Outlining My Novel

I hope everyone had a great summer! I’ve been working on my novel and I have been thinking about plotting and outlining. When I hand-wrote the first draft there was no outline nor a plot. I made it up as I went along, and the story shows it. There are some great moments in that draft, but at the same time, there are some very weak moments, and they outweigh the good. So before writing the second last draft I want to have every chapter plotted out in great detail. To help me, I’ve gone back to my screenwriter’s workshop and I’ve been wondering if I can apply it to novel writing?

Under my workshop a screenplay is divided into four parts of 14 beats; Act I is 14 beats, Act II is 28 beats and Act III is 14 beats. A beat can be of ANY length with the average beat being 2 minutes (therefore 56 beats 2 minutes each is 112 minutes of film time allowing for +/- 10 minutes). What if each of the 56 beats started out representing a chapter? The chapter can be of any length required to tell the story. The advantage of a novel is the story teller has as many pages as they need to tell the story. This would mean I would develop a 56-chapter novel. If you want to apply a word count to each chapter that’s up to you. You may want to make sure each chapter has a minimum word count, or even a maximum word count. That’s completely up to you. Remember at this point we are NOT writing the novel, we are OUTLINING it. During the outline you may discover you only need 42 chapters to tell the story – and that’s perfectly fine.


Start, as always, by opening Scrivener. You can see in the image above I have five different templates but we’re going to focus on the Chapter Sketch in this blog post. Years ago I bought First Draft in 30 Days by Karen S. Wiesner and I’ve been planning to use many of Ms. Wiesner’s different design forms. You can see above that I’ve transferred her Chapter document into Scrivener. The point of this template is to outline each of your chapters. While we record a chapter number, it’s clearly not written in stone and may need to be changed later.

The Story Flags

First I’ll start with my Nine Story Flags. Like a golf course these flags are spaced apart to ensure that the writer is always working towards a specific location. These nine chapters are the key chapters of the story, turning points in the story if you would like. I’ve listed them below with the chapter number they would normally occur at.

1 – Opening Chapter (Chapter)
5 – Inciting Incident
14 – Plot Point I
21 – First Major Setback
28 – Midpoint
35 – Second Major Setback
42 – Plot Point II
54 – Climax
56 – Closing Scene (Chapter)

Chapter 54 – The Climax

While outlining, never start at the beginning, but rather you’re going to bounce around the Flags, starting with the Climax. What happens when your story reaches it’s highest point? Often this is the final battle between the Hero and Villain where one will defeat the other. The climax of your story must ANSWER a question you will have asked all the way back in Chapter 5 – Inciting Incident. Before you can ask the question, you need to know the answer. Your entire novel is building up to the climax – does the Hero win, lose or draw with the Villain? The Climax is the closing of the central story goal. Will Frodo destroy the One Ring before the forces of evil can make use of it? This question is asked when Bilbo hands Frodo the ring; the question is not asked out loud, but it becomes the central goal of the novel (in this case trilogy). So take a moment and fill out one of the Chapter Work Sheet with the details you foresee as the Climax of your novel.

Chapter 5 – Inciting Incident

You’ve going to notice that your Story Flags are going to look like 4 sets of brackets with the Midpoint (Chapter 28) in the middle. The other half of the Climax bracket is the Inciting Incident. This chapter is where the story’s goal is launched; your hero is learning of a problem in the world, but probably does not yet see how it’s their problem. Through much of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of the World book one, The Eye of the World, the hero Rand doubts that he is the Dragon Reborn, but is forced into the story when he and his village are attacked. What events need to happen at the beginning of your novel to make sure the climax at the end of the novel makes sense. Once you have your Inciting Incident then you can develop your Story Question in finer detail. Make note of this as it will influence many of the story decisions you will be making.

Chapters 1 and 56 – Opening Chapter and Closing Chapter

The next bracketed Chapters we’ll work on is the first and the last. How does your novel open and how will you close it? What events do you see happening AFTER the Climax of your novel. Depending on your master plan, your Closing Chapter will tie up loose ends and show the characters moving on from the Climax or if your novel is one of a series then you may need a Chapter that will lead into the next novel. The same can be said of the Opening Scene. If it is the first chapter of the first novel, you will need to open it with your Hero living their normal life, before the adventure starts, for example, Frodo prepares for Bilbo’s 111th birthday. The first chapter establishes the Hero’s current life before the events of the novel begins, whether it’s the first book in a series or the seventh book. Give your Closing and Opening chapters some thought and then start writing down details on two more chapter template sheets.

