Story-Building (Part 1)

A novel is a serious undertaking.

It promises to carry your reader from the beginning of the story all the way through to the end.  But if there is a flaw in the structure, your reader may find himself or herself forever lost in the middle, unable to complete the journey.

After completing two (almost) full drafts of a story I have been crafting for a number of months now, I have decided that instead of being a reasonable person and wrapping things up with the third, I will create a brand new outline and start almost from scratch, using only what I have learned about the world, the characters, and the story — and the occasional scene, where I can fit one in.

(That was a long sentence. I’m told I need to stop doing that.)

Does this sound big? Well it is. But in case you are a budding novelist yourself, I want to break some branches along the path I’m taking so that maybe, if this road actually leads somewhere, someone may be able to follow along behind me and imitate my success.

(And when I write success, I’m really just thinking about completing a novel that I will have the guts to share with people. That would be a huge step for me.)

Here goes —


The Outline

The National Novel Writing Month is useful for many things, not least of which are its forums. I found a 30-chapter fantasy novel outline here. It won’t work for everyone’s story (and I plan to do some tailoring myself), but it succeeds in drawing focus to some of the most important structural elements in most genre stories (the introduction, the climax, the early failures, etc.).  It’s worth a look.

Structure, by the way, is what I think has been lacking most in my writing so far.  I recall reading that Bernard Cornwell does not do much in the way of deliberately structuring his stories any more.  When he was a beginning writer, however, he mapped another author’s book, paragraph by paragraph, and used that as a framework for his own.  I think a similar approach may benefit other beginning authors as well (including myself).

For those interested, Cornwell has some great writing advice here.


The Program

This is probably as good a time as any to take a detour by sharing that I am building this story using an excellent writing program you may have heard of. It’s called Scrivener. Scrivener brings a number of useful features, most of which I don’t yet even use, but I would say its greatest strength is its ability to help the writer organize a story, since writing a novel can be such a massive undertaking. But we already covered that, didn’t we?

The Method

Here is what I have done so far:

Since the outline I am using is crafted for thirty chapters, I created a three-part outline with ten chapters in each part. Then, as I went along, I added a scene to each chapter and wrote in the scene description what would happen in that part of the story, using the outline as a guide. There will be more than one scene per chapter by the time I’m done, but for now I’m just working with the one scene.


I found it surprisingly easy to craft a story that hit almost all the points in the outline. (If you’re curious, the numbers I skipped were 3, 8, and 17.  I may add them later or remove them altogether.) It’s only a skeleton, but now that I have dealt with the pressure of choosing an ending or planning an exciting climax, I hope to be able to go into the next phase of outlining with more excitement and less trepidation.

Another advantage in having this skeleton is that I already have written objectives for each chapter. In the first chapter, for instance, my goal is to introduce the main character and his world. (Yes, he’s male. Spoiler alert.) I can do that in one scene or in ten scenes — it doesn’t matter as long as I hit that main objective. Then the next chapter will hit the next objective and so on, which keeps me from worrying about whether I need to introduce the conflict or the rest of the cast or whatever.

(I do have to take into consideration the word count of every chapter, but we’ll probably get into that later.)

That’s it so far.

More to come.

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