I’m excited to welcome Nina Post to the blog today to discuss outlining. Whether or not you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I hope you all find the post beneficial and enjoy reading about how these 3 beats shaped Nina’s novels.
3 Beats to Hit When Outlining Your Novel
I have my merit badge in outlining.
Writers who have never outlined often misunderstand it. It’s not formulaic — it gives you a strong, cohesive, well-paced narrative. It doesn’t constrain you from adding details later; rather, it helps you be more creative with details because you’ve already structured the story.
In this article, I’ll cover the three story beats I always make sure to nail down. You can call them whatever you like (I refer to them by much shorter names in my outline), but they’re crucial. I use examples from my three books: The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse, The Last Donut Shop of the Apocalypse (phew, I need shorter titles), and One Ghost Per Serving.
#1: In Which Your Protagonist Makes an Active Choice
Something has happened to your character to disrupt their life, and they have a choice to make. I like to have my protagonist resist at first, but then they make an active decision to step into the unknown, based on a clear motivation.
Last Condo Board: Kelly thinks about her recent bounty jobs, which have reduced in quality since a vampire huntress took credit for bagging the Mennonite Butler (a fugitive, and a werewolf at that). And getting some much-needed recognition for her work makes her decide:
- “Kelly’s previous two jobs before finding the Jackal’s painting were capturing over-breeding bunnies on a college campus and tracking down a mysterious scent. She hadn’t exactly been a world-beater since…too long.”
“He’s called some references. They raved about your resourcefulness and your skill with disguises.”
“I’ll get started this morning,” she said, walking away.
Last Donut Shop: Frustrated by her new day job as interim manager of Amenity Tower, Kelly is itching for a bounty job, so she decides to take a bail bonds agent up on his job offer to find the missing president of Clucking Along Holdings.
Ghost: Eric is desperate to regain the affection of his wife and daughter. This is jeopardized even more when he buys the wrong birthday cake for his daughter, who had pointed out the prize on the lids of the Quantal Organic yogurt cups when they were in the grocery store. He goes back for another cake, then makes the decision to load all of the Quantal yogurt into his cart.
#2: In Which Your Protagonist Chooses to Commit
The stakes are raised here, and your protagonist has to step it up. If there’s already a ticking clock, its effects or ramifications are intensified or expanded.
Last Condo Board: Kelly finds her handler’s five hundred copies of the record album, Grace Zabriskie Sings the Ferret Hits. This is inexplicable, at least at the time, but she also finds a custom-made ferret pellet that indicates a possible betrayal, and a major clue to the finding out what happened to her family.
Last Donut Shop: Kelly finds someone she thought didn’t exist: someone who could be family.
Ghost: When Eric calls a number on the lid of one of the Quantal yogurts, the villain deploys a contest hit squad helicopter, raising the stakes to survival.
#3: In Which Your Protagonist Finds His or Her Life Really Quite Crappy and Would Rather Hide Under the Bed than Deal with Reality
Last Condo Board: When Af reverts to his original Angel of Destruction form after a traumatic experience at the periodontist’s office, Kelly makes her way through a ravaged Pothole City to find the Single-Purpose Angels. The ferryman can’t take it anymore, either, and leaves her with only a coupon for 10% off any ferrying service. She takes the imaginary counsel of her mentor, legendary pro football coach Jay Vanner, then compartmentalizes her negative thoughts and keeps going.
- ” ‘Kelly, you need to separate yourself, mentally and physically, from this adverse situation. If you can’t change things to your liking, just send the reminders of the past on their way.’ Kelly pictured all of the thoughts and images in her head as birds. She turned the birds into paper origami, tossed them into a fireplace, doused them with lighter fluid, and flicked a lit match onto the pile.”
Last Donut Shop: Kelly thinks that Af is going to leave — and she has a bad flu, but she needs to save the SPs and prevent the fallen angels on the condo board from kick-starting another apocalypse.
- “She had never wanted anything more than to just crawl into bed. Anything else would be secondary, if not further down the list. Finding her mother’s killer? Secondary. Avenging her? Secondary. Closing the air handler so inter-dimensional monsters from moldy galaxy cracks stopped getting sucked into Amenity Tower and then obliterating Pothole City? Secondary. Finding Archie? Secondary. Getting Archie installed back at CAH so the SPs could continue to get their nutrients from Cluck Snack? Secondary. Keeping the SPs alive, thereby maintaining the delicate balance of the universe? Secondary. Keeping Af here? Friendship? Love? Connecting with family? All secondary at best compared to any bed at all.”
Ghost: Eric discovers that their house, which his wife put up for sale, has been completely destroyed under a dubious application of eminent domain rules.
I hope that these story beats are helpful to you, dear reader, whether or not you’re doing NaNoWriMo right now. If you have any questions about outlining, I’d be happy to answer them on Twitter! And thanks to Fel, who graciously gave me room on her blog for a guest post.
Thanks Nina! I don’t normally outline, but I’ll be keeping those points in mind when I’m writing and revising.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Nina’s books and her website. I’m currently enjoying The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse.