How to Cheat at Structuring Your (Popular Fiction) Novel

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

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

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.

The right feeling

What I did back then was I sat down with a few of the books I admired and that were mostly closely what I wanted to emulate. And — this is important — when I say “emulate” I do not mean “copy.” I didn’t want to recreate their plots. What I wanted to recreate was HOW THEIR BOOKS MADE ME FEEL. In other words, there were elements of them that resonated with me: I liked how they were about unlikely heroines, and that they were a slow burn, and that they were a little chilling and had good pacing, even as they gave me the sort of character evolution I loved.

Introducing reverse outlining

Reverse outlining is an academic technique we use to revise essays. In fact, you may have checked out the OWL Purdue’s great site on Reverse Outlining in a composition course, or a similar resource elsewhere on the interwebs.

What’s the goal?

What’s crucial is not to be interested in the details of the scene. It doesn’t matter that this is the scene where Sookie is wearing a yellow dress and Bill is clearly attracted to her and she’s confused about her feelings and then she goes home and takes a bath.

  1. Introduce that she’s Not Normal. Inciting incident.
  2. FIRST SCENE OF CHAPTER: Aftermath in “normal” life scene

Where to focus

What I can also see from this outline, and why it’s important to keep explanations as short as possible, is the rise and fall of action. I have a (not as exciting) exposition scene following an action scene, in this case a chase scene. I can see the pacing of this novel, and I will even demarcate it by putting either in the description or in parentheses things that are action scenes: fight scene, sex scene, battle scene, first kiss, magical duel, hiding scene, etc. I can do that with my non-action scenes, as well: exposition scene, discussion of aftermath scene, fallout scene, evaluation of suspects scene.

  1. Fight scene
  2. Fight scene
  3. Exposition scene
  4. Exposition scene
  5. Exposition scene

Why use reverse outlining?

What’s great about this method, meanwhile, and what makes it different than the more generalized structural maps you often find on the internet, is that you’re getting an example of your specific sub-genre. So, in my above examples, cozy and traditional mysteries LOVE an “evaluation of suspects” scene, often have two or three, and in every example I can think of there is at least one. But thrillers often do not have these kinds of scenes at all. These are all shelved under “mystery” and yet they have very different reader expectations.

The importance of reader expectation and changing times

Finally, that idea of reader expectation is another reason that it’s super helpful to research, through reverse outlining, what recent, published authors are giving readers. It helps you figure out reader expectation, especially if you’re using writers who gave you what you wanted, even if you didn’t know you wanted it. Times change, reader expectations change, and a lot of those beat sheets stay the same. Another way of framing the problem is that what you might fill in for “Crisis Moment” is what you’re used to reading, including what you were used to reading ten years ago… that no one wants to see anymore.


So, for best practice, use recent novels that you loved. The kind of novels you don’t think “how did she write this, I could never,” but the kind of novel you think, “This. This is what I want to write.”

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at

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