Everyone has that moment in their writing life that changes how they look at everything.

For me, that moment came when I was in university. I had written bits and pieces of stories for years. I considered myself an aspiring author, despite having never completed a story. So, at age 21, I finished a story. I also, for whatever reason, didn’t research how many words an average YA story needed until I was done. After a little research, I discovered that YA stories are supposed to be 50,000-80,000 words long, depending on the genre, while I had written 120,000 words at an average of 12,000 words a chapter.

Never again.

Now, I have a very structured approach to writing. I start with a word count and break it down into chapters, map an 8-point story structure map on top of it, and build my outline around it.

It is a wonderful method. Not only do I have a visual reference for my entire story, but I have a model that helps me make sure that all of my major events are spaced out reasonably.

Here’s how it works.

1. Determine Your Target Word Count

Word count is important. I know there’s a lot of folks out there who feel that you just need to write whatever your heart desires, because your story will naturally tell you how many words it needs. If that works for you, that’s great.

But I find it annoying to remove or add huge amounts of text to a story after it’s written. And, like it or not, all new writers are judged by the average word count of their genres, and if you go way outside of it you may be hurting your chances at getting published.

I love these posts on word counts:

Find your genre and estimate a word count.

I write YA fantasy, so I need to be on the high end of the YA estimate. One of those links suggests you go no higher than 70K and the other suggests an upper limit of 80K.

Sigils ended up at 72K. For my next one I want to be between 60-70K. But let’s use 70K as my estimate.

2. Decide on Your Average Chapter Length

This is easy for me because I know how I write. My chapters are between 3,000 and 4,000 words. To make this post easier, let’s go with 4,000.

Now we can do the math! At 4,000 words a chapter in a 70,000 word story, that’s 17.5 chapters. Since I’m never going to write exactly 4K words per chapter, that means the end of my story should hit around 17 or 18 chapters, depending on how much I write.

3. Map Out Your Chapters

Now it’s time to draw! Let’s pretend we’re going to have 18 chapters, since that’s a nice, even number.

Here’s something lame I did in OneNote:

Screenshot showing a table with cells labeled 1 through 18.

There you go. 18 chapters. Done.

4. Make a Chapter Timeline

Now it’s time for a little formulaic story structuring. You can use whatever models you want. I’ve used these before:

You could spend a while reading the StoryFix posts. But, for expediency, let’s take the advice from Part 2: Milestones along the 4-Part Storytelling Road and throw it on top of our model.

Now, you might wonder how numerically slapping arbitrary plot points on a timeline is helpful. Don’t worry. We’re going to smooth it out later.

But if you take this:

  • the opening of your story.
  • a hooking moment in the first 20 pages.
  • the first Plot Point, at approximately the 20th to 25th percentile mark.
  • the first Pinch Point (don’t worry, I’ll define it later) at about the 3/8ths mark.
  • a context-shifting Mid-Point.
  • a second Pinch Point, at about the 5/8ths mark.
  • the second plot point, at about the 75th percentile mark.
  • the final resolution scene, or scenes.

…And apply it directly to your timeline, you get something like this:

The chapter table showing the hook at chapter 2, plot point #1 at chapter 4, pinch point #1 at chapter 6, mid-point at chapter 9, pinch point #2 at chapter 12, plot point #2 at chapter fifteen, and the resolution scenes at chapter 17.*NOTE: That “Hook” should be on Chapter 1. Whoops.

I’m approximating, and plot point #1 ended up falling “somewhere around the end of chapter six or early in seven.” But all we need is a general model.

5. Write Your Story Outline

Now it’s time to write the outline!

But let’s be clear: you do not have to follow the timeline exactly.

It can help you outline. Need help starting? Try dropping your 3 most dramatic moments into the chapters that match your three plot points. Then, if you have them, put the pinch-point dramas in there, too.

The “plot points” mentioned above (and you should read the StoryFix site if you want to learn more) are essentially the 3 most dramatic moments of your story. In between them are “pinch points” that represent important things happening in between the plot points. Once they’re in place, you can dive in and start outlining the rest of the story. If things move around? Let them. If your plot points don’t make sense where they were placed? Move them. Do whatever you need to make the story make sense.

But it does help to keep the timeline in mind. The “plot point” concept exists because all stories need to hook you, build up to something, hit a dramatic mid-point, and be resolved. Because otherwise you don’t have a story, do you?

And the estimates above are generally where these events should be. You have to hook your reader early. Something significant has to happen by the time you’re 1/4 of the way through the story. Because what happens when you don’t? If you introduce a character and have them leading a boring, straightforward, and idyllic life for 20,000 words, you will probably think your story drags. If the mid-story crisis and your grand finale are a chapter apart, you will probably feel like a story is racing wildly out of control.

These aren’t laws, but they help you ensure that the most important moments in your story are paced at reasonable intervals and that you are maintaining the tension between them. And any outline that broadly follows that pattern will probably feel well-paced.

And that’s it! After you’ve done all this, you will have a story outline ready to go. Wasn’t that easy?