My Absolute Best Tips for Outlining Your Novel & Creating a Story That Works

Whether you’re in this November or not, I have some amazing tips for you today all about story structure and outlining your next novel.

NaNoWriMo has snuck up on me once again.

I thought I had at least a week left to put something together, but nope! We are less than a week away from November 1st. I have lots of ideas on paper and in my head but nothing super concrete yet, so I am now in scrambling mode because I definitely want to take part.

November is one of my favorite parts of the year because of this 50,000 word challenge and how much progress I can make in just 30 days :)

But it's important you go in knowing what you're doing story-wise.

top Resources on Outlining & Story Structure

First, I want to share four favorite resources for story structure and outlining (thanks to my friend, Thomas, for pointing out an extra one!).

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Janice Hardy’s Blog Post: Parts is Parts

Find the blog post here: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2010/08/find-your-plot-fridays-parts-is-parts.html

This is my biggest go-to resource for outlining novels. In fact, I have it included in my personal Scrivener template. This blog post gives you an overview of story structure and all the things that need to happen in order for your story to work.

I always go back to this no matter what, and then I flesh out my outline into detailed beats from there.

If you’re a storytelling newbie, you should find this really helpful! This is one resource I wish I had when I was writing my first few books. I definitely just went with what felt right instead of making sure the story structure made sense.

While you can ignore all this story structure stuff, readers will pick up on it if it’s missing (even if they don’t know what it’s technically called), and they will leave one-star reviews to vent their frustrations.

If you’re more of a seasoned writer, this is still a good refresh on story structure that will only take a few minutes to read!

Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K

Check it out here: http://amzn.to/2iafssm

It’s been a while since I read this one (definitely need to go back and reread it), but it’s another great resource for outlining your story as well as writing really fast.

Another highly recommended book for writers.

Libbie Hawker’s Take Your Pants Off

Check it out here: http://amzn.to/2zVjv47

This is a quick but super insightful read on how story structure works.

My biggest aha moment came with how it explained character arcs. Just wow. So good. Another great resource for new or medium-level writers.

Monica Leonelle’s Nail Your Story

Check it out here: http://amzn.to/2zW41gg

This is more a deep dive into story structure and how to add tons of layers into your story that will make your readers go wild.

The first time I read this book, I had to put it aside because I was overwhelmed with all the information in it. When I went back to this book, I was more ready and learned a ton. I'd recommend this one for more seasoned writers.

All of these resources are a great way to learn or refresh on story structure before NaNoWriMo starts and to make sure your story works!

The Two Crucial Parts of Story Structure

1. The Character Arc

The first one is the character arc.

This means that the character changes in some way and must overcome their fatal flaw by the end of the story in order to reach their external goal (more on the external stuff in a minute).

In order to work out the fatal flaw of your main character, make sure you spend time fleshing them out and making them real. Giving them meaningful backstory, uncover their personality, including the good and bad.

What's holding them back?

What I like to do to help me do this is find a picture of a existing character (usually from a movie or TV show) that represents this character well. This will give you a sort of base to help you figure out the character further and make them unique.

You’re not copying that character, to be clear.

Let me give you an example.

The main character from my first series, Ariana, has the same vibe as Gabriella from High School Musical. She’s also a good girl, likes to get good grades, does what she’s told, and is overall a pretty nice person.

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My character isn’t a math or science geek like her (or a singer) but they do have that same feel/personality.

Make sense?

Once you flesh out your character, you can focus on their fatal flaw and how it will tie into the story.

Let me give you an example of how character arc works with the movie, Safe Haven.

If you haven’t watched this, spoilers, but it is on Netflix right now. It’s based on the Nicholas Sparks book, so it is a romance. This works for any genre, though.

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The main character, Erin, runs away from her ex-husband, who has been emotionally and physically abusing her, at the very start of the movie. Something goes down between them, and we’re not really sure what, but her goal now is to get away.

She just wants to get far away and start a new life where no one knows her about her past and she’s not interested in trying romance again.

She is very closed to letting anyone in again, and we sympathize with her because she’s afraid for her life, even if she may have done something bad.

So her fatal flaw is that she just wants to run away from her past and her ex-husband without confronting any of it.

By the end, though, she has to confront her scary abusive ex-husband and face her dark past (fatal flaw) in order to grow as a person and start her new life (reach her external goal).

So that’s the first part of how story structure that works.

2. The Plot Arc

The other piece we need is the plot arc.

The plot arc is what actually happens in the story (the events), essentially the problem and how it’s resolved.

There are several parts to it that you may have heard of already.

We’ll do a quick overview with the Safe Haven example here, but definitely check out Janice Hardy’s blog post for a better overview.

