Basic novel structure

Basic novel structure

With NaNoWriMo fast approaching, there will be many writers embarking on a new writing project this November. With this in mind, I have put this PDF together to serve as a basic guide for outlining. This has been built from a handwritten version compiled by Nichole McGhie from and is based on K. M.Weiland’s Outlining your Novel which is worth a read on its own.  The poster is designed to print out onto 2 A4 sheets of paper and still be readable so newbie writers will be able to pin it up in front of them. I recommend you do. While the information in this poster is by no means exhaustive, it does offer a sound framework.

From my own experience of NaNoWriMo, now is the time to get outlining and thinking about tour plot and characters. I will stress here that I didn’t actually finish my first draft until May (oops) but I am now in the final stages and hope to complete my final round of editing on time to get it formatted and then self-publish in November. The reason I didn’t finish on time is that I started without a complete outline and then got stuck at the midpoint while I worked out what should happen. This is not an experience I wish to repeat and it is also why I strongly advise my clients to prepare an outline before they start. Having an easy means to keep track of your plot, sub-plots and character development will save you a massive amount of time and stress in the long run. It is also the best way to

Having an easy means to keep track of your plot, sub-plots and character development will save you a massive amount of time and stress in the long run. It is also the best way to avoid a huge amount of rewriting – not to mention disappointment – after you get it back from your editor, having already given them a migraine. If you want your editor to love you, then you MUST outline but I wanted this to be more of a ‘how’ post than a ‘do this and this is why post’.  Most seasoned writers by now understand the importance of planning, especially if they write in series. I’m addressing the novices and the people who are planning to dip their toes into creative writing for the first time so below are a few more pointers you should be thinking about while writing and planning.


  1. Think carefully about your POV. Does it work for the genre?
  2. Is your story more heavily weighted in favour of plot or character? Ideally, This should ideally be a 50/50 mix of both but some genres can cope with more than one than the other.
  3. Is the conflict proportionate? A story without a problem to solve isn’t a story and that’s basically what is meant by conflict.  This can be internal or external but there must be an obstacle between the character and where they want to be and it has to be believable.  That’s about the crux of it. Think about how often you have put a book down because it wasn’t grabbing you.  Ever thought about why? Most of the time I have found it’s because the protagonist’s life is either too easy or too hard; everyone loves them and everything happens their way or, the less frequent, a complete train wreck of a character whose problems are insurmountable and there is no hope of them ever overcoming them. The protagonist doesn’t have to solve the problem, and sometimes that can make for a more interesting story, but there still has to be a possibility that they will overcome that obstacle. Do they realise why they don’t manage their task?
  4. Consider plot progression as well as pace, Do the events in your plot occur within in a logical progression? They need to present a sequence of events leading clearly from the beginning (the catalyst) to the conclusion. A series of seemingly unconnected events will only bore your readers. In other words, if a character is doing something, they need to have a good reason to be doing it.
  5. Use an editor. Spellcheck can’t correct structural issues or dialogue.


  1. Use the act of writing to show off your vocabulary and hope it’ll cover up the fact that there is nothing happening. Really, don’t. A strong story, with the action at the right points, can support some flowery Hardyesque prose. A weak one? Well, you might as well have rewritten the Mayor of Casterbridge (that book is a sore point with me). You will also give your editor a headache.  A good one will spot this a mile away and should call you up on it.
  2. Don’t describe what one of your cast is about to say and then put it into dialogue. If you are in doubt about what someone has just said, read it aloud.  Would that sound awkward coming out of someone’s mouth?
  3. Don’t try to outline every last detail. You need to leave some room for flow.
  4. Don’t try to edit as you write. You will get nowhere quickly. Get that first draft down then go back over it as a read-through before touching anything. Make a note of your plot points, as well as where they are, and compare them with your outline. This should help to identify any weak areas to fix in your self-edit before sending it to an editor.
  5. Do not send your unedited first draft to an editor.

Outlining the obvious.

“Using the outline to figure out the technicalities of your plot gives you the freedom to deeply explore your characters, settings and themes in intimate detail in your first draft.”

K. Weiland | Outlining your Novel: Map your Way to Success

By using brief bullet lists to sketch out the order in which events in our story takes place provides a map.  It doesn’t have to be laden with small details and contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to take as long as writing the book BUT a succinct outline will help identify and gaping holes in your plot and enable you to fix them before you start writing.

A rough outline will also allow you to regulate the pace of the story, set up the tone for the next chapter, and get a general idea of what fits with what, on a step-by-step basis. It keeps the story from drifting away from you and enables you to weave in a couple of complimentary sub-plots, making sure you use adequate foreshadowing for plot twists.  My advice on sub-plots is to keep them to a minimum. Too many and you risk crowding- out the main plot.  If you are going to use sub-plots, you need to be as consistent as with the main plot (beginning, middle, end) as you are with the main plot or you will leave your reader wondering what happened to characters who just seemed to vanish.

The length of an outline will vary between authors.  It really is up tp you and there is no strict set of rules to follow when planning.  Some will spend weeks planning every detail of their world. I am finding that I prefer to map out the direction of the story then fill in the details as I go.  It gives me the best of both worlds. They don’t need formal formatting because that information is for you (Who else is going to see it?). It doesn’t mean anything is set in stone either.  If you feel that something else will work better, then use that idea. It’s your work. K.Wieland looks on an outline as a barebones first-draft, and I tend to agree.  It’s merely a frame, not a rune covered cairn stone which must be obeyed like you have made a pledge to Odin. It’s the ideal place to make your mistakes because here they are easily corrected, and invisible to the reader. You can lay down the foreshadowing of events and see at a glance if your chapters are missing anything before you even start writing.

What do I need?

 A general rule of outlining is that there is no, one set of kit or right way to do it apart from the one that works for you.  It is a trial and error process that only you will be able to find for yourself.  You might even find that your preferred method just isn’t working for you and have to find another. Chapter 2 of K.Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel looks at some of the means of planning available to most writers, as well as the approaches. Like Ms Weiland, I prefer to take myself away from the screen and distractions (Okay, Facebook, Twitter and Spotify.  I’m human.) and write my ideas by hand in an A4 spiral bound notebook.  This is also a really good excuse to treat myself to some of the pretty stationary from Wilko’s. It makes me slow down and consider the direction of the story and gives me an instant hard copy safe from glitches and fatal errors which can so easily wipe your work from the face of the earth.

One tool you do need is an understanding of dramatic structure.  No matter how exciting your story’s basic idea, an incomplete view of how a story is put together will take you round in circles.  You might think you are being rebellious and daring by refusing to adhere to a ‘formula’, but if you don’t know how a story structure works, what are your rebelling from?  Even the impressionist painters of the 19th century knew how to ‘do it properly’ before they started playing with techniques and new styles.  Read books, take free courses, test yourself. Do whatever you need to in order to understand this. A copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms is an invaluable source in this learning process.

Larry Brooks describes six ‘core-competencies’ within the craft of storytelling. One of these is structure.  The others are

  1. Character
  2. Theme
  3. Scene
  4. Execution, and
  5. Voice.

Your job as a writer is to get good enough at one of these that you stand-out in a crowd of thousands with the same skill-set as you.

No mean feat and I applaud you for taking on the challenge.  Here’s the bad news: It’s going to take practice and planning, work, and possibly years, to achieve this.  There is no short cut.