On Narrative Structure: The Mock Table of Contents

***This post is one of several in our prewriting series. To read the first post, click here.***

Ready for more prewriting tips? Here’s Aaron Pogue with the next installment in the series designed to streamline your JuNoWriMo experience.

Aaron Pogue


Okay, May 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 June without a lifeguard in sight.

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

That’s okay. Most of the prewriting steps 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 step and come back to it later, 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 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 Thursday’s post, 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 step 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.

Making a Mock Table of Contents (Creative Writing Exercise)

So…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 last week 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.


When you’re done with your Table of Contents, go ahead and start working on your character descriptions. Here’s a recap of what that entails:

  • Protagonist—300 words
  • Antagonist (or other main character)—300 words
  • Secondary character—100 words
  • Secondary character—100 words
  • Secondary character—100 words

Come back tomorrow when Aaron will guide us through the Conflict Resolution Cycle.

Related Posts:

On Narrative Structure: Outlines

Prewriting: The Steps

JuNoWriMo Features Authors and YOU

3 Replies to “On Narrative Structure: The Mock Table of Contents”

  1. Aaron, thank you for writing these posts on how to prewrite! I’m finding them very helpful to get my ideas fleshed out before June.

    One question though: I usually have trouble unfolding my characters. When I sat down to write 300 words each for the protagonist and the antagonist, I barely ended up with 300 altogether.

    Do you (or another reader) have any specific tips on how to build a character?

    Thanks 🙂

  2. Hey Camilla,

    I write my character descriptions slightly different than Aaron. Instead of writing them in paragraph form, I prefer to create sort of a form that I fill out with all of their information. I’ll write sentences and paragraphs within it, if there’s something that needs to be elaborated on (or if I think I’ll need a reminder later.)

    Here’s what the topics might look like:

    Physical description:
    Family members (and how the character relates to each one, if they get along, etc.):
    Place(s) of residence and dates he/she lived at each:
    Friends (names, descriptions, where/how they met/hang out, etc.):
    History of character (before book begins–anything relevant not covered above):
    Personality traits (including flaws) and habits:
    Pets (if applicable):
    Insecurities/egotistic about:
    Abilities/weaknesses (include superhuman ones if book is fantasy):
    What does the character want most (that he or she is hindered from getting in the story):
    Other dreams/desires:

    You can add whatever categories may be relevant to your genre/story. This is a place to record all the useful information you’ll need later. Try this technique and I wouldn’t worry about the counts as much as getting all the important info out there. If you have to stop mid-June to create the full family tree of your character, you’ll just be wasting precious time you could be using to write.

    I hope that helps!

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