How to Create an Outline for Your Novel
Chapter 4 “Preparing Your Plot” – Section 1 “The Outline”
“Plot is what happens in your story. Every story needs structure, just as every body needs a skeleton. It is how you 'flesh out and clothe' your structure that makes each story unique.”
Of all of the topics to discuss in writing a novel, none of them inspire quite so much ire as that of outlining your story. As artists, we sometimes want to believe in the concept of absolute freedom from form and convention, and that our achievements come from personal brilliance, total creativity, and ingenuity. However, when we consider how visual artists are critiqued when audience-appreciation for their piece is diminished by a lack of shading, poor color selection, bad perspective, or any number of faults which objectively cause the art to diminish in effect, we realize that this is an artistic double-standard. Writers are architects who are building a glorious tower of words, characters, and story, but we often forget that towers must perform certain basic functions—such as keeping out the rain, creating even surfaces for furniture and people to stand, or even surviving gravity through a geometrically sound foundation. We achieve these basic necessities by using simple conventions and tools that have been perfected over the years—like floors, steel beams, walls, indoor plumbing, and windows. Novels, like towers, also have basic functions that are necessary for a meaningful connection with the audience—such as immersion, characters, events, and a plot designed in such a way to pull the reader in and make them experience the story—and so novels also require the tools and conventions that have been developed by the masters of our art. There are countless types of outlines available for making a powerful story—varying from complex and specific lists of plot elements, to simply having a clear beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, it is certainly possible to subconsciously create a plot with success, by piecing together everything you've learned about outlines by reading books and watching movies. However, for my method of creating an outline with deliberation, purpose, and planning, we will be using one that has enough detail that we can look at it piece-by-piece and discuss each element; it is the Twelve-Point Plot Outline.
The Twelve-Point Plot Outline
(With a sample from the 2002 production of Spiderman)
Act I – Beginning- (Setting up the Story)
For your readers to appreciate the journey of your heroes, they must have a look at what life was for the hero before the journey began. In the Beginning plot-point, show the norm of the hero's life, while setting up the event or chain of events that will trigger the story and upcoming Inciting Incident. In other words, line up the dominoes that you plan on toppling over, and build anticipation in the reader. Also, begin to reveal your world and introduce your major characters.
-Peter Parker is a high-school nerd, dealing with bullies, his feelings for a girl named MJ, and the process of learning how to be a good person from his Uncle Ben. He goes on a field trip to a science lab where genetically altered spider are being created.
There are two major events that happen in Act I. The first event is the one that changes your protagonist's world/life in a way that cannot be reversed—the Inciting Incident. This is to be the big change that is the catalyst for the story to be possible, the bomb that alters everything.
-Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, gets super-powers, and uses them to make his life more tolerable.
The second major event in Act I is the one that is deeply personal to the protagonist—the First Turning Point. This is an event that is even more life-changing than (but related to) the Inciting Incident, and is what brings the protagonist to decide how they are going to react to the Inciting Incident.
-Peter Parker is ripped off by the owner of a wrestling arena, and so allows the owner to be mugged to get even. The mugger then kills Uncle Ben, and Parker awakens to the idea that his power comes with responsibility and consequences if he does not use them well. He becomes a vigilante for justice.
Act II – Middle - (Confronting the Antagonist Forces)
Now that your protagonist has been set on a course of action, they must stand and move towards it—this is the Rising Action plot-point. Usually, this will be a series of attempts of the protagonist to achieve his/her goal, before he/she is skilled or capable enough to succeed. This step usually includes many light failures, successes, adventures, and misadventures, that serve to strengthen the hero and teach them more about themselves. Things begin to gradually get better/worse, depending upon what sort of story you are telling, and upon the natural consequences of the protagonist's actions.
-Parker tries to learn how to use his powers, and acts as a hero, with varying degrees of success and appreciation from the public. This makes him begin to rely emotionally on public approval from his actions as a hero. However, he grows in competence.
During the First Pinch Point, the primary antagonist will do something dark or critical, that puts pressure on the protagonist to react. This pressure is created to lead up to the first confrontation, to build up tension by showing readers the power set against the protagonist, and to point out the weaknesses still present in the hero.
-After quickly incapacitating Parker, the Green Goblin tells him that the citizens he protects will eventually turn on him, and offers a partnership to rule over the city, arguing that fighting will lead to senseless destruction of pathetic people.
During the Midpoint, the protagonist reacts to the First Pinch Point, confronts the antagonist, and fails in a very critical way. This plot point is meant to illustrate the power of the antagonist, as well as the immensity of the challenge ahead of the hero.
