How To Outline Your Novel & Basics of Story Structure — à la MOANA

So, you’ve got the rumblings of a story within you that NEEDS to be told. Or, you think you do.

Outlining your novel is the process of taking all that creative mush in your head and fitting it into a mold — one that will tell a compelling story.

And because I love Disney and they are exceptionally good at following the traditional three-act story structure, today’s post is going to feature one of their beautiful stories: MOANA! I’m going to take you through an outline (and incorporate elements of the traditional story structure), and at the end, illustrate each stage with the corresponding plot point from Moana.

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Let’s do this!

Let me caveat this by saying that there is no one single, right way for a writer to write. And that’s the wonderful (and sometimes terrifying/frustrating) thing about being a creative — there is no formula. But some of my friends have asked me how I outline, and I’m going to guide you through the process that works best for me.

Let’s start with …

THE BASICS (STORY ELEMENTS)

So, you think you’ve got a great idea. And fireworks are bursting in your head. Now, I’m going to kindly grab you by the ear and ask you some VERY basic questions that you need to have thought about before we start.

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Characters

  • Protagonist: Your main character; the driver of the story; the character your audience needs to rally behind.
    • Who is he/she?
    • What is his/her personality?
    • What is his/her goal/objective?
    • What is his/her background?
    • What kinds of events in his/her life led to the formation of his/her personality? of his/her goal/objective? (This is crucial to building a three-dimensional character, but also to taking your plot to the next level.)
  • Antagonist: The character(s) who has the completely opposite goal to your protagonist. Remember: The antagonist doesn’t have to be an all-evil, “I-want-to-destroy-everything-in-my-path” character. The antagonist just has to be someone with the opposite objective to your protagonist.

World

  • What kind of a world do your characters inhabit, and what makes it special?
  • What is the societal construct?
  • How does the world create your character, and how does the world structure tie in to the greater conflict? (This is another one of those aspects that takes your plot to the next level.)

The Idea/Themes

  • You probably have a premise, a theme, or flashes of scenes and dialogue that make you squeal, am I right? Clearly this is mush at this point, but if you have the above two detailed out, we’re going to shape this mush into the fabled outline.

These are the three story aspects that I need to make sure I reflect on before I start my outline. And sometimes, these come while I open up my Word document and stare at the blank page. Sometimes, it comes after I’ve progressed to the next step (the Totem Poles). It’s going to be different for everyone, so you should proceed in whatever way works best for you.

Now, onto the outline!

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THE THREE TOTEM POLES

Most stories will follow a three-act structure:

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And here’s how I like to start my outline — with three “Totem Poles.” I will literally start a blank Word document and type the three Totem Poles below, with huge chunks of space in between. Here is one, using Tangled as an example.

  1. THE FIRST ACT: Establish the beginning of your story, the character’s normal life, and what the Inciting Incident is.
  2. THE SECOND ACT/CLIMAX: What is the conflict, and what is the climax? (I find that oftentimes, for me, this is “The Idea,” or at least, a large part of the premise I had dreamt up.)
  3. THE THIRD ACT/ENDING: What is the ending? What is the resolution of the climax? (Your greater conflict does not have to be resolved, but there must be some sense of resolution to most aspects of your climax in the book, or readers will revolt. It’s tricky — and we’ll get into it later.)

That’s literally all I start with: three lines, three Totem Poles, kind of like the pillars of the house that will be the foundation of my story.

Now, let’s flesh it out.

THE FIRST ACT: The first act is where you set the table. You introduce your characters, your world, and the themes of the novel, telling readers what to expect from the beginning to the end — all the while moving your plot pacing forward. Telling a story is a balancing act: it requires you to keep walking forward while juggling the three balls: Character, World, Theme.

