personally, I draw a lot of inspiration from history and mythology, but one of the best ways to come up with an idea is to just let yourself daydream, and ask questions let your imagination have some fun.

One of my favorite questions to ask is ‘what if’ because it creates so many possibilities. For example, what if Hitler had won World War two, or what if we discovered life on Mars, or what if we began cloning humans in the future? Asking ‘what if’ questions like these creates interesting scenarios that you can then build a story around.

Once you have an idea that you like, and you’re excited about, it’s time to start expanding on it. This means thinking about your setting and time period, who your characters might be and what might happen in the plot. Now at this stage you’re not developing your plot and characters in depth.

You’re just exploring and gathering ideas, and you might also end up discarding or changing a lot of these ideas down the road. These are all tentative details that you’re considering for your story. I also want to mention that brainstorming is something that I actually do throughout the entire writing process.

I’m constantly collecting and layering ideas as I develop the story. Your story really is something that’s in a constant state of evolution, so allow yourself the creative flexibility to change your mind and explore new ideas throughout the writing process. After you do some brainstorming, the setting, time period and genre of your story should start to become more clear, but you might want to ask yourself if changing any of these details could make your story more interesting, or help it stand out more.

So for example, what if you changed your setting to Japan instead of America? Or how about setting your story in the 18th century instead of the 21st? Or what if you turned it into a fantasy instead of historical fiction? Consider different options before you make your final decision.

Now before you get too far, you’re going to want to figure out just who it is you’re writing for. Is this story for adults, teens, children? Do you want to appeal to a certain demographic, like military families, or single moms? Your audience is going to affect how you approach the story, so it’s good to know who they are before you start writing.

When you have a specific audience in mind it also helps you feel like you’re writing for someone and not just writing into the void, hoping someone out there somewhere might be interested in your story. This is also going to help make your book easier to market which will make you more appealing to agents and publishers.

So in short, it’s easier to write a story for an audience rather than trying to find an audience for your story. So now that you have some basics taken care of it’s time to start going into more depth. This is where you’ll start getting to know your main characters your villain and your secondary characters.

Start thinking about who these people are, what they’re like, what happened in their past and, most importantly, what they want. You need to figure out the goals of both your hero and your villain. Your hero’s goal is basically the focus of the story, and the villain’s goal creates opposition and conflict.

So for example, in the Lord of the Rings Frodo’s goal is to destroy the One Ring while Sauron’s goal is to steal it back. Once you know what your hero wants and what’s standing in his way, it makes it a lot easier to start outlining your novel. But before you start outlining, you need to decide on your story’s point of view.

Are you going to tell this story in first person or third person? Will you follow one character or split the story up between the points of view of two or three characters? Ask yourself what will work best to tell this story. Now you don’t have to decide right away and you can always change your mind later, but it’s definitely something that you want to be considering as you work on developing your characters and plot.

Once you’ve figured out the goal of your hero and villain, you can start outlining your plot. Basically, a story is all about the journey a hero goes on to achieve a goal, so without one it’s going to be really hard to plot your story. The beginning of a story introduces the hero and their goal.

The middle is filled with the obstacles the hero faces as he tries to achieve that goal, and the end reveals whether or not the hero succeeds or fails. Personally, I prefer to plan out my plot in as much detail as possible before I start writing, but this doesn’t mean that everything in our outline is set in stone.

As I continue to develop my story, and even after I’ve begun writing, I might decide to change things. Sometimes, I’ll find an idea that works better than something in my original outline, or I might discover that what I had originally planned won’t work, or that there’s a plot hole. Basically, I don’t want you to get hung up on getting your plot outline perfect.

Think of your outline like a rough draft and stay flexible. Like I said before, I always view story as something that’s constantly evolving throughout the writing process, until I have a final draft I’m happy with. So now that you know more about your plot and characters, and can see what shape the story is beginning to take, it’s a good idea to start doing some market research.

This means researching if there are any books already out there that might be similar to your story. So for example, if you’re writing a Cinderella re-telling, you’ll want to look at other authors who have done the same. Or if you’re writing a steampunk story, you’ll want to look into other steampunk books.

