How to Cheat at Structuring Your (Popular Fiction) Novel

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; use reverse outlining instead!

Nicole Peeler


Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

Published authors often gripe about the number of people who approach us with a “great idea,” and “all” we have to do is write it for them for a portion of the profits! Why we gripe is because, as anyone who has actually written a book knows, ideas are like unsightly chin hairs. They are constantly, reliably sprouting, no matter how many we pluck, and usually at the most inopportune moment.

Ideas are easy — writing is hard

Part of the reason writing is hard is because most people can “see” a great idea in terms of a few scenes. They can envision the inciting incident (discovering the body, meeting the love interest, gaining a magical power). They can envision the ending (justice, a wedding, a conquering hero). And they might even envision a few “meat” scenes in that sandwich: a fight scene, a first kiss, meeting a mentor.

But how does somebody fill in the rest?

There are tons of googleable resources helping to supply such filling. There are loads of “beat sheets,” or three act structures to fill in. There’s Save the Cat and there’s the Snowflake Method. All of these are great! And if you’ve used them and they’re working for you, wonderful.

I have also found these resources helpful, and they’re great for introducing the concept of things like beats, acts, and structure to students. But when I’ve tried to use them in my own writing, I’ve usually found them confusing. Partially because they’re so rigid and partially because they’re often written to be cross-genre. So they talk about things like “dark night of the soul,” or “mid-point,” or “pivot,” or “crisis.” Sometimes these terms are helpful, sometimes not so much. Often I’m left wondering, “but what does a pivot look like in THIS sub-genre??” A “pivot” in a thriller will look much different than that of a cozy mystery, let alone in an epic fantasy.

I also didn’t use these resources when I wrote my first book, which I wrote having no idea what I was doing but having a great background in literary criticism (I’d just finished my Ph.D.). The method worked, and my first…