A Simple Novel Outline – 9 questions for 25 chapters

'Tree' photo (c) 2008, jrsnchzhrs - license: as every tree is different but still recognizably a tree, every story is different but contains elements that make it a story. By defining those before you begin you clarify the scope of your work, identify your themes, and create the story you meant to write.

At Norwescon 2011 I sat in on a session called Outline Your Novel in 90-minutes led by Mark Teppo. I’ll give you the brief, readable, synthesized version. Answer 9 questions and create 25 chapter titles and you’re there.

Here are the 9 questions to create a novel:

1.) Why did you choose this particular protagonist? (What’s so special that it HAD to be this person for this story?)

2.) What is the protagonist doing right now?  (Enter the story as late as possible, as Kurt Vonnegut said. Don’t start with the back story, you’ll filter that in later.)

3.) What external stressor is applied to the protagonist? (What outside force changes everything for the protagonist?)

4.) What is the protagonist’s goal? (You must be clear on this. Honest.)

5.) What are the obstacles along the way? (Some structures say there should be 3.  Remember, things must get worse after every obstacle.)

6.) What qualities of the protagonist helps or hinder him/her to overcome these obstacles (Your protagonist must operate at the best of their abilities, or the reader will call them idiot and bail. Are the obstacles truly hard enough to show your character’s best?)

7.) How will the protagonist change over the course of the story? (That is, after all, the story.)

8.) What are you trying to say? Why are you writing this particular story?

9.) What sacrifice levels the playing field? Remember, this journey is hard and the protagonist must demonstrate she/he is worthy to win. (Remember to show the protagonist’s reaction to the sacrifice. This is the moment of black despair– drag it out for all it is worth. Bigger the disaster, the longer you can extend it.)

Now, with those 9 questions answered to your satisfaction, try to fill in a 25 chapter, 75,000 word outline. Chapters 1-6 are the introduction to the world and characters. By chapter 5 the protagonists must have his goal (Q. 4). Chapter 5 is often the big obstacle.

Chapters 7-18 are the middle of your book. This is the fun, meaty goodness with your obstacles (Q. 5). Mark Teppo told us that if you get stuck while outlining, often around chapter 12, simply write “sex”. The chapter after that is, “things get worse.” and move on. He claims it really works. Let me know what you think.

Chapters 19-25 depict the heroic act to victory. Remember the sacrifice at chapter 23 (Q. 9) and to demonstrate the change the journey of the book has brought about in chapter 25 (Q. 7)

Wasn’t that easy?

Okay, sure, the work isn’t done yet. But the right questions are being asked.

Using the idea that there are 25 chapters, I outlined my current work in progress. I noted each chapter event and how things are worse at the end of the chapter. Rather than notecards on the floor, I stuck post-its on my wall so I could move two storylines around and see how they fit best together. My last book, Fractured Horizon, was a time-travel story and I learned a lot from it. Mostly I learned to keep a straight-forward timeline. This may look more like a tree than a book, but the shape of my final work is in there.

I hope that was helpful. I know it was for me. If not, perhaps you’d like to try the snowflake method. I found that method a bit cumbersome and never tried the software this website promotes. If you really don’t know where to start, make sure you’re familiar with the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Here it is as explained by Jordan Mccollum.

Tell me what works for you.

PlagueMater_EbookCover50percentThe first book in H.E. Roulo’s Plague Masters series is available at

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