First, you want to read some of these books, so you can see what’s already been done, so you can avoid cliches or similarities. This will help you write a story that stands out, even if there are similar ones out there.

Second you want to read the reviews of these books and take note of what the readers liked and didn’t like. That way you can avoid any mistakes the author might have made. Once you’ve finished your research, you’ll need to look back over your plot outline and possibly make some changes based on what you’ve learned.

So for example, if you find that stuff several of the Cinderella re-tellings you read follow the same basic story-line, you might want to add a plot twist or two to yours, to help it stand out. Next you’ll need to start developing your setting. Think about the key locations where the story will take place and flush them out with details to make them feel real and interesting.

So for example in the Harry Potter series you have lots of memorable settings like Hogwarts,and platform 9 and 3/4. If you’re writing a fantasy story you’ll need to build a believable world from scratch and if you’re writing a story set somewhere you’ve never been ordering historical time period you’ll need to do research.

Even though for fantasy you make most things up, you still might need to do some research on things you’re not familiar with, like swords and bows, or castle life. This is also the point in the writing process where I start researching anything else I might need to know about, like police procedures, mountain climbing, the Italian mafia or whatever else might play a role in my story.

Once you’ve finished developing your setting and doing all your research, you might need to tweak your plot outline again. I found that when I start diving into my story’s world I usually end up getting more ideas which I then add into the outline. Sometimes
my research will make me realize that what I had originally planned isn’t going to work so we’ll need to make changes to the outline.

One last thing you need to do before you start writing is to decide on a theme for your story. Some writers might do this at the beginning stages of the writing process but for me it’s easier to weave in a theme once I’m more familiar with my plot and characters. I like to look at the conflicts in my story, whether it’s a conflict between characters, an internal conflict within the hero, or conflict within the society and then see what themes are might be able to draw from there.

A theme is basically like a theory you set out to prove or disprove with your story. It adds more depth of meaning and it’s shown through the actions of the characters in the plot. A theme usually explores or reveals something about the human experience. Think about what you might want to say about humanity in your story and how you could say it through your characters, then adjust your plot outline to show your theme.

After doing all that prep work you’re finally ready to actually start writing your story. I know it might be tempting to just skip ahead to this step, but trust me writing your first draft is so much easier and goes so much faster, and you’ve got all of those details taken care of. You know where you’re going.

When you write your rough draft, you want to focus on getting the story out of your head onto the page so you can mold it into something beautiful later. Give yourself permission to write crap but don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s easy to feel like a crappy writer when you’re writing crap, but you have to remember that the first draft is supposed to be terrible.

After you’ve gotten your story laid out on the page you can start editing and working some magic. In your second draft, you’ll want to focus on fixing any major issues, like plot holes, details that need more research, or scenes that may need to be altered or rearranged. Once you’ve got all that hammered out, you can then focus on smaller details, like dialogue, character descriptions and more choice.

In your additional drafts, you’ll probably end up with at least three drafts, and my average is usually three or four, but it’s not uncommon for a writer to have more. It all depends on how many drafts it takes to get a story you’re happy with, and feel good about.

After you’ve finished editing, it’s a good idea to let someone else read your story before you release it into the world. Preferably somebody beside your mom. I highly recommend asking other writers to read your story and give you feedback, even though it can be terrifying. I know I was nervous about letting my beta readers read my story, but the feedback I received was so valuable.

Beta readers can help you point out your story strengths and weaknesses, which means you’ll end up with an even better story than what you originally started with. Addressing any issues early on is going to help you increase your chances of getting published and also raise the odds of readers enjoying your book.

Once you’ve finished revising your final draft with your beta readers feedback, it’s time to begin the publication process. If you want to be published traditionally, this means looking for literary agents and sending out query letters or if you decide to self publish you’ll need to look into a publication platform like Amazon’s Kindle direct publishing.

For self-publishing you’ll also need a hire an editor and cover designer format your book for print and create a marketing plan and that’s it. Once your book is in your reader’s hands there’s nothing left to do except sit back and catch your breath.

