A Simple Novel Outline – 9 questions for 25 chapters

'Tree' photo (c) 2008, jrsnchzhrs - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Just 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.
The first book in H.E. Roulo’s Plague Masters series is available at Amazon.com.

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58 thoughts on “A Simple Novel Outline – 9 questions for 25 chapters

  1. Great list of questions! I did not approach my first novel in this way, but I certainly will for my subsequent works. I love the idea of writing “sex” or “the shit hits the fan” or whatever in the middle when you aren’t sure what’s going to happen! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Really useful way to think about planning out a novel, which I’ve found works much better than the flying by the seat of your pants type writing. The Teppo tip is great 🙂

  3. Nice post — thanks! I use the Snowflake Method, and the software is great. One very cool advantage to it is that at the end of your book you don’t have to go back and figure out your synopsis for your editor/agent. You’ve already got it.

  4. A useful article. It does well to think of the story foundations. Great for visual thinkers!

  5. This was just wonderful. It was hands down the most helpful thing I, a very new writer, have found. It covers everything you need to really get your story rolling and then follows through! Thanks so much for sharing 😀

  6. It is helpful ^_____^ I dislike more structural advice like this, but I suppose I could use a little more structure in my writing, it’ll probably help me out in the end.

    I’m gonna try to plan my current work out like this, in 25 chapters, originally it was going to be about 17 or 18 (if I remember correctly). I’m actually rewriting it right now and I can answer most of those 9 questions, compared to the first version of it, where I could probably only answer half. Thankfully I’m still not very far into the rewriting phase, so I won’t have to change much if I find some fatal flaw in it all!

    Bookmarked and saved this onto notepad, and I’ll probably transfer it onto my ipod later. Thanks a lot!

  7. I love this list. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying to make my plot outline work for a new book and was just feeling stuck. After I spent some time with your questions last night everything is looking so much brighter! Thanks for sharing!

  8. I am more of a discover-as-I-write person, but this is brilliant for the inevitable full-scale rewrite. The meat of the plot is there already, and this will help to flesh it out. Thanks for sharing! I’m looking forward to trying this out. 🙂

  9. If writers like Twain, Hemmingway, Dickens or even Bronte had used the above approach I suspect they would never have published a single book. Talented writers don’t need a prescription to produce great works.

  10. Talent can only do so much, you also need to put in time and effort. Choosing any kind of scaffolding to begin a story idea can be enough to allow that talent to be expressed.

  11. This was awesome! I’ve never really had a clear understanding of how to go about creating a novel outline, and this article really broke it down perfectly for me. I have begun working on my book, but slowed down a bit because it was missing something to me. Now I know what that something was. Thanks for the helpful tips!

  12. Such a creative take on outlining—and a pleasant alternative to traditional variations, IMHO. 🙂 I’m not much of an outliner, but I do ponder questions about my story before and during the writing process. Jotting the Q & A down may be just the added ‘trick’ I need. Thanks!

  13. I’m just getting started writing. Currently I’m writing short stories for Yahoo Voices under my real name Barbara Walters,but I am looking ahead to writing my first novel. For now, the experience of writing short stories for on-line readers is great. This process certainly seems to apply to me in my endeavors as well. Thank you for sharing this.

  14. These really is a clear-headed receipe for “cooking up” a novel using the healthiest ingredients available. I particularly appreciate Question #6:

    “What qualities of the protagonist helps or hinder him/her to overcome these/their obstacles.”

    This is not only a great plot-building tip but also a bullet-proof characterization device allowing the writer to mold a well-rounded hero.

  15. I love this! It’s a nice way to take a different approach to building an outline!

    I’m an ML for NaNoWriMo, and I think something like this would be incredibly useful to other people participating. Provided I ensure full credit is given on every page, would I be allowed to print this out and give it to people who come to our regional write-ins please?

  16. Of course! I think NaNoWriMo is great and would love it if this helped folks.
    Mark Teppo is originator of these ideas and I’m sure he’d love to help out as well.

  17. Thanks for the advice. I didn’t write my first novel with any structure whatsoever, and it’s 39 chapters and a prologue, but, I’ll edit it with these questions in mind and use these guidelines a bit more for my next works, it probably would help tons! This made me think a whole lot, thanks!

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  19. First the post seem to be very instructive like it emphasis rules on number of chapters etc., but when I finished reading it, I felt I took a complete tour on constructing a book.

    Great stuff!

  20. I started out writing like this, but not anymore. I call this writing like a critic. You first determine what your story’s about and all its meanings and symbols, and then you try to bury them all again so it looks like your story’s not just an embellished cheat sheet, which is really what it is, rather than an organic whole.

    It produces overly contrived stories that have thin characters and only one meaning: the one you intended. And it’s how a critic approaches a story, teasing apart what moves what, and what everything “really” means. It’s a good way to analyze, but a bad way to create.

    Good stories flow organically, and in the best novels, often the author has no idea what it all means. He or she just knows it’s a compelling story and that it has depth and resonance.

    Let the readers interpret and analyze. You can’t reason your way to a good story.

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