The Ultimate Guide to Outlining a Novel Using SuperStructure

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, outlining your novel is still a huge task and can be daunting. If you’re a plotter, you might spend too much time on outlining, and when you’re a pantser, you might spend too little time on outlining.

outlining a novel

I’m a pantser myself, and rarely make an outline that goes any further than a loosely jotting down some points for the story. And then I write, and it changes. I write some more, and it changes again. Then I see what I wrote wasn’t strong enough: it’s not escalating the stakes. So I start over.

Repeat.

That takes a lot of time, which I could have saved by spending just a bit more time in brainstorming the important points of my story. By outlining my novel.

But then there’s the problem: what are the important points? And what to put in those points? How do you go about brainstorming this?

That’s where my editor recommended the book: Super-structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story, by James Scott Bell.

In this book, Bell gives a total of 14 so-called signposts that are crucial in your story. Not only that, but he also gives you tips on how to brainstorm, examples of the signposts in other stories, and at what point to think about the signpost when you’re a pantser or a plotter.

I found outlining my novel using his method extremely helpful, and so I thought I’d share it with you. Naturally, it’s a condensed version of what’s in the book, so if this method appeals to you, definitely check it out!

Get the book on Amazon.


1. Disturbance

The disturbance is the signpost that starts off the story. This is the very first scene, the one that’s supposed to grab the reader immediately. While you want to lay-out the ordinary world of the character, nothing says that this needs to be all happy and regular—that’s just boring. You need trouble.

This can be achieved by change, such as the character moving, or by alluding to the trouble to come, or by explaining a disturbance that’s already happened. Some novels also use an intriguing first line. Whatever you do, it needs to be there already in the first paragraph. That’s when you get your reader to pay attention.

Example

In the Hunger Games, in the very first few sentences, Katniss wakes up, feels next to her, and finds Primrose, her sister, gone. That in itself is a disturbance. But there’s more: Katniss thinks to herself Prim must have climbed into bed with their mother, since it’s the day of the reaping.

We don’t know what the reaping is yet, but we know it can’t be good. Now, we want to know more: what kind of world is this, what is the reaping? And where is their father?

Come up with ideas

The tip Bell gives for coming up with a disturbance when outlining a novel, is by writing several opening lines. Just write a whole list of them (say between 10-15). Try the different ways you can open, including dialogue. Then, you can pick the three you like best and think up ideas for the scene based on these opening sentences/paragraphs. And then just select the idea that resonates most with you!


2. Care Package

You always want to create empathy for your main character. Even if your character is a piece of sh*t, the reader needs to care about them. They need to hope for their redemption. If they don’t care about the character, then why should they keep on reading?

So, how do you establish that? With this signpost: the Care Package. It’s a relationship the main character has with someone else, where they show they care for that character’s well-being. If a character can care about someone else, the reader can care about the character. It can be a parent, a sibling, a friend, relatives, a pet, or even someone who’s already dead.

Example

If you think about Katniss, you think about… Prim. It’s clear that Prim is her Care Package when she takes Prim’s place in the Games. It goes beyond caring: it’s the ultimate sacrifice. How can you not root for Katniss after that? The Care Package doesn’t have to be that strong, but it should be clearly noticeable.

Come up with ideas

If you’re a plotter, you can use the Care Package as an emotional starting point for outlining your novel. Think about the backstory of your character, what their relationships are, and which you could use as the Care Package. If you’re a pantser, you can stop for a moment when you’ve written between 5 to 10k, and consider the main character, who is now becoming clearer. Ask yourself what kind of relationship they can have that shows a caring spirit, and even write a scene on that if you want. Even if you don’t use it, you will get a better grasp of your character.


3. Argument against transformation

This signpost helps in setting up the character arc for your main character. There is a lesson your character learns throughout, and they change by the end of the novel. But they’re not going to be changed immediately. Humans don’t like change: they resist it. This doesn’t need to be a full scene, but it needs to be a beat in one of the scenes. The character clearly states what they will never do, and by the end of the book, it’s exactly what they do.

Example

In the entire Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has the arc of having no hope to hope for a future and is prepared to fight for it. It’s clear that she doesn’t have hope for a good future when she says: “I never want to have kids.”