As you can see, there’s a lot of work involved with writing a story. This entire process can take anywhere from months to years. It might seem overwhelming at first but I promise the more books you write and the more familiar you become with how this all works, the easier it becomes.

It may still take forever but you do get better at it, and if you have the driving passion for writing that I think you do, you won’t be able to stop yourself from doing it over and over again. Don’t forget to grab your free checklist of this process and the link below the video and also if you would like a more in-depth look into what goes into a story like plot, and character, and how a story works, I have a free ebook to help you with that as well.

It’s called ‘Writing 101’ and it includes over 100 pages of information and exercises to help new writers master the basics of writing a novel if you’d like to download a free copy of the ebook just click link below the video thank you so much for watching and good luck with planning your first novel.

They have their own objectives. They have their own dreams they have their own ambitions, their own needs. They’re just trying to be for themselves and what they’re doing and everything that pushes the plot to its conclusion is the dynamics that will create very convincing characters.

Again, working with your story outside of just writing it. If you can, have a piece of paper and draw lines marking out when and in the story certain important things happen with each plot.

When exactly the conclusion happens. What is the transformation at the beginning of each plot? What is the status quo and at the end what has changed? How is it how are things no longer what they were before?

Caitlin Ink and Quills PDF Download

19 Replies to “How To Write A Good Novel – Outline & Structure”

  1. This is just what I needed! I’m writing a fantasy novel and it just seemed flat and 2 dimensional. I will definitely be coming back and referring to this article as it’s just what I need as I do my rewrite.

    Do you think a solution is possible without a love interest?

    Thank you so much and take care,

    Anne

    1. Hi Anne – the wonderful thing is that there are so many solutions possible, that there isn’t a wrong and a right way to do it. That said, the market for novels and movies shows that a love interest is a powerful element in a story. For example, it’s often used to provide danger, help with a quest or mission, as well as a companion to bounce ideas off. If you check out some popular novels, you’ll find that a love interest is often key in proving at least part of the solution towards the climax.

      Thanks for your kind comment and good luck with the rewrite. I’m also doing this with my first book, and it ain’t easy!

      Derek

  2. I only wish I had the talent to write a fiction novel (or even a novella). I have such great respect for people who can do this because as your post points out, there are many factors involved.
    Yes, I would imagine it takes a great deal of planning, organization and structure. And then, sometimes, I know that even the best intended stories end up taking a different turn or just don’t sound right, so it’s back to the drawing board. And editing an article has its challenges, so I can only figure a story is a feat in itself.
    I’ll keep this bookmarked in case I ever decide to give fiction a try. For now, I enjoy reading it. But one day…

    1. Even though I’d read starting to write a novel is a daunting endeavor, I didn’t realize exactly what that meant until I started. I planned the work space and time meticulously, but encountered problems I hadn’t previously expected – like staring at a blank page for thirty minutes, or getting trapped in a subplot that goes no-where! Add to this characters that stubbornly remain, a plot that is too contrived and despair is knocking at the door.

      And another thing – writing a book is a long haul. I read somewhere that the biggest challenge of all is just finishing it! My advice is, plan it to death before even putting pen to paper, know your characters right down to the color of their socks, and if you’re blocked, write anything and clean it up later.

  3. Hi there
    Being able to creatively express myself by writing in a fluid effortless way is something I’d like to learn more of.
    As I’ve just started a website I struggle with writing content well.
    This great lesson explaining narrative point of view is a good start.
    Thanks for your clear and understandable article.

  4. As a writer and an editor, I can’t stress the importance of creating an outline for any piece of writing, whether a relatively short paper and especially a novel. Good ideas may come out of the blue, but great writing is fostered through intentional planning.

    1. Hi Lauren,

      I found to my cost that there’s no substitute for having a thorough and complete outline in place before beginning to write. I published a book before understanding this and, while it was OK, with decent prose, the structure didn’t follow the time-tested story-telling rules. The end result was that readers tended to abandon it before reaching the end – it just didn’t get them to turn those pages and see what was going to happen. You learn how to write a good novel by learning to organize all the elements required. Flying by the seat of your pants might work, but mostly it doesn’t!

