Outlining a Novel Using the Super Structure Method
Bijgewerkt op: 6 sep.
Outlining your novel is usually one of the first steps before you start writing.
However, it can still be a huge and daunting task. If you’re a plotter, you might spend too much time on outlining, and when you’re a discovery writer, you might spend too little time on outlining.
As you probably know, there are a lot of different methods to outline your story. And as a writer, it’s always good to try out different ways to plot. Ultimately, you’ll find one that’s right for you.
Below you will find one way to outline your next book.
It’s the method by James Scott Bell, called: Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story.
In this book, Bell gives a total of 14 so-called signposts that are crucial in your story. He also gives you tips on how to brainstorm, examples of the signposts in other stories, and at what point to think about the signpost when you’re a pantser or a plotter.
Naturally, this post is a condensed version of what’s in the book. So if this method appeals to you, definitely check it out!
The disturbance is the signpost that starts off the story. This is the very first scene, the one that’s supposed to grab the reader immediately. While you want to lay out the ordinary world of the character, nothing says that this needs to be all happy and regular—that’s just boring.
You need trouble.
This can be achieved by change, such as the character moving, by alluding to the trouble to come, or by explaining a disturbance that’s already happened. Some novels also use an intriguing first line. Whatever you do, it needs to be there already in the first paragraph. That’s when you get your reader to pay attention.
In The Hunger Games, in the very first few sentences, Katniss wakes up, feels next to her, and finds Primrose, her sister, gone. That in itself is a disturbance.
But there’s more: Katniss thinks to herself Prim must have climbed into bed with their mother since it’s the day of the reaping.
We don’t know what the reaping is yet, but we know it can’t be good. Now, we want to know more: what kind of world is this, what is the reaping? And where is their father?
2. Care Package
You always want to create empathy for your main character. Even if your character is horrible, the reader needs to care about them. They need to hope for their redemption. If they don’t care about the character, then why should they keep on reading?
You can establish this with this signpost. It’s a relationship the main character has with someone else, where they show they care for that character’s well-being. If a character can care about someone else, the reader can care about the character. It can be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a relative, a pet, or even someone who’s already dead.
If you think about Katniss, you think about… Prim. It’s clear that Prim is her Care Package when she takes Prim’s place in the Games. It goes beyond caring: it’s the ultimate sacrifice. How can you not root for Katniss after that? The Care Package doesn’t have to be that strong, but it should be clearly noticeable.
For instance, earlier in the story we learn that one day, Prim came home with a cat. Katniss hates the cat (and the feeling is mutual), and she doesn’t want another mouth to feed. However, she still keeps the cat and gives it food. This shows how much Katniss cares about Prim.
3. Argument Against Transformation
This signpost helps in setting up the character arc for your main character. There is a lesson your character learns throughout, and they change by the end of the novel.
But they’re not going to be changed immediately. Humans don’t like change: they resist it.
This doesn’t need to be a full scene, but it needs to be a beat in one of the scenes. The character clearly states what they will never do, and by the end of the book, it’s exactly what they do.
In the entire Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has the arc of having no hope to hope for a future she is prepared to fight for. It’s clear that she doesn’t have hope for a good future when she says: “I never want to have kids.”
4. Trouble Brewing
This scene happens around the middle of Act I. It gives off a whiff of more trouble to come. It can be a mysterious sound, the changing of the weather, a discovery, or surprising information. As long as it’s clear that something big is coming soon.
In The Hunger Games, we get a sense of trouble brewing underneath the surface when they talk about the Reaping. Then, Katniss and Gale go to the major’s house to sell their strawberries, which leads to a short conversation and reflection about the bills: the more bills you have, the more likely it is they pull your name.
This is new information for us, giving a sense of foreboding when we know how many tickets Katniss and Gale have compared to the richer kids in District 12. It’s clear: something bad is going to happen at that Reaping.
5. Doorway of no Return #1
This is the last signpost of Act I. This gives the confrontation, after which there’s no turning back. That is important: if this beat is reversible, the story will come off as weak.
