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Thursday, October 19

Day Nineteen: Idea to Novel Workshop: Create the Most Basic of Outlines

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Nineteen of Fiction University’s At-Home Workshop: Idea to Novel in 31 Days. For the rest of the month, we’ll focus on plot and the major turning points of a novel.

Today, we’re creating a basic overview outline to get a feel for our story.

Not everyone is a fan of story structure. Some find it constricting, and others fear following a particular structure will make their novels feel formulaic.

This simple three-point process provides a basic framework to keep your story organized, without making it feel predictable or driving you crazy trying to hit specific beats.

For some writers, this is all you’ll need to start writing and you won’t need to develop the major turning points of the plot until you get there. Others will want more outlining before they dive into the book, and we’ll discuss each turning point in detail over the next few weeks.

Point One: Discovery of a Problem or Need

No matter what story you’re trying to tell, it starts with a character (or characters) discovering there’s a problem, or discovering they need something (sometimes both). This is the point of the book—to solve this problem or get this need.

It might happen with a single first-person protagonist, it might be a prologue of an event that caused a problem to happen, it could be a murder, a shift in tectonic plates—anything at all. It’s the moment when something happens that brings the entire story problem or need into being. If this one event did not happen, if this one need was not realized or needed, there would be no story.

This happens in the beginning. You decide where and how it fits in with the rest of the scenes. You decide what else needs to go in that beginning and what readers need to know and see to setup this story the way you want it.

Once you’ve established the problem or need to your satisfaction, move on to…

Point Two: Multiple Attempts (and Failures) to Resolve That Problem or Achieve That Need

This is the bulk of the story, where your characters work to resolve this problem or obtain this need, and they’ll fail quite often. The level of attempts and failures will vary by the type of story it is, as thrillers will have different styles and expectations than romances.

Subplots and various storylines will weave through this section. You’ll show character growth (if applicable), establish and solve mysteries, throw characters large and small into conflict, build tensions, cause suffering, create laughter, and pluck emotional strings. In short, you’ll write the dang story with all its wonderful facets.

How much you put into this step is up to you. How it unfolds is up to you. What emotional wringers you want to put the characters through (if any) is up to you. The only thing to adhere to, is that the whole point of step two is to get the story to step three. At some point, all this trying and working and failing will pay off and the story will come to an end.

Which leads us to…

Point Three: Resolution of That Problem or Fulfillment of That Need in a Meaningful Way

Stories need endings. At some point, the problem gets solved and the need is realized. That doesn’t mean it has to be a happy ending, as the problem’s resolution might not benefit the protagonist, or the need might not be fulfilled (though these things usually are).

Happy or sad, the ending should be meaningful. As in, it should mean something and satisfy the reader. There should be a point to the problem and the effort it took to resolve that problem, and a reward for the reader who just spent X hours to read this story. Maybe the resolution is clear, maybe it’s vague and ambiguous, maybe it sets up the next step in a larger story. But it ends in some way.

What constitutes a satisfying ending is up to you (and the reader I suppose, but that’s beyond our control). What you want to say with this ending is your call. It’s your decision what emotions and thoughts you leave readers with when they finish.

EXERCISE: Summarize the three basic points of your novel.

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Three points that frame a tale and offer something to a reader. How does your story unfold?

Those following along with the PYN book: Workshop Five covers plotting and structure and offers multiple options to help you create the right structure and process for your writing style.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at more options for story structure and start clarifying our major turning points.

Follow along at home with the book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Get more brainstorming questions and things to think about, in-depth articles, and clear examples of every step from idea to novel.

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A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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