Notes from a Published Author: How to Outline Your Novel | Maxxe Riann | Skillshare

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Notes from a Published Author: How to Outline Your Novel

teacher avatar Maxxe Riann, Author|Artist| Student

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      The Tools at Your Disposal


    • 3.

      How to Structure Your Story


    • 4.

      How to Outline Your Project


    • 5.

      Subplots and Plot-Builders


    • 6.

      Research and Worldbuilding


    • 7.

      Final Project


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About This Class

So you've got some characters, you've done some worldbuilding, and you have a concept-- all the essential building blocks for a long-form story. But you still need one more thing-- a plan! 

As a former NaNoWriMo pantser, and now a dedicated planner (and longtime Dungeons and Dragons DM, and published author), I know how daunting it can be to look down at a blank page and blinking cursor and just not have any idea how to start. Planning-- pre-plotting, outlining, and research, as well as a few other tips I'll share-- is your best friend. 

This class will teach you how to go from a blank page and a head full of ideas to a well-organized, detailed plan that you can follow as you develop your story. 

Meet Your Teacher

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Maxxe Riann

Author|Artist| Student

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Welcome to my class on pre-planning your long-term fiction. If you're new to my videos, welcome. If you've been here before, welcome back. My name is Max and I've been reading novels for the last ten years or so, a couple of which are published. I also play a lot of DMD and I am very much in love with the practice of planning and plotting out stories, even if it's just in my head. So let's talk about that idea of why you should or shouldn't play in your novel. To be clear, there's a dedicated group of folks out there who call themselves pincers. If you're familiar with nano Rhino, then you've probably heard this term. People who like to write without planning or plotting out much beforehand, figuratively, flying by the seat of their pants. Hence the term I used to be enhancer back when most of what I was writing was fanfiction right up through my first long-form story. I was just concerned with putting words on paper. To be clear, that's got its value two. And if something you've planned out isn't working in the moment, I absolutely believe in changing it up. Deviating from the plan is perfectly fine. But in order to deviate from the plan, you have to have a plan to deviate from. I believe pretty firmly, that if you want your story to feel cohesive and for all of its moving parts to make sense. Plotting ahead of time is the way to go. If like me, you like to write complex stories, lots of different machinations and subplots all happening at once. I would even argue that planning is the only way to go. Otherwise, you lose track of where all of your characters are, of what's happening to whom and which of your characters have even encountered one another before or where they are on the map. My editor likes to refer to my less plans chapters as skippy doing in which my character's run from place to place without any real purpose as I tried to figure out what to do with them. Scooby doing in case it's not clear, isn't that great? So this course in endeavour teach you all how to avoid mistakes and plan out your story more effectively. I'm gonna teach you the following. What the tools are that you have at your disposal, including what I use, what some of my author friends use, and some tips and tricks for using each of those strategies. How to structure your story. So coming up with the big plots, crafting a hero's journey, making sure that the plot climbs at climaxes and all of that good stuff. How to outline your now structured story, writing it all out so that you can keep track of it, which gives you the benefit of having pre-planned chapters. So all you have to do is sit down and write them either, right? The difference between a big plot item and a story altering subplot. They're both potentially useful. They're both great, but they're different things and they should be treated differently in your story and in your approach to planning. And of course, character seats and development and how that, and how that fits into your grand plan setting. So how to keep track of where your characters are and know how to fit different settings into your plot in an impactful, useful way. Research, if you're writing a long form piece of fiction, you're creating the fabricated reality of this world, of these characters and of their history. It's your job to create a lawyer that doesn't contradict itself. If you need to look up real-world facts like chemistry or physics to help out with that. Don't hesitate. It's important to annotate your outline with real life stuff to make sure that your world feels real. And we're gonna talk about how to incorporate that. And of course, organization. A big part of this class is really just how to keep all of the gods upon gobs of information you've come up with organized. But then also how to revise that organize stuff when it just isn't working. And of course, the final projects which we'll get to at the end of the class. As always, thank you all so much for watching. Now let's get into it. 3. How to Structure Your Story: Alright, so now that you have a system in place to write down all of the stuff, let's talk about how to structure your story. To be clear, this section is all about coming up with the big plots you wanna craft to flow to the action, get the pacing more or less where you want it and craft character journeys. In this process. There isn't really one right way to do this. But just to give you a general idea of what this looks like, you're going to want the following three things. A beginning, a middle, and an idea of a resolution. But Max, why isn't there an enlightened? Because Well, a lot of reasons. The