Just think about Dorothy being blown away to Oz; that’s the kind of irreversible moment you want. The character wants to stay in their safe, ordinary world, but this signpost thrusts them out of it.
This is where Bell talks about death stakes. These stakes can be psychological death, physical death, or professional death.
These stakes depend on the theme/genre of your story (check this post to find the Genre of your story). This beat usually happens around the 1/5 or 1/4 mark of your story. But it is possible for it to happen sooner, like in the Hunger Games.
A very irreversible event happens for Katniss, when she’s taken into a door, and then on to the train to ride to the Capitol to participate in the Hunger Games. There’s no turning back for her here.
6. Kick in the Shins
We are now in Act II, where the kick in the shins is the first obstacle the character faces in this Act. You shouldn’t wait too long with this scene, or the reader will wonder if things are really that bad after all.
This obstacle also needs to be related to the type of death stake you chose.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta are transported by train to the Capitol. They meet their mentor, Haymitch, who is drunk and vomits. Peeta offers to help him. Katniss wonders why he would do that, and then remembers the time he gave her the bread when she was hungry. Peeta is a kind person.
This complicates things because she knows she has to kill him to get home to Prim. And how do you kill someone in cold blood when they’ve been kind to you? She knows Peeta is also coming up with a plan of his own; he will fight to kill her as well.
While the complication itself is more internal and of an emotional value, it does increase the physical death stake: staying alive and killing another tribute has just become a bit harder.
7. Mirror Moment
This is the most crucial moment in the book according to Bell, happening right in the middle. It’s the moment where, in some movies, you literally see the character staring at themselves in the mirror.
What kind of person are they? What kind of person do they want to be? They either need to change or die (literally or figuratively). The kind of death they will experience is again tied to the death stakes.
In a psychological death, it’s indeed about the “what kind of a person am I? What do I have to do to change?” They know if they continue down this road, they will come to hate themselves even more. Here, the character needs to grow into a better person (or not, if you write a tragedy).
In a physical death, this moment is when the character sees their situation and thinks the odds are just too great. They can’t survive, and they’ll likely die. Here, the character needs to grow stronger to survive.
For the Hunger Games, the death stake is physical. In the middle of the novel, when Katniss is stung by those strange bees, she has that moment where she considers her situation.
She feels her legs shaking and her heartbeat is too quick. She knows this is the end, and she thinks this is probably an okay place to die.
She’s then rescued by Rue, and Katniss changes her strategy after this. After all, she almost died because she’d tried to avoid playing the game—releasing the bees was a last resort. She knows she has to play the game differently if she wants to survive.
8. Pet the Dog
This signpost is related to the Care Package beat, and has honestly been the most confusing (for me, at least).
You can place this signpost either before or after the mirror moment. Like the care package, it’s there to create empathy for your character.
Now, the Pet the Dog scene should not be about the same relationship as the one in the care package. It’s more of a sudden, new relationship that springs up around the middle of Act II.
What it does need, is some sort of sacrifice. It needs to be clear that the main character sacrifices something in order to help another person (or dog, or other pet).
In The Hunger Games, this is probably the most evident signpost. It’s when Katniss helps Rue. There’s no real benefit for Katniss to help her: Rue is weaker than her, and not a great ally when it comes to killing someone else. She risks getting herself killed by helping Rue.
9. Doorway of no Return #2
Like the first doorway, this signpost is there to thrust the character into Act III, and there is no turning back. They need to pass through for the final battle.
Make sure that when you write this moment, the death stakes are higher than they were for the first doorway.
In The Hunger Games, in my view, the second Doorway of no Return is when Katniss makes her first kill. She does it on an impulse when she finds Rue attacked. After that, there’s no going back for her.
She’s now killed once: she can do it again.
10. Mounting Forces
We’ve arrived in Act III.