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  1. Opening — a normal, everyday scene. A popular way to open a book is to show your characters in his/her normal, everyday life. This is a great way to dive in, because, again, you’re setting the table. You show your readers the current state of your character, a bit of the world, and the larger themes that will come into play throughout the book. However, it’s not just all fun and games; everything an author inserts into his/her book should be deliberate, and there are some key points you need to hit. These are:
    • Character personality: What kind of a person is your character? How does he/she view the world?
    • Character desire/motivation: What is your character’s deepest desire?
    • World/societal construct: What kind of a society does your character live in? What (if any) are the social constructs that might play into the journey he/she will undertake?
    • Theme: This is the tricky one, as it progresses over time. What does your character’s journey (physical and mental) show? Is your story sending a message about courage vs. fear? About love vs. hate? This needs another blog post, but for now, keep this in mind. You should always be thinking about how everything in your story reflects several major themes.
    • Moana opens with our titular character, Moana, having an encounter with the ocean as a baby, before she is dragged back to life in the village by her parents. We see how much Moana loves her parents, her grandma, and the village (factors that will play into her motivations later); we see how she tries to accept her responsibilities as the future Chief (personality); we also see how much she loves water, and desires to go “beyond the reefs” (her desires). This already sets us up for some nice internal conflict. Oh, and Disney has already panned us through her entire world of the island of Motunui, as well as introduced the legend of Maui and Te Kā, both of which will play major roles in the story to come.
      • Bonus: The themes of Moana have also been introduced. This is a story of a girl who learns to find her true self, and reconcile her two different halves to better the state of her world. The ocean calls her, and she wants to go beyond the reefs — at the same time, she loves her family and has a duty to her people.
    • Caveat: While this shows an everyday scene in your character’s life, remember that you are always walking forward while doing the juggling act. Do not have your character sit somewhere and wax poetic about her dreams and wishes. As early as possible, introduce small, subtle events of conflict that keep the reader intrigued. Even in Moana, from the very start, we are shown intriguing aspects of magic and myth that will come into play later; we see her internal conflict between staying on her island and adventuring outside; we also see hints of her conflict with her father. And, of course, there’s that whole exposition with Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti.
  2. Inciting Incident — something out of the ordinary happens. This is the scene where something happens to your character and draws them toward the first step toward their adventure. Sometimes, this can be the arrival of a new person (secondary character). An accident can occur, taking everything the MC loves and cares about. It can be anything — as long as it draws the MC out of his/her ordinary life and sets him/her on the road towards conflict (and Rising Action plot points).
    • How does your character react, and what does that show us about his/her personality, as well as the theme? Is he/she a Reluctant Hero who learns to be brave throughout his/her journey? Is he/she selfish, and learns about the importance of kindness in the end?
    • The Inciting Incident also poses the question that the Climax (or Conflict) should answer: “Will A solve B before C?” and such.
    • In Moana, the Inciting Incident is when her grandmother dies, and Moana realizes that she is the only one who can save their island from the encroaching decay. We see how Moana reacts: she’s unfathomably sad about her grandmother, but despite everything, despite her father’s warnings and fear, she decides to risk her life to save her island and everything she loves.
  3. Things Get Worse/Hesitation — MC tries to deal with Inciting Incident, but worse things happen, and she hesitates. Because … if things are too convenient for your MC, where’s the fun in that? Remember — always ask yourself: How can I make this harder for my characters? That’s what readers read when they pick up your book: your character’s struggle (both physical and mental), and how they overcome these struggles (or, in the case of a tragedy, how they fail).
    • How does your character deal with the problem?
    • How does your character deal with others in the story so far?
    • How does his/her failure underline the theme of your book?
    • This should continue into the second act
    • Moana tries to find Maui, but realizes she doesn’t know how to sail and ends up caught in a storm.
      • Bonus: Moana learning to sail becomes a key point of her character development. Her relationship with Maui starts off rocky; the two fight a lot. As she grows more mature, she learns to sail from him, and at the end, we see her exercising her newly-learned abilities as a symbol of having overcome the difficulties.

THE SECOND ACT: This is the journey, and the endless cycle of conflict that worsens and leads to the climax. Remember how, in the first act, you were constantly walking forward while juggling the three balls? Yeah? Well, now, you’re running. (And still juggling.)

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The second act must focus on character development. It’s an endless cycle of conflict and resolution, with each resolution either failing or somehow increasing the stakes, leading to the next chapter of conflict. Through these mini-conflicts, it’s your chance to showcase how your protagonist stands to the challenge. Does he/she rise? Fall? Curl up in fear? Turn bitter and vengeful? Become more courageous?

And, in turn, we begin to see the themes of your book. Was the protagonist cowardly at first, and then learned to slowly face his fears at the end? Did the protagonist believe the world was cruel and evil, but learned through her journey that there was still hope? These are examples of themes — a message, if you will, illustrated through every aspect of your story: the plot, the world, and the characters. This theme must reflect in your character arc … and this is where everything starts to link together, from those vague, fuzzy ideas at the beginning to now.