-Parker refuses the Green Goblins offer, and they fight—leading to Parker's failure to stop the Goblin and his arm being cut.
The Disaster is the plot point at which the hero deals with the consequences of failure. The actions that the protagonist takes will usually all be bad, destructive, and poorly thought out, due to the demoralizing failure that took place during the midpoint.
-The cut on Parker's arm reveals his identity to the Green Goblin, and his refusal insights anger; so the Goblin strikes at Parker by attacking everyone he loves. True to the Goblin's prediction, the city turns against Spiderman. Parker is crushed by the weight of the city's hatred and his own guilt.
While the majority of the plot-points should be centered around the actions of the protagonist, the Second Pinch Point is centered around the antagonistic force. Though the hero is still crushed, an event takes place which shows the power of the antagonist and creates a pressure that will eventually cause the hero to feel forced to action, even as they deal with their previous failure and its consequences. The purpose of this step is to have made the hero tumble to the lowest and most difficult depths possible, and then provide a reason that the protagonist MUST climb back up.
-The Goblin kidnaps MJ, the girl Parker loves.
During the Second Turning Point, an event occurs that serves as a catalyst for the hero to stand back up and fight. Though this plot-point is similar to the Second Pinch Point, this step is not necessarily driven by the antagonist, nor centered around it, and it can function in a number of ways—by pushing the hero to rage, by giving them hope, by allowing them to see their own hidden strength, or any other realization that serves to strengthen them. The moment is very personal to the protagonist and their personal growth.
-The Goblin calls and tells Parker that he has taken MJ—pushing him past his depression and hopelessness into a protective rage for her. Though it's clearly a trap and Parker is outmatched situationally and by level of power, he goes after the Goblin to save MJ because he cares about her.
Act III – End – (Resolving the Conflict)
Within the Stand Up plot-point, the protagonist rises to the challenge of the antagonist, with a renewed sense of purpose and self-discovery. Here, the protagonist will be fueled by whatever encouraged them during the Second Turning Point, and have some measure of success that will rejuvenate their spirit at least enough to fight.
-Parker is given a choice on whether to save MJ or a trolley full of children, and manages to save both of them. This nearly leads to his death, but he is saved by New Yorkers who consider Spidey to be one of their own.
The Climax is the final battle, where the protagonist overcomes or is overcome by the antagonist. The main plot-line of the story is concluded. Even if the overarching story is not completely resolved (if you plan on writing a sequel or want to leave it somewhat open-ended) the primary struggle between the protagonist and and antagonist, which you established as the core of your plot, should have some sort of resolution.
-Parker fights the Goblin, still overcome by the Goblin's superiority, until he comes to the realization of the consequences to MJ, his family, and the citizens of New York if he fails. This gives him the strength to defeat the Goblin—who inadvertently kills himself.
Just like the Beginning, the Epilogue plot-point establishes how your world and characters are changed by the events of the story. Show your audience a glimpse into the new norm for each of these after the story is concluded.
-Parker now fully realizes the weight of his existence, as he watched his friends in mourning over the death of the Goblin—his best friend's father. Though MJ now returns his feelings, Parker decides that his responsibility is to protect them both as Spiderman and Parker; so he pushes away his friends, family, and MJ, so that they will not be endangered again. Devotes himself to being a vigilante.
Weekly recommended reading: Hamlet by William “Billy” Shakespeare (In addition to the many amazing things you can learn from Shakespeare, especially about plot, the written format of his play illustrates the effects of mastering each plot point. I recommend either reading it if you are comfortable with the language, or else watching it with a copy of the script in hand so that you can watch the transition between Acts. This Act-by-Act summary will help absoluteshakespeare.com/guides… Note that instead of a 3-Act format, Shakespeare uses a 5-Act format. However the same plot-points can be found in each.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 4.1
Fill out the Twelve-Point Plot Outline with the events you plan on happening in your plot. Each of these plot-points will be discussed in much greater detail when we begin our chapter on getting from one plot-point to the next. For now, your plot outline will exist as something to work on in terms of bullet points, to think about and adjust as we move on to fitting our stories with a cast of great characters. Compare your planned outline with your map, and begin to look at what complications and dynamic situations will arise between the two (will your character be stuck in the desert and having to find water or fight off mummies after he/she is defeated in the midpoint?) Also, begin looking at movies and stories in terms of plot-points, and see how many you can identify.
Critique other people's work by analyzing whether the sequence of events that the protagonist causes/endures makes sense as a logical progression.
Click here to submit your exercise.