A story outline is the bridge between your story idea and a great, polished work of literature. A plot outline is like your story’s skeleton. It’s the bones on which you hang the flesh, blood, sweat and tears of your story.
When you’re not sure how to start writing a story idea you might have, working on an outline will save you time and frustration, while also generating new ideas.
Let’s delve into how to write a story outline, and why learning to structure a short story or novel will actually unlock its creative potential.
Solidify the premise of your story
Before you can write a compelling plot, you need a good premise. Think of this process as building a house. This is the first stone that will make up the foundation of your novel — and you want it to be sturdy.
In a nutshell, the premise is your book’s central facts and the answer you will have to give when editors ask about your story. If all you’ve got is a sense of the themes you want to explore (e.g., grief, trauma, coming-of-age), it’s best to start by grounding those themes in concrete details. Take a step back and ask yourself another important question: Why do I want to tell this story?
Then work your way through the 5W (and H) questions to flesh out these core facts:
- Who are your main characters?
- What are their goals?
- Where is the story set?
- When does your story take place?
- Why is this story important, or alternatively, why is this story happening?
- How will all of this happen?
You’ll expand the answers to some of these questions further in the outline, but keeping each point in mind throughout will allow you to create a well-rounded story. When you’re done, you should be able to complete this sentence:
[Character] must [do something] to [story goal] or else [reason why the audience should care]?
Essentially, this will help you understand who your main character is — how they got to this point in life, how they think, their goals and desires.
Bear in mind that literary fiction, which is often character/voice- rather than plot-driven, may not fully fit this sentence — but it’s still worth trying to establish as many of these central pillars as possible. Ultimately, your outline will give you a path you can follow as you draft, so you don’t get lost.
Create your core cast of characters
Next, you’ll want to consider the walls of your novel: the characters. Since they’re going to make or break the book, you should have a good idea of who they are before you start outlining, which includes all your non-protagonist characters.
One good place to start is considering their motives. Ask yourself what your protagonist’s goal is and what drives them to achieve it. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss is driven by her desire to protect her sister and create a fair and peaceful world.
Once you know who your characters are, you can start considering what they will do in the story. This is when you start thinking about how each character interacts with the world and plot and the characters around them. Get outside your protagonist’s head and look into their relational dynamics.
The following questions will help you flesh out your characters even more:
- What are the stakes involved for the characters throughout the story?
- How will each character play off one other?
- How will they disrupt each other?
Another way you can do this is by creating “What if” scenarios and considering how your character will react to them. These don’t have to be things that happen in the plot but a way of understanding how someone will react in certain situations.
For example, you can learn more about your character by asking, “What would happen if they were faced with their greatest fear?” We wrote a different article to help you develop your characters and keep track of their unique traits. Remember: a story is only as strong as its characters.
Develop your setting
Now it’s time to think big and consider the world your characters live in, also known as worldbuilding. Whether you’re writing a fantasy novel or setting your story in your hometown, the environment will influence your plot and characters. How you construct the setting can also give your story extra depth.
Descriptive paragraphs about the setting hold greater importance (and space) in fantasy novels. Nonetheless, every genre needs imagery and sensory details. Setting is its own character in some ways, adding just as much personality and intrigue to the plot as anyone else. It can help set the tone, bolster the theme, and in general, create a more realistic reading experience, even if your story takes place in a galaxy far, far away.
In an outline, your setting should focus on the big picture. You might want to consider what kinds of political or social dynamics are at play and how they affect your characters and the progression of your story. Essentially, ask how your setting affects the plot and keep that in mind as you build your plan. Detail isn’t important at this stage, so don’t make the mistake of spending too much time on worldbuilding and never making it to the next step (fantasy authors, we’re looking at you).
Some questions you can ask yourself as you develop the setting are:
- What is unique about your setting?
- What are the larger social, political, and cultural forces that affect the world?
- How does the setting connect to your overall premise?
- How do your characters relate to the setting?
Story Outline: Structure
Now that you have a developed concept or idea, it’s time to choose a structure to work around. There are quite a few options to choose from, so we’ll focus on some of the more popular ones here.