So, the Second Act (Rising Action) should be structured as the following — or achieve the following points:

  1. Protagonist is currently weaker than the antagonist (or antagonistic forces) that threaten to stop him/her from reaching his/her goal.
  2. Protagonist gains new skills or abilities throughout the journey that will help him/her prepare to defeat the antagonist.
  3. Protagonist reaches a new understanding of his/her abilities; an epiphany that translates into the theme of the book.
  4. With the protagonist’s new skills and realizations (internal and external development), we head straight into the climax.
  5. Climax: The moment your protagonist confronts the antagonistic forces, and answers the question the entire story has been framing.

When I’m outlining for my novel, I literally look between my SECOND ACT and THIRD ACT and think: hmm, how does protagonist get from point A to point B? And what can I throw in his way that will push his characters to the limits, and make him come to a deeper realization of himself, or the world around him, that will reflect the theme? Bonus: What kinds of adventures can I make the protagonist undertake that will showcase my beautiful, unique world?

Let’s take a look at Moana’s character arc in the Second Act of the movie.

1. Moana sails beyond the reefs, but finds that the ocean is wild and terrifying. The storm nearly takes her down. Challenge: she discovers that the ocean is not as she thought it was — peaceful, lovely — and that her abilities may not be as great as she thought.

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2. Moana meets Maui. Challenge: he’s not willing to bend the knee at her “My name is Moana of Motunui; you will board my boat and restore the heart to Te Fiti.” So, Moana needs to figure out how to get him onboard — literally, and metaphorically.

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3. Moana learns to sail. This is both a challenge and a process of her learning a new skill that will be crucial to the final climax. It is also a process of Moana gaining a new identity: she’s not just capable of leading her people on land, but at sea, as well. (And technically, they meet those little coconut-warrior people here, but I’m not really going to mention that because I still hate that part of the movie.)

4. They meet this guy.

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This is probably my second favorite musical number in the movie, but aside from that, this: A) Showcases more of the world and the myths of the Polynesian people, B) Allows Moana and Maui to learn that they need each other, C) Moana (and the audience) learns a crucial truth to Maui’s backstory, gaining sympathy for this supposedly-infallible demigod.

5. They try to take down Te Kā, but fail the first time. This is the ultimate conflict before the climax; the moment when all hope seems lost, and the hero begins to doubt himself. Maui abandons Moana. All seems dire.

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6. … and that leads to this poignant scene — and also my favorite scene of the entire movie — that is the climax of Moana’s character arc (her “epiphany” moment). Her grandmother phrases the question that succinctly summarizes her entire character arc: “Moana, listen: do you know who you are?”

The ensuing musical number is so symbolic of her character arc: “I am a girl who loves my island; I am a girl who loves the sea.” That’s literally her internal conflict thus far — her father’s strict rule that duty to Motunui means abandoning the sea. Yet Moana comes to this stunning conclusion: “I am the daughter of a village chief; they are descended from voyagers… And the call isn’t outside at all; it’s inside me.

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7. Climax. Moana confronts Te Kā, and here, the theme of identity, of finding who you truly are inside, is echoed. We find out that Te Kā was the beautiful goddess Te Fiti, who turned wrathful after Maui stole her heart. And this is summed up in the final, haunting words of the song Moana sings to Te Kā as she returns the goddess’s heart: “This is not who you are… You know who you are.”

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THE THIRD ACT: This is post-climax, the proverbial Happy Ending, when the main issues of this book have been resolved, and we go into falling action. Oftentimes, the Third Act is the shortest of the three. We see our protagonist reap the benefits of his efforts; we see all restored as it should be — a newer, better state than the FIRST ACT that makes our hero’s journey seem worthwhile and gives the reader a sense of resolution.

Not all issues need to be resolved, but readers need a sense of resolution of the dramatic question that was framed in this book, or at least, a sense of peace that comes from falling action.

The Third Act should achieve:

  • Contrast between First Act State and New State. This should reflect both internally and externally to the protagonist, in terms of his/her character arc having been elevated to a new sense of self-awareness throughout the journey, as well as the world around him/her becoming better.
  • Loose ends are tied. Most loose ends in the subplots are resolved. Depending on if you need a sequel, you might leave some unresolved threads. A great example is SHADOW AND BONE, the first book in Leigh Bardugo’s acclaimed GRISHA TRILOGY. Alina and Mal don’t defeat the Darkling yet, but they escape to a foreign land and we get a sense of conclusion from the first arc of the story.

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