All stories share a simple common structure, right? So the simplest way to outline your novel (or any type of story) is to use that universal template by way of scaffolding.
And you do need to use some kind of novel outline before you start writing. Plotting a novel from scratch? Imagining the whole thing in your head before you start? That’s hard.
Or, scratch that, it’s pretty much impossible.
So don’t do it. Cheat. Use a simple, dependable template to build an outline of your novel, then slowly fill out the detail.
Yes, filling in the detail can be a slow and tricky process. But you don’t care. Because if your basic outline is strong (and the idea that lies behind it is strong), you can’t really go wrong.
And figuring out that template and how best to use it is exactly what we’re going to do in this post. (Or – full disclosure – it’s what you’re going to do. We’ll just help a little on the way . . .)
Novel Outline Template In A Nutshell
You just need to figure out:
- Main character (who leads the story)
- Status Quo (situation at the start)
- Motivation (what your character wants)
- Initiating incident (what disturbs the status quo)
- Developments (what happens next)
- Crisis (how things come to a head)
- Resolution (how things resolve)
What A Story Template Looks Like
Use a simple plot outline to get your ideas straight
Let’s start simple.
And that means, yep, that YOU need to start simple. Get a sheet of paper or notebook and have it by you as you work your way through this post.
Ready? Pencil sharp and ready to go?
So do this: Write down the following headings:
And now sketch in your answers in as few words as possible. That means a maximum of 1-2 sentence for each heading there. If that seems a little harsh, then I’ll allow you 3 sentences for the “Developments” section: that’s where the bulk of your book is going to lie.
But that’s all. At this stage, we don’t want complex. Complex is our enemy.
We’ll get there soon enough, but for now just think, Structure-structure-structure. Too much complexity – all that intricate plot detail – just gets in the way of finding the actual bones of your novel.
(Oh, and I don’t want to digress too much, but that same basic template works if you want to build a scene, or write a synopsis, or structure a key piece of dialogue. In fact, it’s just like this universal unlocking device for pretty much any structural challenge in fiction. Good to know, huh?)
The Novel Template: An Example
You probably want an example of what your outline should look like, right? OK. So let’s say your name was Jane Austen and you had a great idea for a story about a prideful guy and a charming but somewhat prejudiced girl. Your story outline might look something like this:
Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet, one of five daughters in Regency England.
Status QuoLizzy and her sisters will be plunged into poverty if her father dies, so they need to marry (and marry well)
Lizzy wants to marry for love.
Initiating IncidentTwo wealthy gentlemen, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, arrive.
DevelopmentsLizzy meets proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She despises Mr Darcy and likes Mr Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her and that Wickham isn’t all he seems.
CrisisLizzy’s sister elopes, threatening the social ruin of her family. It now looks like Lizzy can’t marry anyone.
Mr Darcy helps Lizzy’s sister. Lizzy agrees to marry him, deciding now that she loves him, after all.
Now that’s easy, right? That’s the whole of Pride and Prejudice in a nutshell, and it was easy.
You just need to do the same with your book or your idea, and keep it really simple. In fact, if you struggle to know everything that goes in the ‘developments’ section, you can even drop in some placeholder type comments. If you were Jane Austen you might, for example, start out by saying something like “Lizzy breaks with Wickham, because it turns out he’s a bad guy. He killed someone? Stole money? Something else? Something to think about.”
And that’s fine. Don’t worry about any blanks. It’s like you’re building a tower and you’re missing one of the girders. But by getting everything else in place and putting a “girder needs to go here” sign up, the structure is still brilliantly clear. That’s all you need (for now.)
Oh, and don’t bother separating those down into chapters just yet, you can worry about that later – but when you do, read this, it’s really useful!
Finally, don’t complicate things if you don’t want to, but if you find it helpful to add a “character development” heading, then you should do that as well. Effectively, you’re extending your novel outline template to cover not just plot movements, but character development too – a brilliant all-in-one tool.
Developing Your Story Outline
Taking your template on to the next level
Now, OK, you might feel that our template so far is just a little too basic.
Which it is.
So let’s develop the structure another notch, and what we’re going to do now is to add in anything we know about subplots – or basically any story action that you DO know about, which doesn’t fit neatly into the above plot structure.
So if you were Jane Austen, and had a good handle on your story, you might put together something like this. (Oh, and we’ve called them sub-plots, but you can call them story strands, or story elements, or anything that feels right to you.)
Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s caring sister) and Mr Bingley fall in love, but Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry.
Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s reckless sister) elopes with Wickham. She is later found and helped by Darcy.
Odious Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes.
Notice that we’re not yet trying to mesh those things together. In fact, the way we’ve done it here Subplot 3 (which happens in the middle of the book) comes after Subplot 2 (which comes at the end).
But again: don’t worry.
Sketch your additional story material down as swiftly as neatly as Miss Austen has just done it. The meshing together – the whole business of getting things in the right order, getting the character motivations perfectly aligned and all that – that’ll do your brain in.
Yes, you have to get to it at some stage. But not now. Keep it simple, and build up.
And that actually brings us to another point.
How To Use Subplots
If you’re a fan of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know perfectly well that our outline so far still misses out masses of stuff.
There’s nothing on where the novel is set. Or why or how events unfurl. It doesn’t say a thing about character relations, why each feels as they do. There’s nothing to say on character development, subtleties, supporting cast, and so on.
And that’s fine to start with. It’s actually good.
What does matter, however is your character’s motivation.
Taking one subplot above as example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Mr Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book.
Now that’s interesting stuff, but if a subplot doesn’t bear on a protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or goals, that subplot must be deleted or revised. Luckily, though, our story structure template helps you avoid that pitfall in the first place.
In fact, here are two rules that you should obey religiously:
- If you’re outlining a plot for the first time. Pin down your basics, then build up subplots and so on.
- If you have already started your manuscript and you think you’re uncertain of your plot structure, stop – and follow the exercises in this post, exactly as you would if you hadn’t yet written a word.
And do actually do this. As in pen-and-paper do it, not just “think about it for a minute or two then go on Twitter.” The act of writing things out will be helpful just in itself.
The act of writing always is.
Plotting Your Novel: The Template
Remember as well that every subplot (or story strand, or whatever you want to call them) has its own little journey. Maybe a very simple one, but it’ll have its own beginning, middle and end. Its own structure of Initiating Incident / Developments / Crisis / Resolution.
So you may as well drop everything you have into the grid below.
(If you want to adapt that grid a little, then do, but don’t mess around with it toooo much. The basic idea there is golden.)
|MAIN PLOT||SUBPLOT 1||SUBPLOT 2||SUBPLOT 3|
If you’ve got more complexity to accommodate than this allows, take care. No matter how sprawling an epic you’re writing, you need to be able to identify the essence or heart of the story you’re writing, so try paring your novel down – you can always add more details and columns after.
What would your story look like, if you did this?