The final battle is coming closer. The antagonist of your story is gathering their strength. And so should your main character. They need to make their preparations.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss bands together with Peeta after the announcement that two people can win if they come from the same district.
She’s quite literally increasing her forces to win the Games. Not to mention she uses the ‘couple-in-love’ ruse (well, she thinks it’s a ruse, anyway) to get more sponsors and items that will help them survive.
11. Lights Out
As the name suggests, this is the darkest moment. An all-is-lost moment. There seems to be no escape.
This moment tends to happen close to the final battle. The main character needs to experience this moment to come out “reborn.” It gives readers a sense of catharsis.
Katniss and Peeta have made it to the Cornucopia, but they’re followed by Cato and a pack of mutations. Cato headlocks Peeta, and Katniss readies her arrow.
Cato just laughs and tells her to shoot him, and then Peeta goes down with him. Katniss knows he’s right; she knows it’s a stalemate. There seems to be no way out of it.
This signpost is named for Q, the character in the James Bond movies who gives him all the gadgets. This is always a necessary scene.
If we don’t see Q giving Bond his various gadgets, then it won’t feel right when he uses these gadgets to get out of his impossible situations.
So, we’ve had the Lights Out moment, and this is where the main character needs the courage and motivation for the Final Battle. That’s where you need the Q-factor.
This beat can be placed before or after the Lights Out signpost. And the factor can be anything: an icon, a physical object, the memory of a beloved mentor, or cool gadgets.
The Q factor for The Hunger Games is the Mockingjay pin Katniss wears. She touches it just before the final battle.
Note that the author sprinkled mentions of this pin throughout the story, so we don’t forget she has it.
13. Final Battle
This is the moment in your book. The climactic moment everything has been building up to: the Final Battle.
If this signpost isn’t there, there will be no satisfaction, no sense of completeness. Naturally, it doesn’t have to be a physical battle. It can also be an internal battle or even a mixture of both.
A battle outside of the character is the physical forces arrayed against the main character, which can be a full army or a single person. The question is: can the character gain the courage to fight? Will they overcome?
A psychological battle takes place in the character’s psyche. Will they show the courage that allows them to transform?
After Katniss saves Peeta from Cato, they hear another announcement: the recently changed rule that allowed two winners is reversed—there can be only one.
This is Katniss’ final battle against the Gamemakers, against the oppression. And she solves it brilliantly: she knows the Capitol needs a victor, and so she and Peeta agree to poison themselves.
Just when they’re about to eat the berries, they reverse the rule again, and Katniss and Peeta are declared the winners.
To complete the arc of the character, they now need to show how they’re transformed.
In this resolution, your readers will be satisfied. If it falls flat, the enthusiasm won’t come. The main character needs to be changed either by being a new person or by becoming stronger (or a mixture of both, in most stories). Again, this is tied to the Mirror Moment.
If the character is now stronger, the fact of survival and return to normalcy is often enough. If there’s an internal transformation, it’s best to show it with an action. Let the character do something that they wouldn’t have done at the beginning. That shows change to the reader.
This moment also ties to the Argument Against Transformation.
What transformation were they fighting against? You can now flip it: they have transformed into precisely that.
At the end of the Hunger Games, Katniss comes back to District 12. She survived the Games, getting a new house for her and her family. She has some return of normalcy here.
However, in The Hunger Games, we also have an internal arc that starts with the Argument Against Transformation signpost. There, Katniss has said she doesn’t want children. She has no hope for the future.
But by outsmarting the Capitol, she becomes a beacon of hope herself: she’s the instigator of the revolution that follows. She becomes someone who fights for a better future (and we only do that if we believe hope exists).
At the end of the entire trilogy, we can see this mirrored when Katniss has children with Peeta.
Now it's your turn!
Those are the 14 signposts of the super structure method you can use for outlining your novel.
Keep these signposts in mind while you write, or while you think about your story.
If you found this helpful, I would absolutely recommend that you get Bell’s book on superstructure. In the book, he also gives other tips on brainstorming and more examples for each signpost.