Come up with ideas

As a pantser, pause at any time during your writing, when you have some idea about the theme of your novel, and what kind of change the character will go through. Then, in a document, write as your main character to explain all the reasons they should not be in the story. Why they won’t change into the person you want them to change.

As a plotter, you can think about your main character right off the bat: how do you want them to change? What kind of person do you want them to be at the end, and who are they at the beginning? You can interview your character to get an idea. Then put a beat in an early scene, with a clear thought or philosophy or statement that characterizes them as the people they are at the beginning.


4. Trouble Brewing

This scene happens around the middle of Act I. It gives off a whiff of more trouble to come. It can be a mysterious sound, the changing of the weather, a discovery, or surprising information, as long as it’s clear that something big is coming soon.

Example

In the Hunger Games, we get a sense of trouble brewing underneath the surface when they talk about the Reaping. Then, Katniss and Gale go to the major’s house to sell their strawberries, which leads to a short conversation and reflection about the bills: the more bills you have, the more likely it is they pull your name. This is new information for us, giving a sense of foreboding when we know how many tickets Katniss and Gale have compared to the richer kids in District 12. It’s clear: something bad is going to happen at that Reaping.

Come up with ideas

Brainstorm bits of information that might be delivered as a surprise. Or think about what your villain is doing and planning ‘off-scene’. Something they do can ripple into the ‘on-scene’ moment to create the Trouble Brewing beat.


5. Doorway of no return #1

This is the last signpost of Act I. This gives the confrontation, after which there’s no turning back. That is important: if this beat is reversible, the story will come off as weak. Just think about Dorothy being blown away to Oz; that’s the kind of irreversible moment you want. The character wants to stay in their safe, ordinary world, but this signpost thrusts them out of it.

This is where Bell talks about death stakes. These stakes can be psychological death, physical death, or professional death. It all depends on the theme/Genre of your story (check this post to find the Genre of your story). This beat usually happens around the 1/5 or 1/4 mark of your story. But it is possible for it to happen sooner, like in the Hunger Games.

Example

A very irreversible event happens for Katniss, when she’s taken into a door, and then on to the train to ride to the Capitol to participate in the Hunger Games. There’s no turning back for her here.

Come up with ideas

When outlining your novel, think about what kind of death stake is at the forefront of your story. Is it psychological, physical, or professional? Is it irreversible? Can the main character resist? Does it follow naturally from the disturbance and the trouble brewing beat?


6. Kick in the Shins

We are now in Act II, where the kick in the shins is the first obstacle the character faces in this Act. You shouldn’t wait too long with this scene, or the reader will wonder if things are really that bad after all. This obstacle also needs to be related to the type of death stake you chose.

Example

In Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta are transported by train to the capitol. They meet their mentor, Haymitch, who is drunk and vomits. Peeta offers to help him. Katniss wonders why he would do that, and then remembers the time he gave her the bread when she was hungry. Peeta is a kind person.

This complicates things because she knows she has to kill him to get home to Prim. And how do you kill someone in cold blood when they’ve been kind to you? And she knows Peeta is also coming up with a plan of his own, that he will fight to kill her as well.

While the complication itself is more internal, and of an emotional value, it does increase the physical death stake: staying alive and killing another tribute has just become a bit harder.

Come up with ideas

At whichever time you feel like thinking about this scene, come up with a long list of obstacles and opposition characters. When you get around 15 or 20, choose the ones you like best and order them from bad, to worse, to worst. The one that is bad is then your kick in the shins moment, and you can add this beat to your novel’s outline.


7. Mirror Moment

This is probably the most crucial moment in the book, happening right in the middle. It’s the moment where, in some movies, you literally see the character staring at themselves in the mirror. What kind of person are they? What kind of person do they want to be? They either need to change or die (literally or figuratively). The kind of death they will experience is again tied to the death stakes.

In a psychological death, it’s indeed about the: what kind of a person am I? What do I have to do to change? They know if they continue down this road, they will come to hate themselves even more. Here, the character needs to grow into a better person (or not, if you write a tragedy).