main reason is I don't think you should plot and ending right away. Because a lot of the time when authors do this, it kinda screws over what the characters learn, how the characters grow, and how your plot might shift from when you start thinking about it, when you're done writing. Crafting an ending for your initial idea is great, but it might not fit your story at all by the time you're done figuring out the details and actually writing the thing. If you look at TV shows, there are a couple of really key vendors in there. I think how I met your mother and Gilmore Girls are like the worst offenders in my book. What I think is way more important than figuring out an ending and sticking to it, is figuring out what you want your resolution to feel like. Not even necessarily the details, just the idea of a resolution. If your story is built around a mystery, the resolution is that your characters have to solve the mystery by the end. If your story starts with a smoking gun on a mantle, that guns should probably a fired by the time your story ends. If you start in one place, you should end somewhere else. And if you end back in the same place where you started, then your characters had better have gone through hell and back to get there. A lot of people will tell you about the plot pyramid, where you have the start, the rising action, the climax, the falling action and the resolution. Or they'll tell you about the call to action, the hero's journey in which there is a mysterious mentor, a final fight, and then the fallout of that final fight. You'll recognize the storytelling tropes everywhere. If you look hard enough, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Aragon, which is basically just Star Wars crossroad, Lord of the Rings, even frozen to, if you know about these tropes, you can subvert them and use them in some really interesting ways. If you want examples for how to do that, just go read lots and lots and lots of B Schwab paragraph fifths, Neil Gaiman, they're all really, really good about this. For the record, these troops aren't bad. If you're writing high fantasy DND, developing a video game, I'd recommend looking into these trips. There really good ways of ensuring consistent pacing, a well-organized plot, and making sure that there's a decent mixture of action and emotion. There tropes for a reason, the work, there's nothing wrong with using them, especially if you can really nail the execution when they're utilized. Well, you don't even notice that they're there. Again, frozen to I didn't even realize it until someone pointed it out. Same thing for the Incredibles and The Incredibles too. And all of these stories really subvert these sort of story structure tropes and turn them on their heads. Which if you ask me, that's pretty darn cool. So what you wanna do for this in your outline, figure out where your characters are at the beginning of the story. You're trying to pay attention to positionality. When and where does this take place in the context of your world? Who is your character at the start of this? And most importantly, what do they want? You're gonna want to figure this out for your whole being cast of characters to see how they fit together. Think of this in Dia de terms as meeting the party or in terms of establishing shots in movies. Think Luke Skywalker working at the hydro farm, thinks symbol singing, I just can't wait to be king. That's your beginning, it's your starting points. Then you need something to complicate that beginning. It's your call to action or your rising action, whatever you wanna call it. What changes or complicates daily life for your character and pushes them into their journey. It can be anything the butterfly effect is real, can be finding out a piece of information that changed his life forever. It can be a barber, all that ends really badly. It could be a stray bullet catching something somewhere vital, a breakup, a windfall, really anything. So from there, you need to figure out what the climaxes. Is it a giant fight? Is it finding someone or something has been lost? Is it figuring out a mystery? Once you figure out what that is, keep in mind, that is your climax. It should be the most emotionally heightened point of the story. Or if it isn't and it's super anticlimactic, then it's your job to figure out why that's the case. Then you need to figure out what to do with everyone. That's your resolution or your ending. Again, I wouldn't actually do too much with that. And just yet, I would just keep in mind, I think this is maybe the only part of the story that I wouldn't try to plan ahead or plot out too much right from the get-go. And once the mysteries are solved in the boss fight is over. You can figure all that out after you're done. Actually a lot of the pieces sort of fall into place naturally. Once you've written up to that point, I think it's way more important to very carefully construct how you get from beginning to action to climax than from climax resolution. 4. How to Outline Your Project: Right, so outlining, you didn't think that structure was going to be the same as outlining, did you? What? Outlining is actually my favorite part of writing. Any outlining is where you get to take all of that information, even thinking about that big overarching plot. And you get to put it down on paper for the first time. You get to break it down into chapters. You get to figure out what goes where. This is, where you actually get to envision what you've been thinking about all this time in novel form. The obvious benefit of this process is that you end up with pre-planned chapters. So when it comes time to actually write, you know, what's coming, all you have to do is sit down and write it. This also gives you your first chance to notice any big plot holes. And it gives you a nice structure for back to when the time comes to edit. So how do we outlined? Think back to structure. I tends to break down my outlines intersections, either three or five depending on the size and length of the project. I usually stick may be getting at part