A few words on outlining, or building a ‘roadmap’ to your story...

The basic arc of the story has a Beginning, a Middle & an Ending.

These are held together by a series of scenes, which should be linked in some kind of logical or coherent sequence.  You can keep the reader guessing, but you, the author has to know all the answers.  To begin, consider framing the outline as a series of questions, which are listed below.

Outline of Story:

1.        What’s the goal of the story?  What the impact of conflict upon the protagonist / hero / heroine?  Remember, there’s a place for humor in even the grimmest of stories.  In fact, the use of contrast (in scenes, characters, setting, etc.) can accentuate the level of suspense – even comic scenes (but use with care!).  In addition, use subplots and multiple POVs to expand the arc of the story, and always use them to drive the plot forward. 

2.         The opening scene is your main opportunity to ‘HOOK’ the reader.  You can do this in many ways, but whatever way you choose, it must be so vivid and captivating that the reader will want to continue.  There is no one formulaic way to do this and each genre tends to favor certain approaches. For example, some detective novels start with a case walking through the door (well, not always); many romance novels start with the heroine and her problems.  Foreign intrigue novels start in the capitol city of a foreign country.  All start with a critical element of the coming story (or should).

3.        For example, an adsorbing action scene, a gunfight, a storm (but never: "It was a dark and stormy night,” which is so cliché that the editor will throw your manuscript away!).  Less often, a strong descriptive passage can be the opener but it has to be world class (a good example is ‘Neon Rain).  If you open with dialog, it must be consequential and pull the reader in quickly.  A pending action sequence can work well.  This is where the action is about to start AND you let the reader know that it is about to start.  A variation is where the characters don’t know what is going on but the reader does, which can be an effective technique.  This pending action has to be one of doom, death or disaster, etc., something of consequence.  But absolutely do not resolve, offer solution or give the characters a way out; this is just the start of the conflict or problem.

4.        Where and when does this take place?  That is, the setting.  Note some authors use the setting as the opening; for example romance novels and occasionally, crime writers.  Remember, you must create a credible setting, one vivid with enough detail to transpose the reader into your world.  This means that if you use a real location, describe it accurately, including how is looks, smells and sounds. Beginning writers often start with the setting – not recommended unless it is riveting. Easier to start with action, then give setting. Misdirection in setting is allowable as a false clue in a mystery; this can add to the suspense if the action starts in one place and then moves to another. Remember, it has to drive the plot forward, not give the solution to the story.

5.        Visual images are very important to bring the reader into the story. This goes beyond setting and includes description of the characters, their mannerisms, the food they eat and the dirt they get into. Don’t make your characters too perfect – they have to have a flaw or two that becomes evident (but don’t thrust it into the reader’s face – let them discover it).  You can make the reader uncomfortable with the imagery – dirt, smells, mannerisms, pain, emotions – always remembering that it must be done for the reason of driving the plot forward.

6.        Point of view or POV (through whose eyes the story unfolds): It is possible to write a complete novel from a first person singular POV (Joe Haldeman does this superbly with each chapter in a 1st person POV in ‘The Coming’).  However, this imposes certain limitations on conveying information to the reader. With multiple POVs, there are few limitations on what information can get presented to the reader. Do try to limit one POV to each scene – yes, yes, there are authors (even best sellers) who jump all over the place with their POV, and they get away with it because they have a damn good yarn to tell (and they have dedicated readers who’ll buy their novels).  Recognize you can increase the suspense when you reveal information that one of your character knows, but the other doesn’t – especially if this information is important for your character’s survival, solving problem, love life, whatever.  You know it, but the character who needs it doesn’t.  This gets the reader involved in the story.

7.        Conflict:  The most essential ingredient to any piece of fiction; without it, you don’t have a story. Conflict takes many forms, and to deal with it completely is a separate lecture.  Remember, characters in conflict make a scene, which moves the story forward. It is legitimate to introduce additional conflict in subplots, which can confound the resolution of the main conflict / plot, so that the protagonist has a setback. Y’know, the protagonist is about to be reunited with her lover and he’s distracted, captured, whatever. He’s frustrated and the obvious solution slips away. Oh, boy, what’s next?  Aha, you have to read on to find out. 

8.        Scene – what’s the action in the scene?  Every scene involves some kind of action.  If it is primarily dialogue, do include description of characters, location or body language to avoid a ‘talking heads’ scene.  Make the scene come alive through good description slipped in between the dialogue or action.  Get the reader into the story, let them see it, smell it, feel it. Make your reader care about your characters; make them hate the villain. Violent action scenes usually need to come to some kind of resolution, otherwise you’ll frustrate your reader. Love scenes, well, there’s two ways to handle them. First, describe in detail to provide vicarious reading pleasure, or, deftly draw the curtain as soon as it becomes clear what is about to happen – and leave it to the reader’s imagination. To make scenes stand out, you can shift to another plot or subplot, which being different can frame the previous scene.

9.        Turning point in a scene:  There must be some kind of revelation or action that involves the character and contributes to moving the plot forward. Though not always possible in every scene, strive to make it a deeply emotional or satisfying experience for the reader. Defy expectations and avoid the predictable, otherwise your readers will yawn and....

Remember, the more thought you put into the front end of your writing, the more likely you will produce a better story.

Readers need a reason to read your novel,


editors are unforgiving about how you write the novel,

so, first you’ve got to write well!

This means you must write with a style that is easy to read and free from mistakes…