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The University of British Columbia

How to Write a Novel: Structure & Outline

The University of British Columbia via edX Professional Education


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.



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.

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