Before you continue research the common beats of your subgenre for example:
A Murder Mystery in Five Acts
- Act One: The Crime, Murderer Introduced and the 1st Body Found.
- Act Two: Detective Introduced and Led Astray (usually by red herring).
- Act Three: Crime Solved and the Detective Knows Who the Killer Is.
- Act Four: Third Body Found; Sleuth Lays a Trap for the Killer; The Reveal.
- Act Five: The Wrap Up.
The Hero’s Journey
Based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory, this structure has 12 stages that an author can follow to take their character on a journey. It works incredibly well for writers who want more plotting guidance than you would get from the three-act structure and who want to zero in on the story of a singular character.
Positive: Works well across mediums and genres, can use it to subvert the audience’s expectations
Negative: It can quickly fall into cliches if you’re not careful, for certain storytellers, it can be limiting
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The three-act structure is exactly what it sounds like: outlining your novel in three acts, much like a play, beginning with an inciting incident, then following with a midpoint, and finally, a climax. Each part is subdivided into three beats, adding up to nine in total. This structure’s broad strokes are helpful for any kind of author, whether you’re unsure where you’re going or already know your entire plot.
Positive: Ensures each scene starts and ends with a clear purpose
Negative: Doesn’t offer guidance on how to move your story forward
But that’s simplistic to the point of being of limited use. So you may want to expand it into something like this:
- Status Quo
- Rising Action
- Falling action
- Final Outcome
This eight stage story cycle was developed by Dan Harmon, the co-creator of Rick and Morty, and follows a character as they pursue a goal outside their normal world. The Story Circle is great for authors writing a character-focused story.
Positive: Suitable for any genre and medium, less complex than the hero’s journey
Negative: Not as structured as other methods, not well suited for plot-focused stories
Save the Cat
Perhaps the most detailed of the story structures we cover, Save the Cat is a 15-step beat sheet developed by screenwriter Blake Snyder. It takes moments that are common to most stories and puts them in an ordered list that also tells you at what point of the story (or page of the screenplay) it should happen. This format is for you if you’re looking for extra guidance when crafting your story.
Positive: Balance is built directly into the story structure, creates a story people will instantly recognize
Negative: Some authors might find this format too restrictive
Outline individual scenes
While scene and structure are connected, they aren’t the same thing. Story structure deals with the big picture — think of it as the architect’s plan. And the scenes are the individual rooms within the plan, each with its own purpose. So how do you plan out your scenes? Here are a few different techniques. Pick the one that best suits you.
The “tent pole” method
Here, you sketch out key scenes and sequences first — the “tent poles” that prop the novel up — and build the rest of the book from there. To get started, brainstorm scenes that will be the centerpieces of your plot, which may include anything from major turning points to the climax of the entire book. For pantsers, writers who find that their instincts resist too meticulous outlining, this may be the point where you stop and allow the story to unfold naturally, as you type it out.
The chronological method
If you’re more of a straight thinker, this will be the obvious way to break down the scenes of your book: start from the beginning and proceed linearly. Be sure to preserve your narrative arc as you go to give your story purpose and direction.
The Snowflake method
The Snowflake Method encourages you to start thinking about your scenes from a granular point of view — and then build up from there. To learn more, this post goes in-depth into the benefits of this particular kind of outline.
Don’t overthink it at this point — jotting down quick notes as your scenes come to you will do.
At every point during the scene creation phase, go back to your “foundation” and ask yourself:
- How will your scenes advance and build upon your premise?
- How will a scene reveal your characters? How will it further the character development?
- How do your scenes fit into your narrative arc?
So long as you keep the outline updated, you can always see your story’s big picture.
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- Scene: the order of the scene in your outline
- Date: where the scene falls in the context of your story
- Scene Description: a brief sentence that states the gist of the scene (i.e. courting the prince, battle of the four armies, or the meet-cute)
- Scene Summary: an expanded description of the scene
- POV Character: which character’s perspective tells the story
- Character: the character involved in the scene
- Setting: where the scene takes place
- Theme: the themes present in the scene
- Subplots: the subplots present in the scene
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