one, which lets that be the rising action and the call to action, the thing that changes all of that. Then I'll mark the climax and resolution down for either the middle of part three or the end of Part four, depending on how many sections I've got going on there. The idea is to create a structure that the rest of the story can very loosely fit into. And then from there that's when I got a little bit more specific. I don't usually break it into chapters at first, but I will put down general plot points and usually give each section eight to ten chapters. And I think you'll find that's actually sort of standard for fiction writers. And then I make sure that something happens in each chapter. But again, not that concerned without at the early stages of outlining what you should be marking down our minor conflicts, different things that your characters might run into. And more importantly, the decisions that they'll have to make and the challenges they'll have to face. Each section should have its own little mini plot arc, it's own rising action, it's own little mini climax. It just has to be smaller than that big boss fight. But you know, it was coming at the end. It can be really easy to get caught up in the details as you're planning this out. And I would make sure that you keep a character sheet and amount in front of you as you go. Just because, again, it can be easy to lose track of where everyone is. You don't need to have all of your specifics a 110% planned out. This is just bare bones. I usually leave two or three bullet points for each chapter and then I call it a day. It's just enough to know who was, where, what they're doing, and why. I do think it's important to sit down and jot down an outline, even if things move around, even if things change. Because it'll help you see what the final version of your story is going to look like. And that's probably enough to give you a sense of the different permutations in the different directions that you can take it in. Your goal without lining is just to get it down on paper and put a basic structure in place again on the page. 5. Subplots and Plot-Builders: Okay, so you're outlining and it starts to feel a little too bare-bones. There's just more stuff that you want to make sure you include. And that my friends is what we call a subplot or is it I want to take a second and just talk about the difference between a subplot and applaud builder. There both potentially useful. They're both great. But I see a lot of people getting them confused when they're actually totally different things and you should, as a result, be treating them differently in your story. So let's talk some definitions. As far as I'm concerned, a subplot is a thing that happens that doesn't really fit into your main overarching plot. By it affects your characters, their emotions, their actions. But it doesn't really affect your main plot. That beginning, middle resolution are good example of this is say, two of your characters get together romantically in a book that is not in any way, shape, or form a romance novel. Bonus points if their side characters. That's a subplot. Likewise, say your character is supposed to be looking for a sword in order to fight a big scary thing. And it's the quest leading up to the boss fight. And she gets totally derailed by evidence of a really sad bad thing that happened as a direct result of the scary villains actions. And she stops to help some people out. Maybe she gets a little injured or a little emotionally sideswiped along the way. It doesn't alter the plot. Not really. Doesn't change anything fundamental about the character. But what it does is it allows for a little bit more range. It helps expand the world or their relationships or something, but it isn't actually a fundamental cornerstone of the main plot. Now, say your character ends up in a relationship, but the person they end up in a relationship with happens to be an agent of evil who is trying to corrupt the hero or see their looking for the sword, for the phosphate. But it turns out that in the knowledge that they gain on what basically amounts to a side quest ends up fundamentally changing the way that they fight later on. In that case, we're still pretty firmly in subplot territory. But all of a sudden those subplots matter a little more to the overall story. The form, miniature conflicts in and of themselves, which sort of creates these Meetups, plot arcs that can interact with the main story. These are what I like to call the good complications. And I think these can be a lot of fun. If you're going to try and use them, you should make sure that you write them down in your outline as you go through and flesh it out further. It means were the kinds of plot threads that can get tangled up pretty easily. And this is why going back to revisit your outline as you write more is so important. The thing about subplots is that the story would, on a bare-bones level, probably be fine without them a little emptier? Yes. A little more boring. Also, yes. But the plot would still carry on and it would still make sense. And that I think is the difference between these cases which are still firmly subplots and what I like to refer to as plot builders. A plot builder is something that seems like a subplot, but it's actually crucial to a later turning point. So say your characters former relationship with someone early on in what looks like a subplot. But then that person shows up later and helped them when the boss fight and it wouldn't be possible without them. Or if they realized, well, they're often looking for a sword. That it's not the magic sword that matters, but rather the interpersonal relationships that are the key to defeating evil, the friendships we find along the way, whatever it is, plot builders are just as important as subplots, maybe even more so. And yes, you should be jotting them down to putting your outline too. 6. Research and Worldbuilding: I just want to take a second and chat about research. I'm not going to talk about this too much because I already have a whole class