In a physical death, this moment is when the character sees their situation and think the odds are just too great. They can’t survive, and they’ll likely die. Here, the character needs to grow stronger to survive.

Example

For the Hunger Games, the death stake is physical. In the middle of the novel, when Katniss was stung by those strange bees, she has that moment where she considers her situation. She feels her legs shaking and that her heartbeat is too quick. She knows this is the end, and she thinks this is probably an okay place to die.

Come up with ideas

According to Bell, the Mirror moment is the most crucial part of the novel, so it makes sense to brainstorm this moment first when outlining your novel. In fact, he has a whole other book about why you should write your novel from this moment.

If you’re a pantser, try to brainstorm the mirror moment when you’re about 5 or 10k into the story. Write the scene, see how it feels.


8. Pet the Dog

This signpost is related to the Care Package beat, and that is honestly been the most confusing (for me, at least). So, you can place this signpost either before or after the mirror moment. Like the care package, it’s there to create empathy for your character. Now, the pet the dog scene should not be about the same relationship as the one in the care package. It’s more of a sudden, new relationship that springs up around the middle of Act II. What it does need, is to have some sort of sacrifice in it. It needs to be clear that the main character sacrifices something in order to help another person (or dog, or other pet for that matter).

Example

In the Hunger Games, this is probably the most evident. It’s when Katniss helps Rue. There is no real benefit for Katniss to help her: Rue is weaker than her, and not a great ally when it comes to killing someone else. She risks getting herself killed by helping Rue.

Come up with ideas

This signpost is great for brainstorming a new character that can be used for this purpose. When you’re a pantser, you can introduce a new character while you’re writing. When you’re kinda stuck on what to write next, try and write the pet the dog moment. Make it a character that the main character needs to help in some way.


9. Doorway of no Return #2

Like the first doorway, this signpost is there to thrust the character into Act III, and there is no turning back. They need to pass through for the final battle. Make sure that when you write this moment, the death stakes are higher than they were for the first doorway.

Example

In the Hunger Games, I think the second Doorway of no Return is when Katniss makes her first kill. She does it in an impulse when she finds Rue attacked. But after that, there’s no going back for her. She’s now killed once: she can do it again.

Come up with ideas

Even if you are a plotter and love your outlining you novel, you might want to leave this one open. This moment is so affected by everything that is decided up to this point, such as characters you fleshed out, scenes that you have written, and new events that were added. So, wait until you have done some of that, and then come back to the Doorway of no Return #2, and come up with this beat.

As a pantser, this is no problem for you. Just keep it in your mind, so it churns on it while you write away. When you get to the scene, write all of your ideas down.


10. Mounting Forces

And we’ve arrived in Act III! The final battle is coming closer. The antagonist of your story is gathering their strength. And so should your main character. They need to make their preparations.

Example

In the Hunger Games, Katniss bands together with Peeta after the announcement that two people can win if they come from the same district. She’s quite literally increasing her forces to win the Games. Not to mention she uses the ‘couple-in-love’ ruse (well, she thinks it’s a ruse, anyway) to get more sponsors and items that will help them survive.

Come up with ideas

Did you make the list of possible obstacles for Kick in the Shins? Mounting Forces should be the ‘worse’ beat. Not yet the ‘worst’. But the obstacle needs to be quite bad. You can go back to the list you created, or come up with new possibilities. Plotters and pantsers can do this both at any time of your writing process: whether you’re outlining while writing or outlining before writing your novel.


11. Lights out

As the name suggests, this is the darkest moment. An all-is-lost moment. There seems to be no escape. This moment tends to happen close to the final battle. The main character needs to experience this moment to come out ‘reborn’ in a sense. It gives readers a sense of catharsis.

Example

Katniss and Peeta have made it to the Cornucopia, but they’re followed by Cato and a pack of muttations. Cato headlocks Peeta, and Katniss readies her arrow. Cato just laughs and tells her to shoot him, and then Peeta goes down with him. Katniss knows he’s right; she knows it’s a stalemate. There seems to be no way out of it.

Come up with ideas

Always be thinking about possible endings, and tweak it. Again, lists are key. Make a list of several different endings, either at the beginning of outlining your novel, or during your writing to keep track of ideas as they occur. One of those will be your actual ending, and you can use one of the remaining choices as a Lights Out beat.


