Outline Your Novel in Thirty
Rasley - All
This is a quick exercise designed to
sketch out the major events of your novel. It only gives
you a map-- you have to make the drive yourself!
kitchen timer or set your alarm. You're going to
free-write for three minutes on several questions.
(If you want to cheat and write for five minutes on
each, go ahead. Just be warned the exercise might
take you an hour then.) In free-writing, you put your
fingers to keyboard or pen to paper and write,
without regard to grammar, spelling, sense, or
organization, for a specified period of time. The
trick is-- you can't stop till the bell rings. If you
can't think of anything to say, you just write your
last word over and over. Pretty quick you'll get
bored and think of something else to write. But
remember, turn off the editor. This is exploration,
not real writing.
Type or write the
question, then set the clock, read the question allowed,
1. At the start of
your book, what distinguishes your protagonist from other
people? What central strength does he/she have? How does
this strength get him/her into trouble?
Strength: Sue's really good at problem solving. Trouble:
She's always being brought in at the last minute to clean
up other people's messes.
2. When the novel
opens, what is s/he on the brink of doing? Why does he/she
say she's going to do this? What does this action represent
for the protagonist?
She's just moved into a new town and has volunteered to
do the stage managing for the community theater. She says
that theater work is fun, and she'll get to make new
friends. This represents her attempt to become part of the
3. What external
situation will require the protagonist's participation
throughout the course of the book? How does this connect
with #2? Does it help or interfere? Can you build in a
deadline for extra tension
The community theater's director absconds with all their
money. If they don't somehow pull off an economical but
successful Hamlet performance in a week, the community
theater will go bankrupt.
4. What is the
protagonist's goal for the time the book covers? How does
this connect with the external situation? Or does the
external situation divert the protagonist from his/her
goal? Why does the protagonist SAY he/she wants the goal?
Is there a deeper motivation as yet unknown to him/her?
She wants to participate in a successful theater
presentation. She says it's because it will be good for the
community. A deeper motivation is that she needs to be part
of a cohesive group or she'll be lonely and lost. All the
problems in the external situation will be obstacles to
participating in a successful presentation.
5. What problem
(external conflict) does the external situation present?
How can the protagonist eventually resolve that
She is dragooned into taking over direction of the
community theater's performance of Hamlet one week before
the first show, and she's never directed a play before.
She's a good problem-solver, and she will use these skills
to tackle all the theater's problems.
6. List at least
three obstacles in the way of her resolving this conflict.
Make one an internal obstacle/conflict.
There's not enough money for costumes.
None of the other actors think Sue can replace the gifted
Stockinsky, the former director.
The actor playing Hamlet is a drunk.
Five days before the performance, her mother announces she
hates her nursing home and wants to move in with Sue.
The theater's roof is leaking and rain is predicted for
Internal-- Sue's need to be part of a group and be loved
makes it hard for her to take charge and say
7. How will the
protagonist grow because of confronting these
When she has to fire the drunken Hamlet and replace him
with a young inexperienced understudy, she learns to trust
her judgment, assert her authority, and risk alienating her
fellows. That is, she becomes a leader.
8. What do you want
to happen at the end of the book?
I want the production to be successful despite some
last-minute problems, and I want her to accept her position
9. What will have
to happen to the protagonist against his/her will to make
your ending come about?
Sue will have to get the courage to fire the popular
Hamlet actor and still use her people skills to rally the
shocked cast. She'll also have to inspire the understudy to
a great performance.
(As you can see,
this will outline a plot driven by the protagonist's
motivation and interaction with the world. Please note, not
all books rely so heavily on the protagonist's personality.
This works best with popular genre novels or novels with a
"quest" structure. But the answers to these questions can
help you determine where you're going and how you're going
to get there.)
Okay, half hour's
up. Now how do you make a story out of this? Think of the
answers to Questions 1 and 2 as your starting point. The
answer to Question 8 is your ending point (all subject to
change, of course!); everything else is landmarks along the
Use 2 to craft an
opening scene that involves the reader right away. A
character on the brink of some action provides a lot of
forward momentum. Consider, for example, Sue's desire to
join the community theater group as stage manager. That
action can involve the reader in the external situation
described in 3 (the former director absconding with the
funds), and/or be in pursuit of the goal you defined in 4.
If it happens, what unforeseen consequences does it have?
(For example, she might start as stage manager and realize
the director is a fraud.)
If it doesn't
happen, what has prevented it? (Maybe she wants to be stage
manager, but arrives just after the director scarpers, and
because she has some theater experience, they make her
director instead of stage manager.) Now what is the
protagonist going to do?
Answer 4 gives the
protagonist's intended destination. Consider why the
protagonist wants to achieve this goal, and how pursuit of
it will involve him/her further in the external situation
described in 3. (She wants a successful production enough
to agree to be director.) How is the goal related to answer
1, whatever sets this person apart from everyone else? (Her
reputation as a "hands-on problem-solver" has been
established in her job as a trouble-shooter for a local
software company, so she knows she can be a good
The goal can be
related to the external situation, but probably include
some internal component too (she wants to become part of
the community quickly so she won't feel lonely and lost).
The obstacles too might arise from the external situation
as well as from within.
# 6 lists obstacles
to the resolution of the conflict. Which are external (the
drunken actor, mom's sudden and disruptive arrival)? Which
are internal (her inability to say no, her guilt over mom)?
How do these relate to the external situation?
Sketch at least one
scene around each of these -- or toss a couple out and have
a single obstacle repeatedly plague the protagonist. Show
the protagonist encountering each obstacle, taking stock,
and acting or reacting. Probably the obstacle will win at
least once. See if you can make these ascend in order of
emotional risk– that is, make taking on the first obstacle
(no money for costumes) less of an emotional gamble than
the next (having to ask the carpenter she kind of has a
crush on to fix the roof for free). The last obstacle
should require her to make a huge emotional gamble, one she
couldn't have made at the beginning of the story but must
do now that she has so much invested (she risks alienating
the entire cast and the community by firing the popular
Then what? The
special quality you defined in 1 should come into play here
(problem-solving skills)-- and the issue/problem you have
noted in this character (overwhelming desire to be liked).
What will cause self-doubt and failure? What will bring
back confidence? Can you show a gradually ascending level
of achievement, as small defeats are overcome to bring on
small victories? What's important is to make the
interaction with the obstacles individual to this
character, and the success or failure have some effect on
him/her-- the growth (positive or negative) you described
Will the external
conflict be resolved? Either way, the attempts to resolve
the conflict can be the climb up to the climax. The special
quality and motivation of the protagonist, the most
difficult obstacle, an important event in the external
situation, and the goal, can all meet and explode in the
climax (she fires Hamlet and brings on the young
understudy, whom she has secretly coached, and faces down
the cast mutiny).
In the resolution,
however, your own ending takes over. The resolution of the
conflict can be fulfilling or empty– she can have a great
production and go home to an empty house. (Or one with a
petulant mom in it.) Or she can use her new-found
"just-say-no" ability to gently guide mother to another,
more appealing nursing home, and her old "just-say-yes"
ability to start a new relationship with the generous
Just remember, your
ending is going to help determine the message your reader
will retain after closing the book, so make it fit your
theme. (In this case, maybe, "Successful leadership
sometimes depends on making the appropriate but unpopular
And keep in mind,
this is only an exercise, not a set of rules. Use what is
illuminating, discard everything else. Your novel should
find its own path. But knowing where you're going and some
of the landmarks you'll pass can make the journey a little
the author: Alicia Rasley's writing
articles can be found at www.rasley.com