on world-building. Please go check that out if you haven't already. But like I said in the introduction, if you're writing a long form piece of fiction, you are creating the fabricated reality of this world, of these characters, of their history. It is your job to create a lawyer that doesn't contradict itself. If you need to look up real-world facts, chemistry, physics to help out with that. Don't hesitate. It's really important that you annotate your outline with the real life stuff if it's relevant, because that's what helps you world feel real. I also think that you should probably draw out a map. It's the same premise is having a series of maps for something like Dungeons and Dragons. There's a reason why you see maps and family trees for that matter in the cover pages of fantasy books. It's really, really helpful for keeping track of where your characters are. What information needs to be keeping in mind that any given points, how they all relate to one another. I usually keep a separate page running in whatever scrivener file, amusing or in a small notebook that's just facts and ideas that I think are important to my world. And the way that politics, logistics, even things that are as simple as the weather work in the world that I'm creating. If I'm writing a piece of historical fiction, then yeah, I have to double-check everything from one street lamps are invented to when we switched from carriages to cars. And wow, can you tell I write a lot of alternate Victorian and Edwardian things because I can. Anyway, it's important to keep track of things like your magic system as well. Again, not gonna talk too much about it. I have a class on that. It is posted. The basic bare-bones functions of how you're invented world works. Absolutely have an impact on your characters and on the world around them. It's really important to know and to keep track of that. And I think it's really important to make sure that you have it written down somewhere that you can reference easily. Because that will help you, again from getting too tangled up in the details or making simple mistakes later on, that will save you from getting yelled at by your editor. I'm also not going to do a whole video on characters just because pretty much anything I'd wanna say in detail here either deserves its own class in full or I've already covered it in the Heroes and Villains class that's posted also on my page. But as long as we're talking about outlines, I will say this. You want to basic list of characters. You want have their relationships to one another, jot it down. And you're going to want to know their basic motivations. It just makes life a little easier if they're all in one place. Whether that's a notebook, a Word file, or just another separate section of your outline. If there's one main takeaway here, it's great stuff down. If it helps things make more sense, it will help you later. You're going to think you can keep track of all of it in your head. Maybe you can. The extra security of having it written down is just really instrumental to staying organized. As you go through multiple drafts, as you edit. Or just as you'd get from a to B to C as you write out your main draft. 7. Final Project: I just wanna be really clear about this. A big part of this class is really just keeping gobs upon gobs of information organized. But it's also how to revise that organized self when it just isn't working. The point of an outline is more or less that if one thing doesn't work, you can look at the bigger picture because the bigger picture is all there in your notes. I also want to be clear that you can only improvise. Sometimes you have to change things up. I get that. I've done that any number of times. But I would just recommend having a framework to come back to, which is pretty much the point of this class. So your final project, you're gonna outline and very own piece of long-form fiction using the tools discussed in this class, it's your job to start plotting, planning, and organizing your story. Your goal here is to create a comprehensive outline, a big plot, a few pre-planned subplots, and a story arc that shows a journey of some kind. You're also going to want to make sure that you have a way to keep track of your characters, of your settings, and many big recurring details that you just don't want to screw up. You have four options for how to do this. You can go with a poster board post-its, and a notebook, which is what I like to call the old school way of doing this. You can go with a beagle Microsoft Word doc. I would avoid this one if you're more of a visual thinker. But it's really good if you're just getting it all on paper. And always go with option three, scrivener, my love, my life, the savior of all aerating troubles. It's the best thing ever as far as I'm concerned. Or of course, number four, which is any permutation of these listed options. Any outline should have a Setting Section, a history and L4 section. The main plot, a list of subplots if you need them. Some way to keep track of chronology, what's happening when, especially if you have multiple plots running around there. A character, at least basic traits, motivations and relationships, and any other information that you really deem necessary. As always with my classes, You do you adopt as you need to fit what is or isn't working for you. We're all different. We all write differently. That's important. There are some tools that might help you out here feel free to reference some of that character sheet from how to write heroes and villains. If you haven't already, please feel free to check that class out. I've also attached to the character sheet here to this class or the practice of NAACP development, which is in the settings section of this video that might be helpful for you as well. Your goal is to have as much information on paper as possible so that you're never forced to veer off into adults, right? So my whole story is just getting thrown off the rails territory. If you can avoid that, then my job here is done. Now, good luck and get writing.