• Length:
    6 Weeks
  • Effort:
    4–6 hours per week
  • Price:
    $295 USD
  • Institution
  • Subject:
  • Level:
    Intermediate
  • Language:
    English
  • Video Transcript:
    English

About this course

Have you always wanted to write a novel? Have you started a novel only to run out of steam halfway through? Led by international best-selling authors and professors from The University of British Columbia’s world-renowned Creative Writing MFA program, this is part of a series of courses designed to take your novel from concept to completion.

Outlining is a crucial step in the novel writing process, one that fuels creativity and prepares the writer to stay on track and avoid common pitfalls. Through hands-on weekly exercises with a focus on craft and process, as well as insights from the real-world practices of accomplished authors, this course explores the core elements of fiction writing necessary to build an outline. You will learn the fundamentals of character development, world-building and the basics of storytelling architecture. You'll work intensively on your own creative project and hone your outline through feedback and discussion with fellow writers.

In the tradition of the UBC MFA program, this course draws on the work habits of established authors to help writers move quickly toward creating a blueprint for a successful draft. Whether you’re seeking literary fame or working on a project to share with family and friends, this course offers the tools and skills necessary to plan a novel others will be excited to read.

The course is recommended for professional and aspiring writers, writing groups, participants in NaNoWriMo, teachers and anyone who has ever dreamed of writing a novel.

What you'll learn

  • The elements of a successful novel outline and writing plan
  • The dynamics of how character and conflict intersect
  • How to build a story using the architecture of story structure
  • An overview of common story problems and weaknesses
  • How to advance from outlining to writing a draft

How to Write a Novel: Structure & Outline

edX: UBCx CW1.1x.
Instructors: Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon
University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program

COURSE  DESCRIPTION

Outlining is a crucial step in the novel writing process, one that fuels creativity and prepares the writer to stay on track and avoid common pitfalls. Through hands-on weekly exercises with a focus on craft and process, as well as insights from the real- world practices of accomplished authors, this course explores the core elements of fiction writing necessary to build an outline. You will learn the fundamentals of character development, world-building and the basics of storytelling architecture.

You'll work intensively on your own creative project and hone your outline through feedback and discussion with fellow writers.

In the tradition of the UBC MFA program, this course draws on the work habits of established authors to help writers move quickly toward creating a blueprint for a successful draft. Whether you’re seeking literary fame or working on a project to share with family and friends, this course offers the tools and skills necessary to plan a novel others will be excited to read.

The course is recommended for professional and aspiring writers, writing groups, participants in NaNoWriMo, teachers and anyone who has ever dreamed of writing a novel.

 

WEEK BY WEEK BREAKDOWN

Every Week

Students will watch instructor videos, interviews with authors and readings. Each week there is at least one assignment, regular group discussion topics and instructor feedback in the form of video responses to selected assignments and live office hours on Google Hangouts.

Week 1: Getting Started

This introductory module will cover three major topics:

  • First, we’ll introduce students to the elements of the course, expectations, and what they can hope to accomplish by the end: a complete, detailed novel outline. We’ll model acceptable behaviour in self-assessment and discussion boards.
  • Second, we’ll articulate the benefits of outlining and teach students how to approach the process. We argue that outlining is not preparation for writing, but rather it is writing. The writer is making decisions about character, plot, structure, theme, and even style in an outline, freeing her up for the creative experience of actually constructing sentences. We can look at writing as layers of decision-making; outlining peels away some of those layers to make what remains less confusing and more approachable. We’ll also touch on what outlines can look like (narrative, point form, pictorial, etc.).
  • Third, we’ll discuss what an opening can accomplish, the information it can provide for the novel to come, and the expectations that are set up in a first sentence, first paragraph, first page.

Assignment: learners will write three versions of the first page of their novels. We’ll provide a self-evaluation rubric so the learner can determine which worked best and why.

 

Week 2: Character and World-Building

During this week we will cover three main topics:

  • First, we’ll look at how to build character. What are the main elements that will keep a reader’s interest in a character for the length of an entire novel? Character choices (number of characters, level of detail, etc.) will also have significant consequences for the chosen genre, and will anticipate a number of the structural questions that will arise in week 3.
  • Second, we’ll look at conflict and antagonism. Without conflict a story has no forward momentum. We’ll discuss the three levels of antagonism that your protagonist should face.
  • Third, we’ll look at world-building. The student will learn to create a persuasive “set” for her characters to act on, including not only the visual look of a world but its feel, its social mores, and its emotional tones. Whether the learner is working on science fiction, historical fiction, or contemporary literary fiction, creating a rich, vivid, and credible world will be key to holding the reader’s interest and making him want to immerse himself in the novel.                                                                                                                                           

Assignment: Who is your protagonist? What do they yearn for? What are the assorted levels of antagonism? What genre are you writing? What are the rules of your world? The student will respond to a number of specific questions that come with a self-assessment rubric to make sure her answers are specific, coherent, and usable.

 

Week 3: The Big Architecture: Story and Structure

This week covers three main topics, split into a number of smaller sub-topics:

  • First, what is a story? Picking up where week two left off, we’ll apply the lessons of character to an understanding of the motion of story. Last week we sketched our character; this week we’ll animate that character, get him moving.
  • Second, we’ll look at the internal journey and its accompanying concepts: belief systems, and making the internal and external stories work in tandem.
  • Third, we’ll look at the bedrock of good storytelling: transformation of character, and how the writer can use this concept as the spine running through her own work. Along the way, we’ll borrow examples from screenwriting, as well as analyzing various kinds of structure (forwards, backwards, spiral, etc.) with concrete examples.

