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UBCx: How to Write a Novel: Structure & Outline

4.7 stars
14 ratings

Learn the fundamentals of story structure from our MFA program faculty and complete a detailed, scene-by-scene outline of your novel idea.

6 weeks
4–6 hours per week
Instructor-led on a course schedule
Cost to Enroll
$295 USD

Choose your session:

After a course session ends, it will be archivedOpens in a new tab.
Starts Feb 27
Ends Apr 13
Starts Sep 3
Ends Oct 19

About this course

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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 discussion with fellow writers. Faculty will be available to answer learner questions during a weekly Q&A podcast.

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.

At a glance

  • Institution: UBCx
  • Subject: Humanities
  • Level: Intermediate
  • Prerequisites:
  • Language: English
  • Video Transcript: English
  • Associated skills:Creative Writing, Writing, Storytelling, Fiction Writing, Creativity

What you'll learn

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  • 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


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 a question & answer podcast.

Week 1: Getting Started

  • Introduction to the course.
  • Writing as layers of decision-making. What outlines can look like (narrative, point form, pictorial, etc.).
  • What an opening can accomplish: 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.

Week 2: Character and World-Building

  • 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?
  • Conflict and antagonism. Without conflict a story has no forward momentum. We’ll discuss the three levels of antagonism that your protagonist should face.
  • World-building. 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.

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?

Week 3: The Big Architecture: Story and Structure

  • 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.
  • The internal journey and its accompanying concepts: belief systems, and making the internal and external stories work in tandem.
  • Transformation of character, and the analysis of various kinds of structure (forwards, backwards, spiral, etc.) with concrete examples.

Assignment: Write a 250-300 word outline of your novel in narrative format.

Week 4: Three-Act Structure and Scene Design

  • Scene design in depth: the components of a scene, scene analysis tools, deconstructing and rewriting scenes.
  • The three-act structure, from screenplay to novel.

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

  • Common problems in Acts II and III. Structural analysis tools and how to use them.
  • The relationship between reading and writing.

Assignment: Provide a structural analysis of a book similar to the one you’re thinking of writing.

Week 6: The Transition to Writing

  • Endings and how to get there.
  • Producing a workable writing plan that fits your life and schedule.
  • Dealing with writer’s block and procrastination.
  • How to work from the outline, and how to deal with setbacks.
  • Treating writing like a job.

Assignment: Learners will finish sketching out their 2nd and 3rd acts, scene by scene.

Final task: create a detailed writing plan, accounting for all the time you’ll need to write the novel as you’ve envisioned it.

Learner testimonials

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"This course was entirely successful in getting me to develop my ideas into a full scene-by-scene outline which I am now using to write the first draft of a novel. I am particularly thankful for the instruction on structure, detailing of major turning points in a classic three-act plot, and advice on creating and sticking to a writing plan." - Blake Fitzgerald

More about this course

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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 be available each week to answer learner questions through a lively Q&A podcast, created only for students in the course. They won’t be providing feedback on your writing directly – this is a course aimed at giving you the tools and techniques to take you through the writing process long after the course ends.

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.




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.

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