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On Narrative Structure: The Mock Table of Contents

Okay, October is already washing out from under us like sand in the surf, right? Next thing we know, we’re going to be caught in an undercurrent and sweeping toward Christmas without a lifeguard in sight.

(I may have gotten lost in my metaphor there.)

That’s okay. I don’t know how closely you looked at the prewriting schedule I posted last week, but even though I talk about doing prewriting “in October,” it’s really only a handful of assignments, most of which don’t take more than a day or two.

Today we’re going to start with the quickest and the easiest: the mock Table of Contents. All you need to write that one is a vague idea what happens in your story.

Coming Up with a Story

If you don’t have any idea at all what happens in your story, don’t panic. You can skip this assignment and come back to it later (it’s one of those “one or two days” assignments), or you can look at this as an opportunity to figure it out.

If you decide to skip it, go ahead and write up some character descriptions, and then put in some real effort next week when I give you the Conflict Resolution Cycle worksheet. That exercise is all about developing a plot, and once you’re through with it, the Table of Contents will be easy. Just come back to it, then.

Most people won’t have that problem, though. Most people who decide to write a novel start with a story idea — maybe one that’s been kicking around in the back of their minds for years, maybe one that struck them like a lightning bolt and demands being told. It could be character-driven, or gimmick-driven, or genre-driven, it doesn’t matter. Most people who sit down to write a novel have a story in mind.

Thinking in Chapters

The problem is, most people don’t really know what a story is. That’s what I was trying to get at in yesterday’s article, introducing the concept of Narrative Structure and the idea of managing the reader’s experience as you provide not just a retelling of interesting characters and events, but a gradually unfolding understanding.

This assignment is designed to help you put that last part into practice. You’re going to convert your story from an idea into a sequence of scenes.

That will help you think through what it really takes to build a story, but it also has another benefit: once you’re done, you’ll actually know what your chapters are. That means when you sit down to start writing next month, you’re not starting from a blank page. You’re starting with a known path, known milestones, and a good idea what has to happen before you finish writing whichever scene you’re working on.

Actually Making a Mock Table of Contents (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopSo…how do you get started? Pretend your book is already finished. What would the Table of Contents look like? Write one up. Don’t bother about including imaginary page numbers, just fill in the chapter titles.

Remember what I said yesterday about the sequence of story events. Think of each chapter as a story event, that has to belong within the story you’re telling, and needs to move it forward. Now’s your chance to pick the series of events that will reveal the story from beginning to end.

I recommend aiming (very loosely) for about 15 chapters. That makes them a little over 10 pages, on average, for a medium-sized book. Once you’re finished, your Table of Contents can act as a sort of outline.

If you haven’t been working on the story idea long enough to have chapters already basically figured out, you can use the old-timey convention of making chapter titles as sentences, such as, “Chapter 2: In which the princess encounters a common soldier, and seeks refuge in his hotel room; also, the soldier and his friend plot to turn a profit.” Something of that sort.

If you don’t have a plot in mind at all, don’t stress about it. Just make up fifteen events in order and see what happens. If you don’t like it, toss them out and make up fifteen new ones. This isn’t a binding commitment.

Also, remember that it’s a fictional story, and you’re in control. You don’t need to know what happens, you get to make it up. Start at chapter one, make up a situation that seems like it would be interesting, then try to guess what would happen next. Do that fifteen times, and you’re done.

2 Responses to “On Narrative Structure: The Mock Table of Contents”

  1. I have 10 Chapters down solid and 5 still blank in my TOC.

    Character descriptions started…and growing.

  2. […] made up a series of worksheets, asking them to prepare a Mock Table of Contents, some Character Profiles, and to think through their stories’ Conflict Resolution Cycles. For […]