Assignment: Write a 250-300 word outline of your novel. Please use a narrative form (sentences/paragraphs) rather than point form. (It might help to think in terms of a news story). The student will respond to a number of specific questions that come with a self-assessment rubric.

 

Week 4: Three-Act Structure and Scene Design

This week will examine the fundamental elements of scene design, with a particular emphasis on variety and transitions from one scene to the next.

A scene is often described as a unit of story that takes place in a specific time and place. But this definition fails to take into account the particular demands of scene in terms of storytelling. This week we’ll explore scene design in depth how a scene differs from a vignette or a character study, why beautifully wrought prose is not necessarily a scene, what the integral components of a scene are and how a writer can ensure she has all the information she needs before she begins writing. We’ll introduce a scene analysis tool that allows writers to deconstruct scenes from the character perspective, ensuring cohesion between the external and internal journey and enabling writers to assess scenes they’ve already written, identify weaknesses and rework scenes so that they’re integral the story.

We’ll review the classic three-act structure, one of the foundations of Western storytelling, in depth, looking at how it works in screenplays and what it can teach novel writers about story design.

Assignment: Write out scene analysis cards for the scenes in your novel. For discussion, post a breakdown of one scene which you found particularly challenging.

 

Week 5: Troubleshooting Common Problems

Few writers have trouble starting novels, but thousands of them struggle to finish. Specifically, they tend to get bogged down in what screenwriters refer to as the “saggy middle”, the second act that can seem endless if not thoughtfully planned in advance.

In this week, we’ll troubleshoot common problems, particularly those that tend to appear in Acts II and III. We’ll provide the learner with a checklist of questions to ask herself about the structural underpinnings of her 2nd act, and provide the tools for structural analysis with a focus on the latter half of the novel.

There will be a particular emphasis this week on the relationship between reading and writing; we aim to show the learner how the tools of analysis he can wield as a reader are identical to those he’ll need as a successful outliner and (ultimately) writer.

Assignment: Provide a structural analysis of a book similar to the one you’re thinking of writing (a quest story, a coming-of-age, a mystery, or one with a similar overall structure). For group discussion, explain how you feel your book will be similar to the one you’ve analyzed.

 

Week 6: The Transition to Writing

This week’s goal is to produce a workable writing plan. First, we’ll discuss endings, and how you’ll come to finish your own outline. Then we’ll turn our attention now from the creation of scenes to a look at our own lives and schedules. We’ll pursue several practical goals, such as mapping our own week and finding places where writing can fit in; working with the people around you to carve out time from the demands of work, family, and busy lives; and how to deal with the dread and procrastination that can afflict writers faced with the blank page.

Once the learner has a weekly writing schedule and monthly goals, we’ll turn to how she’ll actually work from the outline. How much should she expect to accomplish in each writing session? When is it all right to deviate from an outline? What do you do if you get bored because you’ve already spent so much time in the world of your novel, and you’re craving novelty and spontaneity rather than a meticulous plan?

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, how do you treat writing like a job? How do you make yourself produce worthwhile material on days when you don't feel inspired?

Assignment: Learners will finish sketching out their 2nd and 3rd acts, scene by scene. We expect everyone to complete their detailed outline this week although we will discuss this process, learners will not submit the outline for formal review. This is your personal document, your take-away from the course.

Your final task will be to create a detailed writing plan, accounting for all the time you’ll need to write the novel as you’ve envisioned it. We will have a final Google Hangout, and discussion of the challenges we’ve faced and our plans for the writing of the novels we’ve outlined.

Meet your instructors

Nancy Lee
Assistant Professor of Creative Writing
University of British Columbia
Annabel Lyon
Associate Professor of Creative Writing
University of British Columbia

Sample Course Material

What will it be like to take the course? Each week, we'll present video lessons created by UBC Creative Writing Professors Annabel Lyon & Nancy Lee, along with readings, video interviews with other authors, assignments and the opportunity to discuss your work with the other learners in the class.

Sample course material: "What Goes on the First page?" (PDF)

Sample course assignment: "Character & World Building" (PDF)

Our instructors will respond to student work in a weekly video broadcast and hold office hours by Google Hangout, where they'll answer questions in a lively, interactive format.

Sample video lesson: Week 1, "Why Should I Outline?"

The instructors review some common questions, worries and misconceptions about outlining.

Sample interview: Esi Edugyan

In this interview, Esi Edugyan talks about using an outline for her second novel, and how it streamlined the process for her.

Sample video lesson: Week 3, "Introduction to Story Structure"

In this lesson, Nancy Lee discusses how external and internal story structures work together.

 

 

FAQ

Do I need to have started a novel to take this course?

No. However, you should have one or more novel ideas that you wish to work on during this course. We will ask you to start developing your idea right away.

What if I’m in the middle of a novel?

If you have already started a novel, or are having issues with a partially finished manuscript without an outline, this course can help you clarify your intentions and work out structural issues. We believe the process of outlining helps writers understand a work in progress in a way that simply ‘writing through’ cannot.

Is this course related to an existing UBC writing class?

This is an entirely new course, created by instructors with years of experience teaching the art of fiction writing to undergraduate and graduate university students as well as members of the community.

What are the other courses in the series?

How to Write a Novel: Writing the Draft provides an essential fiction craft toolbox for writers struggling with the common hurdles of first drafts. How to Write a Novel: Edit and Revise, builds comprehensive revision skills, as well as vital information about paths to publication.

I have more questions about the course content!

Contact us with your questions, and we'll be happy to answer!

Image credit:
How to fix the credit crunch by Jason Rogers is licensed under CC BY 2.0.