Early October came and went and you said you had a month to prepare.
Mid-October came and went and you said you had two weeks to write a short outline.
The end of October came and went, and now you’re here in November with no outline, no plot line, and a looming deadline.
Take heart! Not all is lost. Most stories are about someone trying to gain or accomplish an objective that someone else doesn’t want to happen. That means your story only needs three elements to be a success: a hero, a villain, and a goal.
All right, let’s get to it. You have precious little time to waste writing yourself into and out of corners, plot holes, and poorly developed story worlds. You need an outline. But it doesn’t have to be super detailed—just a rough map that will guide you from word one to word fifty thousand. And that’s exactly what we’re going to figure out.
Everything that happens in your story starts with your hero (Writing Human Heroes: Weakness & Flaws). Who is he? What does he look like? What is his personality? You don’t have to cover the whole gamut of your hero’s identity, but scribble down a few notes before you move on. You’ll be glad you did.
Next, what does your hero want? What would make him happy? Why isn’t he happy now? What transpires in the first couple pages that makes him unhappy? What is he going to do about it? Now you have your story goal. That wasn’t hard, right?
Finally, the villain. Before you get ahead of yourself trying to create a Loki-like character that isn’t Loki (but really is), ask yourself why someone wouldn’t want the hero to achieve the goal. Why wouldn’t someone want Joey to find his missing dog, or Billy to find his missing parents? (That escalated quickly, I know. But hey, that’s raising the stakes.)
You’re ready to throw an outline together! Cool! And the best place to start? The end. (Trust me for a second.)
How will your story end? I’m not talking about the climax; I’m talking about Into the West, Shawarma, and the kiss that left the five most passionate and pure kisses behind. The last scene. Your reader’s final memory of your story. What is it?
Unless you have a great ending in mind already (you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you did), feel free to surprise yourself. (Remember, be flexible.) Your ending powers your outline; it needs to be nigh perfect. Don’t sweat it, though; there’s a trick. Returning your characters to the old-but-changed world is a common way to close a story.
In The Lord of the Rings, Sam finally returns to the Shire, alone. In The Avengers, everyone goes separate ways, but with a promise to return. In The Princess Bride, Buttercup and Westley are reunited in tru wuv, even though they’re now pirate and ex-princess. Whatever the case, your story ending should feature a return to the old-but-different world, which highlights your main character’s change throughout the story. Not sure how your hero changes? Ask yourself what he learns. (It should be related to the story goal, the villain, or both. But don’t overthink it. Let it develop naturally as you write your story.)
So you’ve pinpointed where your novel is going to end. But why isn’t the hero already there? Your villain stands between your hero and his goal. That means your hero and villain are going to clash before the goal is achieved, and (eventually) your hero will (probably) win.
The moment that clash happens is your climax.
This is the moment for your story to shine. The climax will break or make your novel. But even after writing fifty thousand words, you’re just as mortal when you write your climax as you were when you wrote your inciting incident. So how do you write a climax that will last forever in the hearts of your readers?
When your hero battles your villain, the challenge must be tough for him. Extremely tough. Your hero has to be out of options. Out of advantages. All but out of fight. (Don’t worry, fifty thousand words provide a lot of time to strip your hero of all his meager power. More on that in a minute.)
Your hero stands at the climax, wondering how his story could possibly have a happy ending. How can he win with the deck stacked so drastically against him? At the very least, how can you keep it somewhat realistic? The answer is foreshadowing.
Wait, isn’t foreshadowing supposed to indicate bad things? Yeah…but also good things every once in a while. Foreshadow your villain’s downfall. Do it.
As all good students of fiction do at one time or another, let’s look to Tolkien’s example. Tolkien foreshadowed the end of LotR throughout all three books by dropping comments about Gollum’s yet-to-be-seen purpose.
“My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet…”
By building expectation for Gollum’s future usefulness, Tolkien led up to an ending which otherwise would seem very Deus ex Machina-ish. You can imitate that technique. How will your hero triumph? What loophole will he jump through? What unseen weakness will he exploit? Be sure you foreshadow that earlier in your outline.
You have an ending and a climax, but what about the rest of your novel? You know, those other forty-five thousand words. Actually, they’re not hard to produce, because their purpose is to set up the climax. Every scene in your story moves the plot toward the end. Nothing should happen that doesn’t.
To finish your outline, consider what needs to occur to drive your hero (and villain) to the climax.
Your hero probably has to meet some people (supporting cast). Allies? A mentor? (Or is he doing this alone? Maybe he is. Your call.) Does he run into the villain’s henchmen along the way? Does he encounter the villain before the climax? Does he lose to the villain when they meet? (He probably should, at least once.) Remember, your hero has to be desperate when he arrives at the climax. This is your chance to put him into that position. How will he attempt to reach the story goal? How will he fail?
Now it is time to start eliminating clichés (Killing cliches part 1). Much of what you’ve written down will be cliché. And that’s okay. Our minds generate clichés all the time. They’re what we know and are comfortable with. But it’s your job as a writer to keep them out of your book. Examine everything you just outlined and figure out how to make it less cliché. Flip it on its head. Add an unexpected element to a situation.
For example, maybe your hero has to meet Billy Bob in order to get to the climax. So he goes over to Billy Bob’s house, but Billy Bob isn’t home. Now your hero has to find him.
Points for making the task harder for your hero, but this scene could be improved.
How about instead Billy Bob is dead. Or maybe your hero finds a ransom note. Maybe the note is ten years old. Maybe Billy Bob’s a crusty old man who welcomes your hero with a twelve-gauge shotgun. That would be unexpected and interesting.
The key is to fill your outline with unexpected misfortune for your hero. Circumstances can’t go smoothly for him or your story won’t be credible. Outcomes can’t be predictable or your story will feel (and might actually be) cliché.
Okay, so you just blew ten minutes reading this post. (Sorry about that.) No more procrastinating. November is here, and you have to write. Here’s your outline:
- The final scene (Return to the old-but-different.)
- The climax (As bad as it gets…with a foreshadowed way out.)
- And everything else (How does your hero get to the climax? Keep it unpredictable.)
Scribble down your outline and hit the keyboard. You’ve got fifty thousand words to write.
But, no worries…now you have an outline.