  • Opening Scene/Setup: Show the main character’s version of normal; the setup.

Safe Haven Example of the Opening Scene/Setup: This is actually shown through flashbacks near the beginning of the movie.

We get several glimpses of Erin’s world before the inciting incident at the start of the movie. Even though she lives in a beautiful house, she is constantly terrified as she tries to please her alcoholic and abusive husband. He is mean and degrading to her and physically harms her. This is not new to her.

  • Inciting Incident: Something happens, sometimes out of their control, that changes everything; there is no going back. Try to start your novel as close to here as possible.

Safe Haven Example of the Inciting Incident: Erin defends herself as she fears for her life. Something goes down between her and her husband.

We’re not sure what exactly, but we do see him lying unconscious on the floor, bleeding, and possibly dead now.

There is no going back from this. This is her one chance to run away so she does so with the help of a kind neighbor. Her goal becomes to start over somewhere new as a new person with a new identity.

  • Revelations and Failures: There have to be at least a few of these before the main character gets to the end. The main character must learn to believe that they can overcome their obstacle, but they will also fail a few times before they finally succeed. There is also a dark moment, where they think all is lost (think fantasy movies and books like Chronicles of Narnia), and then they change/figure things out so they can “win” in the end and get what they want.

Safe Haven Example of a Reveal/Twist: We find out the detective is actually her abusive ex-husband who is after her and abusing his power as a cop.

Safe Haven Example of a Failure: The guy she’s in love with finds a suspect flyer for her in the case of a murder. He confirms she lied, assumes the worst, and she flees again. 

Her attempt at a new life blows up in her face. He doesn’t believe her anymore and tells her to go.

  • Resolution: The main character is now different in some significant way, and usually, they reach their goal too.

Safe Haven Example of a Resolution: After finally (and successfully) confronting her ex despite how scared she is of him, everyone is happy and safe, including the kids. The ex is no longer a threat.

Erin feels like she belongs, and she has the new start she wanted plus a man who truly loves her and treats her right. Plus she has the unexpected blessing of the wife who passed away (through a final plot twist/reveal!). 

You’ll see this kind of story structure in romance and other genres. I really enjoy a good epic fantasy movie like the Chronicles of Narnia or action movie because it’s so easy to see and understand the story structure.

In romance, the character has a flaw tied to her external problem, and she must learn to overcome both of these in order get the guy/girl in the end.

In other genres, there is another kind of external goal, like overcoming the evil villain in a final battle, solving the mystery of the murder, or catching the bad guy, who plans to bomb NYC, in the nick of time.

How the Plot Arc and Character Arc(s) Intertwine

Erin’s fatal flaw of running away from her past instead of confronting it is tied to the plot of the movie.

She meets this new guy, a single dad with two kids, and they fall in love despite neither of them feeling ready to. She thinks she can start this new life with him without telling him the truth about who she is and her past.

Then her past finally does catch up with her, everyone is in danger, and she has to confront her fatal flaw and her ex-husband to save them.

She must overcome her internal conflict (the fatal flaw or character arc) in order to solve her external conflict (goal or plot arc).

It’s important to note that the new love interest doesn’t save her from the ex. She does (and the viewer wouldn’t be as satisfied without this part).

In romance, a lot of the time, the love interest has a flaw they’re overcoming too, which brings the characters together because they often push each other (intentionally or not) to do so.

Safe Haven Example of a Secondary Character Arc: The love interest, the single dad with two kids, keeps to himself. He isn’t interested in anyone and hasn’t been in a relationship since his wife died. He’s not willing to take a risk on love because his kids are too important, and they’ve gone through enough.

Then he finds out that Erin didn’t tell him the truth about who she is and his kids are possibly in danger because of her. He tells her to leave without giving her a chance to explain.

He overcomes this fatal flaw of shutting love out and not taking any risks when he asks Erin to come back. He tells her to stay, that he loves her, and that he doesn’t care about her past. They’ll figure things out together.

This isn’t enough, though. The movie isn’t over.

Like I mentioned before, Erin must confront and overcome her obstacle (the abusive ex-husband) and her flaw (being scared of her past) first. And she does.

Cue happily ever after.

The important thing to remember is that the plot and character arcs are intertwined, giving the reader exactly the kind of story (and ending) they were craving.

So once I figure this stuff out, I flesh out these broad points into more detailed beats. This works for me and helps me be a lot less likely to get stuck along the way.

If you’re a pantser, then having a broad overview of where your story needs to go can help you make sure you’re not just wandering from here to there with no real point for the entire month of November.

Either way, story structure is important because this is what makes readers rave about your story and become true fans.

So before you dive into NaNoWriMo this year (or not), make sure you create a story that works.

Otherwise, all those words will be for nothing.