Plot outline creation: 7 smart methods

You’ve possibly been told many times to outline your book, but perhaps not how to create a plot outline. These seven ways to write a story outline appeal to different writing strengths. Choose a helpful book outlining approach that suits your personal writing preferences:

How to outline a novel: 7 methods

The traditional approach

The traditional approach to writing an outline is not as rigid as some other models. It follows the basic outlining principle that you should divide your novel into sections reasonably. One strength of the traditional approach is its flexibility. You can take a notebook and give each page its own chapter heading, or you can write each chapter on an index card. You can even take a series of file folders and make one per chapter.

Once you’ve decided how you will physically organise your plot summary, write a summary of what will happen in each chapter.

How to write a plot summary

Summarise the main events that will happen in each chapter in two to three sentences per chapter. If you need to write more, you can.

The synopsis

In a synopsis, you basically write out the plot of your novel. It differs from the traditional outline in that you are not eworrying too much about chapter breaks, and in fact, you might even significantly rearrange the structure once the synopsis is written. One advantage of the synopsis is that it can feel more informal than the traditional approach. Writers who struggle with breaking down a novel into units like chapters may enjoy writing a synopsis because it feels more like telling a story.

If you are planning to send your novel around to agents and publishers, you will probably have to write a synopsis at some point, so another advantage of this approach is learning an important marketing skill. However, the difference in those synopses and this synopsis is that this one is strictly for your own use. That means that you can include notes to yourself to work out parts that you aren’t entirely sure of yet in the interest of getting the bulk of the story down on paper. Outlining in this way can feel a little bit like freewriting, and for some writers, that can be an essential component of letting go and allowing creativity free reign.

The snowflake method

The snowflake method is like a bridge between the more freewheeling methods above and some of the more structured methods that follow. Using this method invented by writer Randy Ingermanson gives the writer some useful tools for brainstorming while outlining.

The basic idea behind the snowflake method is that you begin with a one-sentence summary of your book followed by a paragraph-long summary. Next, you summarise each of your main characters by listing their name, storyline, goal, conflict and epiphany.

Each sentence of the one-paragraph plot summary is then expanded into its own paragraph while the character summaries are expanded into character sheets. Next, each of those plot paragraphs is expanded into individual scenes that will make up the novel. Ingermanson suggests using a spreadsheet at this stage. There is an additional optional step that involves expanding those brief scene descriptions even further, but by this point, most writeres are ready to get started.

You may want to use the snowflake method as written, or you may want to modify it for your own uses. It can be an excellent approach to plot outlining for writers who want to plan extensively before they begin to write.

The three-act structure

Of the many ways to write a plot outline, this is one of the best approaches for writers who are more concerned with structure than the specifics of plot although it also allows the opportunity to be very specific about plot. It is based on screenplay structure, and also allows a writer to be more or less detailed in approach.

Using this structure, the first and final quarter of the novel are the first and third acts. Act two is the remaining 50 percent in the middle. Each act must have certain elements, and while some approaches to the three-act structure are quite detailed, writers can begin with a stripped-down approach.

At its essence, the first act requires three main elements.

  • The opening scene establishes the character, the setting and the problem.
  • The inciting event happens early on and sets your character on the path that will lead to the main conflict.
  • The main conflict or first turning point is introduced at the end of the second act. It is also sometimes called the point of no return for the character.

In the second act, the action must rise to a climactic midpoint. This is sometimes called the reversal because it changes everything. The second act ends with a second turning point. The third act rises to a climax and ends in resolution.

You can plan your specific plot points along this structure and use this as an outline.

How to outline a book with a quest structure: The hero’s journey

The hero’s journey is based on the study of myth by writer and scholar Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that all world myths included some similar elements. While there may be as many as 17 steps, the hero’s journey can be divided into three main sections like the three-act structure. In Campbell’s version, these are departure or separation, initiation and return. While Campbell used the language of myth to describe the hero’s journey, the structure can be used for realistic fiction as well.

In the first section, the protagonist receives a call to action and refuses it. The protagonist then encounters a mentor or supernatural aid and crosses the threshold into a different world and the second section.

In the middle part, the protagonist undergoes a series of trials and temptation and a near-death and receives a great reward.

In the final section, the protagonist must return to the ordinary world and may be pursued there but triumphs in the end.

One of the most famous pop culture examples that has been mapped onto the hero’s journey is the movie Star Wars. Just as George Lucas did for that film, writers can use some or all of the elements of the hero’s journey to work out a plot outline at varying levels of detail.

The Freytag plot outline model

The Freytag model is another structure-based approach, but it is more streamlined than the ones discussed above.

German novelist Gustav Freytag developed a five-part structure that consisted of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. Freytag represented this structure physically in a model known as Freytag’s Pyramid.

Some novelists may find Freytag’s pyramid too simple for novel writing. It does not emphasise the various complications in each section or the asymmetrical lengths of the various sections. However, writers who feel hemmed in by the more complex three-act structure or hero’s journey might welcome this model as a useful approach to outlining their plot with a loose sense of structure.

Draft zero, or the pantser’s compromise

Some writers simply do not want to or are unable to outline. However, even for the writers who prefer to write by the seat of their pants, there is a kind of plot outline they may find useful.

Some pantsers find that they are able to trick themselves into creating a kind of outline by writing what they call a zero draft or discovery draft. This is too unstructured to be even a first draft, but it is far more extensive and detailed than the above outlines. In fact, it can run to 100 or 200 pages. However, it is ideally written quickly, and it is permissible to skip entire swathes of the actual story with notes giving only the roughest idea of what should occur such as “something happens here” or “somehow they get out of the building.”

The discovery draft can be a boon to writers who have struggled with outlines but find that they get bogged down while trying to write a novel without the safety net of that very outline.

Many writers can benefit from a plot outline including those who prefer to do as little planning as possible. Fortunately, there are a number of options available depending on how much and what kind of planning writers find useful. From methods based in rigorous analysis of structure and story to approaches that encourage writers to brainstorm as they create, plot outlines can be more versatile and therefore more useful than many writers realise.

The Now Novel Ideas Finder is a guided, step-by-step process for writers and will help you create a plot outline. Try it now.

 

Images from here, here and here

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  • Thanks for outlining various outlines. 😛 I find it so daunting to think that I should scribble out all the twists and turns of a story before they really come alive in me. I shall attempt a few of these and see if I can find a dynamic process for myself.

    • It’s a pleasure, Julie!

      It is a challenge, but if you’re more of a pantser you could always try the draft zero approach or writing the story as a sequence of scene synopses where you’re focusing on event rather than fleshing out your world for the first run. I hope you find one that works for you.

      B

  • Rayna

    Love the articles on your blog! So helpful! I really wish I knew how to outline but I just don’t get it. How can I list all the stuff that’s supposed to happen – much less where in the book it’s supposed to happen – if I don’t even know what is supposed to happen before I start writing? Even in college, I would write full papers (I’m talking 15-30 pages) first and then write the outline that the profs always insisted on having because it was the only way I knew what to put where. I completely understand the need for an outline and want so desperately to be able to write and use them but I just have never been able to do it. Maybe I just need a super in-depth course on how to outline, along with a sample that the teacher does right along with me.

    • Hi Rayna,

      Thank you for reading! It sounds to me as though you are more a pantser than a plotter by nature, and that’s fine too – the important thing is to find what works for you. You may find if you force yourself to try come up with the basic structure of a story beforehand, even just as an exercise, that it helps to add a certain degree of structure to your writing craft.

      Thanks again for reading and weighing in on outlining.

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