NaNoWriMo: What Your Story Has, and What’s Missing

Last week we looked at what a novel needs, which is character, plot, and resolution.

So how do you figure out what your pile of words has, what’s missing, and how to fix it?

The most straightforward method is an outline. You may have done this in English class back in the day when learning how to write a persuasive essay. An outline is a bulleted list, broken into descending sub-bullets, grouping thoughts together in sequence. You can do this with a manuscript whether you planned your story with an outline and notes or just dove in and let the narrative wander where it would.

An outline looks like this:

I. Lorem Ipsum

A. Dolor sit amet

B. Consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor

1. Incididunt ut labore

2. Et dolore magna aliqua

II. Ut enim ad minim veniam

A. Quis nostrud exercitation

1. Incididunt ut labore

2. Et dolore magna aliqua

a. Commodo consequat

B. Ullamco laboris nisi ut

C. Aliquip ex ea


and so on. The sequence traditionally goes back and forth between number and letter: I., A., 1., a., 1), a). But you can label them however you like, as long as you can keep track.

A Story in Five Acts

The Five-Act Structure, often used in plays, looks something like this:

  • Act I: Introduction (setting, character)
    • By the end of Act I: Inciting Action of Plot
  • Act II: Rising Action (conflict)
  • Act III: More Rising Action
    • Just before the end of Act III: Climax (the protagonist does something to solve the problem)
  • Act IV: Falling Action (what happens after the protagonist acts)
  • Act V: Denouement (the wrap-up or epilogue)

Disaster Strikes… Again

Modern stories look more like what the brilliant Randy Ingermanson calls “three disasters and an ending”:

  • Part 1: Introduction (setting, character)
    • By the end of Part 1: Inciting Action of Plot: A disaster occurs! caused by the antagonist!
  • Part 2: The protagonist tries to solve the problem.
    • By the end of Part 2: The protagonist’s efforts have caused another disaster!
  • Part 3: The protagonist grapples with the setback and tries something different to solve the problem.
    • By the end of Part 3: The protagonist’s efforts have caused a different disaster!
  • Part 4: The protagonist grapples with the setback and gets it right this time, solving the problem.
  • Part 5: Wrap-up/epilogue

This is still five parts, but the setback/comeback structure (or “the twist”) has a different emphasis. In the classic five acts, there’s one attempt, and the blowback (twist) from whatever the protagonist did is all focused in the back half of the story. In modern stories, there are multiple attempts, and each attempt causes more problems (twists), until the plot is resolved.

Holding Out for a Hero

Another classic story structure, which can use either of the rough skeletons above, is The Hero’s Journey. Folklorist Joseph Campbell wrote a book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, claiming that many myths had similar structures and character archetypes, and gathered them into what he described as The Monomyth. (Campbell’s work is a good starting point, but many myths don’t follow this structure, and he had typical racial and gender biases of the time.)

One of the benefits of using the Hero’s Journey, or Mythic Quest, as an outline for your story is that it sucks readers in like a vacuum cleaner. Easily half of any fantasy bookshelf is going to be some flavor of the Hero’s Journey. The original Star Wars trilogy, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix films, Watership Down, Men in Black, Neverwhere, Cars, Spirited Away, The Wizard of Oz, the Farseer series, The Hunger Games… you get the idea.

The Hero’s Journey has three large sections:

  1. Departure
  2. Initiation
  3. Return

Campbell breaks these down into 17 steps, which is a lot, and other writers and analysts have regrouped and renamed the steps to update them. Christopher Vogler distilled the steps into a really accessible guide for screenwriters, The Writer’s Journey, and I’ll use his structure here:

I. Departure

1. Ordinary World: Where the story starts. The life the protagonist is living, whether happy or not.

2. Call to Adventure: The inciting act of the plot. Something happens to beckon (or force) the protagonist to leave the safe Ordinary World.

3. Refusal of the Call: The protagonist resists at first. Home is safe, or the protagonist is desperately needed.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Someone offers to help the protagonist leave the Ordinary World and begin the adventure. This could be advice, material help, or actual guidance.

5. Crossing the First Threshold: The protagonist leaves the Ordinary World.

II. Initiation

6. Tests, allies, and enemies: The protagonist finds helpers and antagonists, and is tested through various ordeals. Conflict, drama, plot, adventure. Success and failure.

7. Approach to the inmost cave: The ”inmost cave” is where this story, whether it’s Person vs. Person, Society, or Nature overall, has a Person vs. Self moment. Here the protagonist must face their own deepest fears and temptations. (George Lucas took this pretty literally.)

8. The ordeal: Overcoming said fears and temptations.

9. Reward: As a reward for conquering their fears and temptations, the protagonist receives or earns something. It could be an object, information, training, someone being rescued, powers, peace (the end of war), or self-knowledge.

III. Return

10. The road back: The protagonist now has to resume the quest, return to their allies, or go home to the Ordinary World. This is also sometimes called the Second Threshold, because the protagonist has to leave the magical inner world to return to the prosaic outer or real world.