Chapters 14 and 42 – Plot Point I and Plot Point II

Plot Point I and Plot Point II are the next pair of Chapters we are going to work on. These are very important points in the story. Traditionally this is where the Hero chooses to enter the story and work towards their goal (end of Act I) and the point where the Hero is at their lowest and must push themselves to complete the goal (end of Act II). I’m a believer that the Hero must always choose to push forward even if it looks impossible. A choice between two terrible is still a choice, the lesser of two evils. The moment Frodo agreed to carry the Ring and created the Fellowship of the Ring (the adventuring party, not the book) that is the end of Book One’s First Act and it was the Hero’s choice. Remember this, whenever possible it is the Hero’s responsibility to push the story forward while the Villain pushes the story backwards. Other characters may influence the story, but it is always a battle between the Hero and the Villain. Leading up to Chapter 14, the Hero probably doesn’t want to leave their quiet world and head out into the story. The Chapters between Chapter 42 are going to be hell on the Hero but it must be the Hero’s choice to push them through hell and out on the other side (probably with help from an ally).

Chapters 21 and 35 – The First & Second Major Setback

Every one of the previous Story Flags (as well as the Midpoint) is driven in some way by the Hero, but the two Setbacks are driven by the Villain. These are two very large pushes agains the Hero. The First Major Setback happens at the end of the first quarter of the second act while the Second Major Setback occurs at the end of the third quarter of the second act. The second act (half your total story) keeps pushing against the Hero, but what makes these two moments different are these are directly initiated by the Villain. During the First Major Setback, the Villain does something that causes the Hero to unknowingly almost fail to answer the story question. My favourite example is from the original Star Wars. Luke is on his way to Alderaan to deliver the stolen plans (will Luke get the plans safely to Alderaan and Leia’s father?) when suddenly Vader & Tarkin destroy the planet of Alderaan. At this point, Luke has failed. He has no way of getting the plans to Alderaan, because it no longer exists. The Villain’s actions disrupted the Hero’s actions without either of them knowing it. The Second Major Setup is even worse than the first. This time the Villain knowingly takes action in an attempt to stop the Hero, and it very nearly works. Again, from Star Wars, Vader kills Obi-Wan while Luke is watching. Suddenly Luke feels like he is alone and lost. He wants to give up, but Leia and Han convince Luke to get aboard the Falcon. The Villain strikes hard and causes the Hero to second guess their actions. Between the Second Major Setback and the Second Plot Point, the Hero spirals downward, out of control until he makes his life-changing decision during the Second Plot Point.

Chapter 28 – Midpoint

The only Story Flag that is not paired is the Midpoint. It happens around the middle of your story. This took me some point to define. The middle of your story is a slow point, a point where the Hero takes a moment to ‘catch his breath’ and talk about what’s happening. But I quickly learned that the Midpoint of a story is not just a slowdown, but rather a complete ‘reversal’ of the story. The story slows to a stop and then changes directions. Luke, Han, Chewie and the droids are waiting for Ben in the Death Star’s control room. Han is happy just to wait but then Artoo starts panicking, repeating that “he’s found her”. This moment allows the Hero and the readers to relax a moment before the Hero discovers a new approach towards his goal then the story is off is a completely different direction. When coming up with your midpoint, look at your First Major Setback and determine what will it take for your Hero to recover from the setback and how will that recovery turn the story in a different direction.


One final thought, in many stories (novels or films) the Hero and Villain share very little time together. How many scenes do Luke and Vader share in all three of the original films? Look at the Die Hard films, these are great examples where the Hero and Villain spend very little time together. The whole point of the story is the meeting between the Hero and Villain. If it happens too often or too early it will take away from your climax and you never want to do anything that will weaken your Climax.

Spend the next few days building your Nine Story flags. Give them some thought. Plan them carefully because at some point you’re going to be deep in the trenches writing when you’re going to need to look up to find out where you are and you’ll will be thankful to see a Story Flag on the horizon.

Until next time,
– Stephen

PS: I completely missed the fifth anniversary of the feekwrites.com blog. I’d like to take a moment and thank everyone for your continued support. I look forward to posting beta drafts of the first couple of chapters of my novel for your feedback before the end of the year.


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