Where The Story Starts
Today’s readers want a good story. Your beginning sets up your reader for the rest of the story. Lose them at the beginning and you won’t get them back. Your goal at the beginning, is to get the readers involved in the story.
Beginning writers can struggle with all the information out there on novel writing—story structure, beats, inciting incident, three act structure, four act structure—and end up with a mish-mash of ideas about where to begin. In the first few pages of your novel you need to get the reader to the story.
Just as you are taking steps writing your beginning, you want to take your reader by the hand and get them into the story. Rather than getting lost in trying to fit your story into a plot structure try going chapter by chapter.
18:26 I’ve got my story but how do I choose a title?
21:51 Do you have any tips for writing dialogue?
Focus on Getting Readers Into Your Story
I’ve mentioned writer/editor Bonnie Johnston’s 40 sentences before. Let’s take a look at how they work in the beginning.
1 It’s business as usual for your protagonist, who’s being his sympathizable self while he chases his dream…until something throws him off-stride. (Could be someone messing with him, or could be he slipped up.)
Introduce your detective. Show him using his skill, the throw him a problem. Introduce your detective’s personality and how they respond when they’re thrown off track.
2 We see what’s special about him as he does his best to recover from the stumble, but we also see what sucks about the rut he’s stuck in, and how his flaw or wound is keeping him there.
Your detective pulls out his usual problem sovling skills but misses something important because...well, his thinking flaw, his ego, his inability to deal with women...whatever his flaw keeps him from making progress.
3 He thinks he’s getting his groove back, but instead he staggers face-first into the inciting incident, which irrevocably screws up his life and starts the clock ticking on his story goal.
While he thinks he’s making progress, in spite of his flaw, suddenly the murder looms large which turns things upside down. He must solve the murder or...
4 He didn’t handle that very well, did he? So he indulges in one or more coping mechanisms as he muddles through the aftermath, resolving to get his life back on track.
Your detective takes a step back and then follows a the first clue or interviews the first suspect. He gets new information. Here’s where you can plant a clue that the detective misses the first time. .
5 Your protagonist has a new plan, and it’d be a great one, if it wasn’t based on his misbelief. But something has changed, whether he recognizes it or not, and things get a little rocky as he executes it.
Aha! Your detective has a plan. He has no idea that he has overlooked something important like a snippet of dialogue that was false. He starts tracking down other suspects.
Story Eases Plot Worry For Novel Writers
I love these storyline sentences because they focus on the story. They gently guide you through story. No worries about whether you’ve reached the right beat, or whether this setback is the inciting incident or where the break to Act 2 is.
You can see that you have great leeway in bringing your detective into action. You’ve done your character work and your research and your world building. And if you are a nonlinear writer you are able to insert the scenes you’ve written in the appropriate place.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writersWrite A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Your Novel Outline Can Make You Invincible
For a writer, nothing feels better than writing The End when your novel is finished. Beginning novelists can flounder around trying to make the first novel work. An outline can keep your story on track and make all the difference when it comes to writing your entire novel and reaching the end.
Novel outlines are as different as novel writers and there are many good sources to use. The difference for you is creating the outline and writing your story to The End.
Working through your outline will
The more detailed your outline, for example, each scene within the chapter, the easier you will find the writing.
Your novel outline is flexible. You can add or delete scenes or move them around in the storyline. Scenes can change as you write them. The outline makes sure that every component keeps your story on track to the end.
Novel Outline Choices
A novel outline can be anything that helps you create an overview of the entire novel. It can be as simple as writing the chapter sequences in a notebook or as detailed as using a spreadsheet. Some people enjoy the reassurance of boxes in a spreadsheet and some the flexibility of a mind map. There's a style for everyone.
The Old Standby
The traditional storyboad outline is constructed with 3 x 5 index cards on a wall or bulletin board. Cards are lined up in the three act structure.
You can carry the cards with you anywhere to make a note. This writer also added notes torn from a notebook. The beauty of this storyboard is that you can rearrange the cards any way you wish. Especially in the planning stage as you work through the complete story, it is easy to rearrange scenes.
Since 1974 when Post-it notes were invented, some writers use these sticky notes rather than index cards. The ease of use is the same.
Computer software has added new space-saving ways to create an outline. You can create a MS Word document with a table as a story outline.
Or a spreadsheet. You can create your own or search for the many available templates online.
Download the Word or Excel templates and get started.
Many novelists rely on Scrivener as their go-to software for writing. Within the software is a bulletin board where you can "pin" cards just like the index cards on a bulletin board. As you create your outline you can move scenes and chapters the same way you can with a real life bulletin board.
A mind map is useful for complex novels with many characters, opposing political factions and alignments, or completely different worlds. The map can not only list all the characters, but group them and illustrate interrelationships. I use FreeMind a very flexible and detailed open source tool. You can add links to research urls.
If free flow appeals to you, mind maps are a great way to construct your story overview. There are many options, just search for mind maps and take your pick.
There are a number of outlines available for a modest price such as Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. And many that are genre specific. A web search for your genre novel outline will give you many choices.
If your story is based on sequenced events in one day or takes place over a long period of time a timeline will help you make sure your events are in correct sequence. Aeon Timeline not only makes it easy to visualize the entire sequence but integrates with Scrivener.
In The Cloud
Cloud storage frees up space on your computer's hard disk. Google Drive offers Docs and Sheets for word processing and spreadsheets. I use Docs when I am writing short stories. I keep it simple by creating a character list and chapter outline in the main document. I can quickly go to the outline using a header which shows up on the left.
Sterling and Stone is beta testing a writing app called StoryShop. You can get on the list now when it goes live.
Do The Work, Then Write
The number of ways you can create your novel outline are manifold. Choose the method that fits your personality, your writing style, and your genre. The important step is to create the outline.
Work through your story. Use whatever structure and beat sequence you want. Fill in all the components of your novel. You'll find that writing will go faster when you know exactly how a scene fits into a story.
The novel outline is a power tool for getting to the end of your novel.
Have questions about outlining your novel? Get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
Master Mystery Outline Template
I am using Story Shop to create a master outline template for mysteries. The software is still in development stage with a generic outline. The developers have plans for outline templates in the future, but in the interim while the software is in beta testing, I decided to create my own format for mysteries.
Mystery stories have a number of false suspects and false clues. In the planning stages I like knowing what those false leads are so I can add foreshadowing.
An important part of the outline for a mystery is each of the crimes. In addition to the overall mystery outline, I created an outline for the crime(s) with sections for:
Of course, I have the overall story outline from start to finish.
Every story has its cast of characters, and for a mystery the characters have a rôle in the story. The sleuth, the villain, the false suspects, the supporting cast all contribute to the story. I created a set of character qualities for each of these rôles to work in any story.
Then, depending on the character rôle in the story, each type has a set of details.
With these prototypes set up, I can easily begin a new story and add details as I think of them. For instance, as I work on finishing The Peach Widow I can begin notes on the next story. The story is still waiting for a title but I know some of the characters and details of the crimes.
I'll be curious to see how my outline compares to the outline the folks at StoryShop provide in the future.
Beta testing has its challenges. Although the software is much more stable than it was at the beginning, there are still bugs. For instance, when I entered the The Crimes outline everything was saved. But, when I entered the overall outline for the generic story the software was unable to save it. I tried several times, but no save.
The developers warned us that things could be lost and that we should keep a backup of everything until the software was stable. Today I'm waiting for feedback on this problem. Overall, I'm delighted with the planning aspects of StoryShop and am enthusiastic about testing the software.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.