Outlining a Novel V

Welcome to Part V of my little series on how I outline novels. I don’t claim this is the only way, or even the best way.

I first created a 1-sentence synopsis, 1 paragraph blurb, and 4 paragraph summary. I then created half-page to full-page bios of the main and secondary characters stated or suggested by the 4-paragraph summary. The bios provide me with all the ammunition I need to create an outline that makes full use of the characters’ quirks, goals and flaws. It is the clash of these conflicting goals and personalities that inspire much of the plot and character growth/change. By the end of the book (or book 3, in a trilogy), each character will face a twist and one side of their conflicted nature or the other will be fully realized (ideally).

In developing the outline, I estimate 24 chapters for a 80-100k novel. The process is the same for a trilogy, but lengthier. The final number will probably change as I discover the story while I write it, but it’s a good baseline.

The first 6 chapters introduce us to the protagonists and antagonists, clarify their initial goals, and frame their conflicts. During this segment the main character (MC) is driven by circumstances and the actions of others. He or she is in an inherently _reactive_ mode. At the end of chapter 6, roughly, the MC will shift gears and become _proactive_, beginning to drive the action, no longer content to be a victim.

Chapters 7-18 comprise the body of the novel. This is the move/counter-move segment in which most of the action occurs.

By the end of chapter 18 loose threads are converging, people are dying, characters are reconsidering their motives and changing as people in decisive ways. Chapters 19-24 are the _resolution_ phase, careening towards the final showdown between the MC and the primary antagonist.

I’m a fan of pinch points (Google it), which show the antagonist proving their strength and trying to regain the initiative. Pinch Points always represent a setback for the MC, beyond the normal end-of-scene setbacks. The classic example is when Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. Pinch Points occur roughly in chapter 9 or 10, and chapter 15 or 16. Often in my writing, the first Pinch Point will involve the MC defeating the first antagonist only to discover that they were not the primary nemesis after all, turning a tactical victory into a strategic setback. This isn’t universal, but I like the tension it creates so it’s a technique I use frequently.

As I create the outline, I designate each _scene_ as either Action or Reaction. Each Action Scene ends with a bang that causes the MC to suffer a setback of some sort whether physical, emotional or other. By the end of the subsequent Reaction scene, the MC sallies forth in a new direction, tries another approach, faces the next step of the quest, etc.

Each scene also has a Viewpoint character – all thoughts and emotions that get written out must only be this character’s! But, they can interpret events, actions, and body language of those around them to reveal the feelings or thoughts of those other people to the reader.

Also, each scene must have an Objective – the Viewpoint Character’s goal. This could be to rescue a prisoner, escape a trap, convince someone to become an ally, etc. It must also have an Obstacle, something internal or external that tries to prevent the Viewpoint Character from achieving their Objective. And finally, each scene must have an Outcome. In Action Scenes the Outcome can be a partial victory, but must always include a setback as well that leads into the following Reaction scene. In Reaction Scenes the outcome is a decision about what to do next – leading into the next Action Scene.

In the next segment I’ll show one possible Outline that uses the example summary I created previously.


4 thoughts on “Outlining a Novel V

  1. Jodi says:

    Jeremy, I have been struggling with a secondary main character, I am building up his character and I know what his purpose is, but until now I couldn’t give him a personality. You character outline saved me and my character. Thank you so much. I am a pantster and outlines make me feel like I am back in school and seem like work. But thanks to you my eyes have been opened. Although I don’t think you have completely converted me to outlining I do see the importance and will use your ideas to get me back on track. I also think your ideas will help me with my next books in the series. Thank you for making me a believer, well sorta!!

    1. Jeremy Menefee says:

      You’re very welcome! The character development I go through should help un-stump you, I hope. Also, I don’t always outline to this depth, though I usually do, which means most of the Outining Series will apply for pantsers as well as outliners. Even so, just getting as far as the 4-paragraph summary can be a great help to pantsers in terms of acting like a compass to keep you on track – you know where you’re going, but it’s still up to you as to how you get there. Glad I could help!

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