Plotting Your Novel – The Quick Outline Tool

Posted by: Birgitte  :  Category: Story Structure

Nothing draws a line in the sand of novel writing like the question, “To outline or not to outline.” Is there any kind of middle ground?

In fact, I think there is.

When I started my first novel, I wrote into the void, with no outline to guide me. It was exciting. Freeing. (From what, I don’t exactly know) But I felt like I was “creating” plot from the deepest levels of “not knowingness.”

By the time I’d rewritten the 3rd draft with no more idea where the story was going than when I’d set out along the path years earlier, I decided I’d better channel my inner Virgo and see what outlining could do for me. For my characters, actually; they were growing old before my eyes. (And that wasn’t even part of the plot.)

So I learned everything I could about outlining. Years went by. I took classes and workshops and read books and had long meaningful conversations with other writers about “outlining a plot as art.

I made convoluted complex road maps. I filled in detailed character analysis sheets. And in the end I ditched the complexity and pulled together a simple outline template from a variety of sources that I loved—a powerful “middle ground” tool that I used to direct my characters on their journey through their story. (I’m going to give you the entire outline to copy and paste and use, in just a second.)

As my good friend and YA author Janice Hardy is fond of reminding me, “Plot is a verb, not a noun.”

So let’s go plot your character’s journey

Okay, so if we think of plot as a verb, then what we are looking for isn’t some magical overlay that we place onto our story or our characters, but an organic progression of actions our characters “do” or “take” that become the plot. Inherent in that idea are actions or events that happen to our characters based not on serendipity or luck, but as a result of the choices or actions our characters make.

But what choices should they make? How do we decide?

I have found partial answers to that question in Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writer’s Journey, Michael Hauge’s DVD series, The Hero’s Two Journeys, , Mary Buckham’s “Break into Fiction,” and various lectures on story structure from Alex Sokoloff and YA author Janice Hardy. From these particular luminaries, I’ve distilled and compiled a very simple format that I think works really well to create a basic plot outline.

Before you scoot to the end of this post and just copy and paste the outline (which you’re welcome to do by the way) I want to explain why I’ve organized it the way I have, and what the various Acts/Stages mean.

Caveat: If you’re the kind of writer who doesn’t believe in plot structure, don’t read on. If you are the kind of writer who just wants to write what they want to write, but also eventually wants to sell their work, consider using this structure during your editing process after you’ve written what you want. If you’re the kind of writer who knows that a little structure now can help the entire novel-writing process later, read on!

Act Structure and Stages
This outline is presented in a 3 “Act” structure (which can easily be adapted to a 4 “Act” Structure) and a 5 “Stage” structure. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

Let’s talk about Act I. You’ll see it’s been assigned 25% of the scenes. (This is approximate, but stay close to that figure) Certain things typically happen for the reader in this first (opening) Act.

  • The hero/ine is introduced, usually shown in their “ordinary world” (what their lives look like before the big even that rocks them)
  • The antagonist is also introduced and the reader finds out a bit about what makes that character tick and gets some idea of how they will inform the hero/ine’s journey.
  • A love interest (if relevant) is introduced
  • Mentors or allies come into the picture.
  • But most importantly, the story’s central question is asked. This is the question that the reader reads in order to have answered. (Will Dorothy find the meaning of “home?” Will Luke become a Jedi Knight? Will Ahab get his whale?)

There are 2 stages that help facilitate the above actions within Act I. Stage I is called the “setup” and Stage II is called the “new situation.”

Stage I happens right off the bat. We meet the hero/ine and we get a glimpse of their identity. This typically happens from 0-10% of the way into the book. At the 10% mark, we find the first “plot point” (or “turning point”) Plot Point 1 is the inciting event, or the “something” that happens to your hero/ine to set them on a new path. (A tornado hits Kansas)

Stage II happens between 10-25% into the story and incorporates Plot Point 2. Stage II presents the hero/ine with some kind of new situation. (Dorothy’s house lands in Oz)

At the end of Act I (25% through the story) there is typically an Act I Climax. This climactic event makes it impossible for the hero/ine to turn away from this new situation and go back to the life they led a mere 25% ago. (Dorothy’s house landed on a wicked witch in a strange land and she now has some ruby slippers which won’t come off and no one seems to know the way back to Kansas.)

You do not have to physically transport your hero/ine to Oz to make it impossible for them to “return” to their previous life. The hero/ine can lose someone to death, or maybe they just lose their job but it was all they had in the world, or they get a new job and have to prove themselves, or their spouse leaves them, or their kid runs away, or they just inherited a billion dollars or they just lost a billion dollars. You name it.

At this point in the story they can’t go back to the life they once knew or the person they once were. They don’t know who they are now. They don’t know what their new life looks like. So the only thing they can do is march boldly into Act II. (Or slink reluctantly into Act II, as the case may be.)

Act II comprises approximately 50% of the novel and is also made up of 2 different stages: Stage III, “Seeming Progress,” and Stage IV, “Complications and Higher Stakes.”