  5. H. Erin Nelson says:

    Hi Derek! This is a great “how to” article! I’m also a published author—of a children’s series called Bibletoons, and found some great hints here. It was also a brush up on things learned in the past. I have several inspirational works in line to be published outside of children’s stories, and reading this has really helped me! I recently took a writing course at Liberty University with Karen Kingsbury. She pointed out similar things as you did, like writing content that will give the reader a burning desire to keep turning the pages! I wish you continued success on your upcoming publications!

    1. Derek Bruce says:

      Cheers Erin! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m firmly of the opinion that even published authors benefit from taking courses and workshops. As you say, it’s good to brush up on the basics. I read an article about a new writer who won a session with an international author & critic. She thought that her style, grammar and structure would be under the spotlight, but all the guru wanted to know was ‘what happens next?’ 

      It’s a lesson to us all. There’s no right and wrong way to do it, but if we can get readers to avidly turn those pages, we have a success! I’ll check out your series – take it easy!

  6. Yes I agree, planning makes it easier to get everything together. I was a young teenager when I was trying to write my first book, I ended up having a good story but no flow.

    1. I remember reading somewhere that you shouldn’t worry if your first draft is crap – you don’t learn how to write a good novel overnight. As it happens, my first draft and the subsequent book was quote crappy. The prose was good, the story was intriguing, but lack of story structure killed it. I learned my lesson!

  7. Hi Jim, wow I am so glad to have “bumped” into your post – I have written a book many years ago, and it has as yet to see the light of day!
    I know now that with Amazon it is free to publish and they make your life so much easier.
    The one thing I have been stuck on “forever” is the editing. I tried to self-edit – alas…each time I found myself adding and correcting and changing things – I need a pair of unbiased eyes to look at it!
    I have just this week (serendipity?) met a lady that might be able to help me out on my small budget – and having bumped-read your article excites me to believe I am on the road to FINALLY publish this story! 20 years in the waiting!
    All the best – Orion

    1. Editing your own work really is a tough call Orion. Even if we are competent (and it’s a real discipline to do it properly), the author is just too close to the manuscript to be objective enough. A new author can expect to lose about 15% of the manuscript content during the process, which is hard to accept. However, the deletions are intended to radically improve the readability of the prose, not to mention the overall structure, depending on how deep the editor’s knife cuts.

  8. Guillaume Ferrier says:

    You know this is a sore point with me (I left a comment on your What Are Subplots post). What I want to know is, are you just churning this formulaic stuff out for the sake of the blog, or do you believe it’s best way to write a good novel?

    1. Yes, as I replied to your previous comment under the ‘What are subplots?’ post, it’s not only me, but the huge majority of pro writers as well. Take it for a ride, and see how you go. Best wishes, Derek

  9. James Berry says:

    Absolutely necessary in my book (no pun intended!) I’m writing a story at the moment with a lot of characters and subplots. Without planning and notes about the vast structure, it would be downright impossible.

    I’m moving away from using notes to a more visual style of planning, kind of expanded three act structure that we see touted for novel writers, with bags of space for sticky notes and anything at all. I took a leaf from Blake Snyder’s book and have a cork board. even when not writing, it’s so easy to place a note with an idea, a piece of dialogue or a magical twist; the trick is to weave the story on a structured way without it seeming ‘structured’;

  10. Jenny Squires says:

    Very careful not to get into the ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to writing, but I do like this post. We need some structure planned before writing a novel manuscript, it just makes sense. Don’t see how you can write a novel without knowing where you’re going, like a road-map, as you said. Thanks.

  11. Robert Heisling says:

    I like the last video transcript about the 20 steps to planning a novel; how to write a good novel – it’s not slick and reflects the actual process, i think. Although we read again and again about this rigid novel structure, it actually very fluid and can be changed whenever you like. That’s the beauty of it – we’re the creators, so we can change the plot, subplots or characters however we like.

    1. Like what you said about ‘We’re the creators’ – thanks a lot.

Comments are closed.