12. Q-factor

This signpost is obviously named for Q, the character in the James Bond movies who gives him all the gadgets. This is always a very necessary scene. If we don’t see Q giving Bond his various gadgets, then it won’t feel right when he just uses these gadgets to get out of his impossible situations. Then it would just feel random, placed there to save him. It would feel like a cheat.

So, we’ve had the Lights Out moment, and this is where the main character needs the courage and motivation for the Final Battle. That’s where you need to Q factor. It can be placed before or after the Lights Out. It can be anything: an icon, a physical object, the memory of a beloved mentor, or cool gadgets.

Example

The Q factor for the Hunger Games is the Mockingjay pin Katniss wears. She touches it just before the final battle.

Come up with ideas

Brainstorm possible Q factors, such as physical items, mentors, characters who could embody cowardice or moral compromise. Then choose the one you like best for outlining your novel. Then, you write a scene early in Act I that anchors this element emotionally to the main character. It can also be helpful to refer to the Q Factor once in Act II as a reminder. But not make it too obvious.


13. Final Battle

This is the moment in your book. The climactic moment everything before has been building up to: the Final Battle. If this isn’t there, there will be no satisfaction, no sense of completeness. Naturally, it doesn’t have to be a physical battle. It can also be an internal battle or even a mixture of both.

So, a battle outside of the character is the physical forces arrayed against the main character, which can be a full army or a single person. The question is: can the character gain the courage to fight? Will they overcome?

A psychological battle takes place in the character’s psyche. Will they show the courage that allows them to transform?

Example

After Katniss saves Peeta from Cato, they hear another announcement: the recently changed rule that allowed two winners is reversed: there can be only one. This is Katniss’ final battle against the Gamemakers, against the oppression. And she solves it brilliantly: she knows the Capitol needs a victor, and so she and Peeta agree to poison themselves. Just when they’re about to eat the berries, they reverse the rule again, and Katniss and Peeta are declared the winners.

Come up with ideas

Check back with your Mirror Moment: what kind of moment is this? Is it a physical or psychological moment? If it’s an “I’m likely gonna die” moment, then the Final battle will be physical. If it’s a “What have I become?” kind of moment, then the final battle will be interior. Just make sure that the Final battle is big while you’re outlining the novel, and that the outcome has great consequences that are irreversible.


14. Transformation

To complete the arc of the character, they now need to show how they’re transformed. In this resolution, your readers will be satisfied. If it falls flat, the enthusiasm won’t come. The main character needs to be changed either by being a new person or by becoming stronger (or a mixture of both, in most stories). Again, this is tied to the Mirror Moment.

If the character is now stronger, the fact of survival and return to normalcy is often enough. If there’s an internal transformation, it’s best to show it with an action. Let the character do something that they wouldn’t have done at the beginning. That shows change to the reader.

This moment also ties to the Argument Against Transformation. What transformation were they fighting against? You can now flip it: they have transformed into precisely that.

Example

At the end of the Hunger Games, Katniss comes back to District 12. She survived the Games, getting a new house for her and her family. (CHECK ENDING).

Come up with ideas

You can start outlining a novel with the Transformation. Think about your main character and the genre you want to write in. Then what message would you like to give readers in the end? What kind of feeling do you want to give them? Do you want to show a survivor? Then you can think about that character, how they start out, and how they end, and then go from there.


Now it’s your turn!

Those are the 14 signposts you can use for outlining your novel, whether you’re a pantser or a plotter. Pfwew, that was quite a lot to write!

Keep these signposts in mind while you write, or while you think about your story. Do some of the brainstorm exercises, and you’ll end up with a great idea for your novel that hits all the right notes. Then all that’s left to do is write! Easy, right? (nope, kidding, writing is the hard part).

If you found this at all helpful, I would absolutely recommend that you get Bell’s book on superstructure: get it on Amazon here. You will not be disappointed. In the book, he also gives other tips on brainstorming and more examples for each signpost. It’s been a great help for me when outlining my novel, so I hope it will help you too!

Also, feel free to sent me any comments, questions, feedback and what not!


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