Overall in Act II the following things should happen:

  • Reeling from the Act I Climax, the Hero/ine begins to make a plan to figure out how to get out of the mess they currently find themselves in.
  • The Antagonist also makes a plan to figure out how to achieve their goals (and their goals go against the hero/ine’s goals, of course)
  • The hero/ine meet(s) more allies.
  • The hero/ine and allies fend off attacks by the antagonist. Now when I say “attacks,” I don’t necessarily mean physical. The antagonist can be another person vying for the love of the hero/ine’s beloved, or someone who opposes the hero/ine in business. Or the antagonist can even be the love interest, as they frequently are in romance stories, the man pitted against the woman until they realize their undying love for each other. (Cue sappy soundtrack and Kleenex.)
  • The important overall point of the story’s middle is that the hero/ine makes a plan and attempts to carry out that plan and is thwarted by their own ineptitude and/or by the antagonistic forces against them.

At the end of Stage III, after it seems the hero/ine is making progress toward their story goal, there is usually a Midpoint Climax. This really does occur close to the actual middle of the story and the purpose of this climax is to introduce a new twist or an unexpected event. (“Nobody gets in to see the Wizard. Not no-one. Not no-how.”)

This is also where Plot Point 3 occurs, the point at which the hero/ine realizes the full complexity of the task ahead. (“Bring me the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West.”)

From this point on and for the second half of Act II, things get more complicated. During Stage IV the hero/ine is tested in harder and harsher ways. Plot Point 4 occurs during the second half of Act II and it involves a major setback. (Dorothy gets captured by the Wicked Witch of the West.)

The Act II Climax decreases the hero/ine’s abilities even more and many times sets a ticking clock. (Dorothy has until the sand runs out to give the witch the ruby slippers even though she has no idea how to get them off her feet.)

Act III comprises the last 25% of the story and starts with Stage V, the final push. (Dorothy’s friends rescue her)

Plot Point 5 incorporates the final showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist. (Dorothy runs from the witch’s guards and is recaptured, but when the witch threatens Scarecrow with fire, Dorothy gets mad and throws the bucket of water, accidentally hitting the witch and melting her.)

The problem is (or is almost) resolved. A climax can span more than one scene. (Dorothy is set to take off for Kansas with the wizard when Toto runs off.)

But eventually everything is resolved (or not if this is a tragedy) and during the wrap up/aftermath, any loose ends are tied up. (Dorothy admits to Auntie Em that “There’s no place like home.”)

Adept story tellers will leave a few questions lingering to keep the reader wondering or pondering, not enough to frustrate the reader, but enough to keep the ending from being completely Wizard of Oz pat. Although, you could wonder if Dorothy’s family and friends ever believed her, or if she really did dream the entire thing…


So, as your reward for lumbering through the above explanations, as promised, the payoff: My version of an outline form for plotting that incorporates the most important factors I’ve found in telling an interesting story.

The best way to use this outline is to simply copy it from the starting point to the end, and paste it on a word doc. Then go through and start filling in the blank spaces with ideas and scenes from your own story. Refer to the above notes for clarification.

As always, if anyone has had experiences (good or bad) with outlining, let me hear from you. If anyone has their own outlining tips or suggestions that they’d like to share, contact me and let’s get them posted.

***Start copying here***

ACT I – 25% of the scenes

0-10%             Stage I – Setup

10%                Plot Point #1/Inciting event: (The things that sets the hero on the path to trouble)

10%-25%       Stage II – New Situation

25%                Plot Point #2/Change of Plans: (First major event that upsets the status quo).

Act I Climax:  (The event that makes it impossible to turn back now)

ACT II – 50% of the scenes

25%-50%       Stage III – Seeming progress

50%                Plot Point #3/Point of no return: (Learns the full scope of the problem)

Midpoint Climax: (Introduces a twist or unexpected event)

50%-75%       Stage IV – Complications and higher stakes

75%                Plot Point #4/Major Set back

Act II Climax: (Increase the stakes and decreases the hero’s abilities)

ACT III – 25% of the scenes

75%-90%       Stage V – Final Push (Crisis. Things can’t continue as they are.)

90%-99%       Plot Point #5 Climax (The action the protagonist takes to resolve problem)

99%-100%     Aftermath/Wrap Up: (Ties up loose ends and foreshadows the future)

***Stop copying here***

Happy plotting all!

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27 Responses to “Plotting Your Novel – The Quick Outline Tool”

  1. Janet Brook Says:

    This is an excellent outline template! I’ve always had trouble breaking down the fine points beyond the basic Three-Act Structure. Your example shows how to dig deep into the meat of any story and bring out it’s flavor.

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  3. Veronica Rossi Says:

    Birgitte, I love this! Thanks for sharing this~

  4. Sean Locke Says:

    Brigitte, I really like that you’ve put this together. I think applying this model could help me give my story ideas a little more cohesion. What I’m doing follows the model in broad strokes, but particulars are important too.

    A question about Stage I. I’ve gotten some way through my zeroth draft, and the text doesn’t actually begin with Dorothy in her house in Kansas (so to speak). Stage I *happens* to the protagonist, to be sure, but I had envisioned that she would reveal what Kansas was like in small doses to the other characters during dialogue.