11. The resurrection: The protagonist has been permanently changed by surviving the Ordeal. They have been “reborn” as a new person, stronger and wiser. This is the point where the protagonist can use what they’ve learned or gained to overcome the antagonist.

12. Return with the elixir: ”Elixir” here means that whatever Reward the protagonist earned can be shared with the people left behind in the Ordinary World.


You can see how these are very broad categories, but they give you a lot of structure and guidance. The idea that “The protagonist tries to fix the problem and gets it wrong, which makes things worse” is sometimes hard for new writers to grasp. We love our characters. We want them to do everything correctly. “Oh, I know what I’d do in that situation!” We’d always have the answer, the quip, the cool head, the perfect aim.

But as writers, we have to torture our babies. We have to watch them screw up — in fact, we have to make them screw up. Conflict equals drama. As the architect of the story, we have to figure out not just the ideal solution, but “how could this go wrong?” and then allow that bad thing to happen. When a bad day gets worse because of something the protagonist did, that gives the protagonist more motivation to get things right and fix the problem.

Also, these steps don’t have to be followed in this precise order. It’s a guideline, not a law. The general flow (Departure, Initiation, Return) works, but the Mentor isn’t restricted to the Ordinary World, and there can be many of them (Obi-Wan meets Luke on Tatooine, even before he learns about the deaths of his aunt and uncle, but Luke has to leave everyone to go to Dagobah and find Yoda). All of The Return in The Wizard of Oz takes about four minutes out of the film’s 1:40 running time.

Build Your Skeleton

So now you have a pile of words and some tools. What do you do?

The first thing to do is start breaking down your story into scenes. A scene is a chunk of text which covers a chunk of stuff happening. That’s all. A scene can have a clear beginning and end, or it can be part of continuous text with a location, time, or point-of-view change.

A spreadsheet program like Excel or Google Sheets might be useful here, or mind mapping software, or just another Word/Google Docs document or piece of paper. My absolute favorite word processing program is Scrivener, which combines writing and outlining and even a dash of mind-mapping. Use whatever feels most comfortable.

What you’re going to do is start from the beginning of your manuscript and write down what each scene is. It can be a few words or a few sentences. Don’t get crazy — the idea here is just to get a sense of what’s going on. And don’t worry about the outline yet. To follow up on last week’s Sherlock Holmes quote, this part is shaping the clay into bricks.

It should look something like this:

  • Frodo wakes up. His uncle Bilbo is planning their joint birthday party.
  • Gandalf comes to the Shire. He’s a wizard known for fireworks.
  • The party starts that evening.
  • Fireworks are shot off. Frodo’s goofy friends eat a lot of food and behave like general nuisances.
  • Bilbo gives a speech… and disappears at the end of it!
  • Bilbo goes back to the house. Gandalf is waiting for him. They talk. Bilbo leaves.
  • Frodo comes back to the house. Gandalf asks if Bilbo ever mentioned a ring.

And so on. Very general thoughts.

When you get to the end of your bulleted list, you should have a sense of the shape of your story. Is it a Hero’s Journey? Three Disasters and an Ending? Can you see places where you could insert disasters to make it 3DAAE? Do you have a lot of small conflicts rather than three clear disasters?

You can also see what kind of conflict you have: Person vs. Person, Nature, Society, or Self. Your initial disaster is caused by the antagonist, and thwarts the protagonist’s further attempts to solve the problem. The Hunger Games is a Hero’s Journey and Person vs. Society. The Wizard of Oz is a Hero’s Journey and Person vs. Person. Pretty much every episode of Leverage is 3DAAE, and variously Person vs. Person or Person vs. Society, depending on the Bad Guy of the Week. The original Sherlock Holmes stories are more Five Acts, and usually Person vs. Person.

Now you have a bunch of bricks, and you can figure out what to build with them.

Create an empty outline and start moving your bullets into the sections. Just do the top level first — all of Act I or Part 1 or the Ordinary World, all of Act II, etc.

When you have your bullets sorted into acts or steps, it becomes apparent pretty quickly what sections are too large or too small, and where your disasters and thresholds are. Now you can see where you might need to cut, and what needs fleshing out.

One of the great things about this list is that it’s really easy to shuffle things around. Maybe you have all your disasters at the end and the protagonists are wandering around like headless chickens for the entire first half of the book. So move the disasters! Maybe you have a Person vs. Nature story, but the earthquake happens at the midpoint of the book instead of the end of the first act. That could tell you that you’ve spent a lot of time introducing characters which could be trimmed. Or your Hero has been struggling through the quest by herself, and you can’t figure out how to get her from City A to City B. Could she use some Mentors or Allies?

You can continue to organize your bullets into sub-bullets or smaller sections, or leave them as they are until the next draft. Your outline is a working document, meant to help you organize at a high level.

Next week, we’ll talk about narrative point of view, and how it intersects with your story structure.

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Images from Miramax Films, Columbia Pictures, Studio Ghibli, LucasFilm, Disney, New Line Cinema, MGM

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