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?
How To Further Develop Your Plot Outline
Advanced techniques for writing ninjas
What happens if your plot doesn’t fit into that grid? If you give that exercise your very best go and just draw a blank?
Well, no worries. The basic problems here are twofold:
- You don’t yet understand your plot well enough, or
- You just don’t have enough plot to sustain a full-length novel.
Two different problems. Two different solutions.
If you don’t yet understand your own plot in enough detail, you want to use …
Plot-building Tool: The Snowflake Method
Seeing your own plot in detail, before you write the book, is really hard, because it’s like you’re standing on the seashore trying to jump onto Mount Everest. In one bound.
Not gonna work.
So get there in stages, Base Camp. Camp 1, and so on up.
What that means for you, is that you use our basic template in sketch form to start with – a sentence or two per section. Then you go at it again, and give each section its own paragraph. Then you go at it again, expanding to 2-3 paragraphs, or whole pages if you want to.
The same basic exercise, but getting into deeper levels of detail each time.
If you want more about the “snowflake” approach you can find it right here.
But what if your plot outline just feels a little bit thin once you sketch it out?
Answer you fix it – and you fix it NOW before you start hurtling into the task of actually writing.
Here are the techniques you’ll need to do just that:
Method 1: Mirroring
This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces – characters shouting at each other for effect, etc. – but add depth and subplots, developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story. (Remember: if it’s not contributing to your protagonist’s journey, it doesn’t matter and you need to delete it.)
To take another novel – supposing your name is Harper Lee, and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout – let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it.
One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. (Harper Lee herself was daughter of a small-town lawyer.) He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done.
A black guy accused for looking different? An odd-but-harmless guy who spooks Scout?
It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring. Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave, and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Introducing that second, reverberating plot strand meant that Harper Lee’s novel had the heft to become a classic of world literature.
Method 2: Ram Your Genre Into Something Different
Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime.
So take The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.
Looked at one way, that’s a pretty much standard issue romantic story, which, yes, could have sold, but could never have made the huge sales it actually racked up. But then ram that into a story of time-travel, and you have something shimmeringly new and exciting.
What you had was still a romantic story at its heart – it certainly wouldn’t appeal to hardcore fans of SF/fantasy – but the novel element gave it a totally new birth.
Or take Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters.
A picaresque Victorian historical novel . . . that kind of thing always had its audience – but that audience had never encountered a frankly told lesbian coming-of-age story in that context, and the result of that shock collision was to produce a literary sensation.
Method 3: Take Your Character And Max Her Out
Why was it that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went on to get such gigantic sales across the globe?
It wasn’t the quality of Stieg Larsson’s writing, which was never more than competent and which was quite baggy, to say the least. And the actual plot? Well, on the face of it, he delivered a fairly standard issue crime story. Nothing so unusual there in terms of actual narrative.
But Stieg Larsson rammed that basic story with an exotic character: Lisbeth Salander. That woman had Aspergers, she was a bisexual computer hacker and rape survivor . . .and boom – vast worldwide sales resulted.
Method 4: Add Edge – A Glint Of Steel
A few years back, I was struggling with one of my books, This Thing of Darkness. (here)
The basic plot was strong. The mystery element was good. There was at least one quite unusual element. The climax was rip-roaring (set on a trawler at sea in a force 10 gale.) But . . .
The book wasn’t quite working.
It was long. And it was just a long, long way from the set-up phase of the book to the denouement.
A glint of steel.
I took an incident from the middle of the book – a break-in, and a theft, but no violence, no real time action – and I turned that into a long sequence involving the abduction of my protagonist.
That addition made a long book even longer . . . but it made the book.
It’s not just that the sequence itself was exciting, it’s that its shadow extended over everything else too. Whereas before the book had felt a bit like, “yep, gotta solve the mystery, because that’s what these books have to do.”
Now it was: “We HAVE TO solve that mystery, because these bastards abducted our protagonist.”
Steel. Edge. Sex or violence.
Those things work in crime novels , but they work in totally literary works too. Can you imagine Ian McEwan’s Atonement without that glint of sex? Would The Great Gatsby have worked if no one had died?
How To Write A Plot From Multiple Perspectives
If you’re eager to write about multiple protagonists, you need a plot outline, along the lines of the template above, for each one.
George R.R. Martin took this to new levels in A Song of Ice and Fire, each protagonist having his or her own richly developed plot and character arc.
John Fowles’ The Collector, for example, is narrated by a kidnapper and the girl he’s kidnapped. Sullen, menacing Fred justifies all he does. Miranda chronicles her fear and pity. The result is taut, terrifying. We’re engrossed in their shared experience to the end.
Multiple protagonists can work in romance novels, too, even ones told in third-person narration, such as The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett, or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.
This said, managing multiple points of view, even from minor characters, can work well for thrillers, often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release (though these things depend on story, as much as genre).
The key thing to bear in mind here is that you need a mini version of your novel outline template for each of your main characters. Each one of those guys needs a complete little story of their own – and those little stories need to interweave to create one great and compelling one.