    Do you reckon that each stage has to happen and be revealed to the reader, in the text, in the order presented above?

  5. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter:
    Hi Sean,

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with your character revealing a little bit of “Kansas” as the story goes on.

    As for the order of the stages, well let me first qualify the above post by saying the 5-stage structure is a technique many writers (in particular screenwriters) use to outline. It certainly isn’t THE only way to write.

    So in that regard you certainly don’t have to follow the 5-stage structure exactly as written. However, I’d be wary of messing with the order of things unless you know exactly why you are doing it. 5-stage structure has been used for a long time and will continue to be used because it works well.

    Which brings me a to a point I should probably blog about one day: Does following a certain structure make for cookie-cutter writing? I firmly believe that it doesn’t. To use a corny analogy, most houses have 2×4 stud construction on a poured concrete foundation capped with a roof. But do most houses look alike? Heck no.

    What you the creative genius behind the curtain does to the story’s structure determines its final outcome. So if you want to have a certain thing revealed slowly throughout the story, that speaks to your own level of creative pacing. Go for it! :)

    Thanks for your great question. I hope I didn’t blab on too much.

  6. Sean Locke Says:

    Birgitte,

    Thank you so much for the thoughtful reply! I think I’ve wanted to skip Stage I in favor of leavening it throughout the rest of the text because of other writing advice I’ve seen. Specifically, I’ve seen a lot of chatter that says “Hook the reader – start with something exciting!”

    In my story, Stage I and II would involve a bit of exposition, an introduction to a fantasy world, and a taste of a great deal of larger, unspoken family drama. It could be interesting to write and read, but there’s not a lot of _pop_, if you catch my drift. There’s quite a lot of pop in Stage III, and so I originally thought I’d start with that.

    Heck, I don’t know. I’ve stalled out in the middle of this draft as it is, so maybe doing it the “right” way with the five stages &c. would be worth my while.

    Thank you again for the science, Birgitte, and … my apologies for butchering your name on the first comment. ^_^

  7. Knowlton Thomas Says:

    This a thorough, detailed post. Excellent work!

  8. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter:
    Thank you, Knowlton!

    And Sean, if your first two stages contain a lot of exposition and that’s why you’re worried about including them, then I would ask you to consider if 1) You aren’t starting the story in the wrong place and your current stage 3 isn’t actually stage 1? :) or 2) You could look for ways to delay the exposition in favor of action, letting the information in the exposition part come out as the story itself unfolds.

    That might help your mid-story issues resolve themselves. Or at least give you more mid-story issues to deal with! LOL

    Good luck with it all! And no worries about my name. :)

  9. Joe Says:

    Birgitte,

    I’m so glad I’ve found this wonderful site and outline, but I do have one question. How would you suggest where to start, or fit in, if my plan is to start off my novel with a prologue.

    Thanks,

    Joe.

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  11. Mona W Green Says:

    I’ve been stuck on my latest effort for along time.
    I believe your help is just what I needed to get out of the ditch and back on the road again. At least it is a starting point for me to get back to words on a page instead of dead white paper. You’ll be hearing from me I hope.

  12. Birgitte Necessary Says:

    Twitter:
    I’m happy to help you any way I can, Mona. Just let me know. “Dead white paper?” Nooooo. It’s ALIVE with possibility! ;)

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  14. Orinthia Says:

    Twitter:
    Dear Birgitte,

    This post is really helpful! I’m planning to write my first novel and this outline surely will guide me to the finish line! Thanks for sharing <3

  15. Birgitte Necessary Says:

    Twitter:
    You’re welcome Orinthia! There are other great articles to help you write your novel on this site too, and if you have specific questions, feel free to ask. Good luck in your endeavor!!! I’ll be rooting for you!

  16. Robin Dee Says:

    Hi! As a writer who hates outlining, I love yours! I do have a couple of questions, though. How much am I to be writing in each of the stages/plot points? Paragraphs? Just a couple of sentences? I am such an outlining newbie and just don’t understand the finer points. Thanks in advance for your help.

    Robin

  17. Lauren Says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for this tool! Just what I need to get my story organized! Very helpful.

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    Twitter:
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  20. Kita Says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m a writer who hates outlining who knows she needs outlining.. and this looks helpful :)

    I threw it together in a google doc table and I thought I’d give you a link in case it may be of help to you or others. I plan to print it since I work best on paper. With .5″ margins it fits nicely on a page.

    Thanks again for the resource!

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ycyOo7scDczwdfbfOoyniy2Wf0a-KjwZsdAZYUQlOOc/edit

  21. Michael McClellan Says:

    Twitter:
    A lot of great resources here! Thank you.

  22. Birgitte Says:

    Twitter:
    You’re so welcome, Michael

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    Hey, this piece is beautiful. Only problem is I can’t copy the templates anyone help.

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    Hay,
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    I am new writer so your tool is so useful to me.”But what choices should they make? How do we decide?”this idea will most helpful for me.

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