Good novels start with decent plots. So start with a simple sketch outline, then make it progressively more detailed. We show you exactly how to do it.
The simplest way to write a terrible book is to start out having no idea what your story is, or where it’s going to lead. The easiest way to avoid that outcome is to prepare a simple outline of your plot before you even write the first sentence.
The downside of this approach: you actually have to do some thinking before you can start writing.
The upside: you won’t end up writing a terrible book. Which is a plus point, no?
At its simplest, a plot outline can be defined as a very simple, barebones summary of your story. It could be as short as a single page outline. Or it might run to as many as ten or twenty pages.
Either way, it’s important to realise that you’re not telling the story, you’re summarising it. So if your outline feels flat and unengaging, that’s fine. Your story itself can’t be either of those things, but your outline just needs to be functional, clear – and brief. The outline is for you, and for you only. It’s not for a reader either now or in the future.
The approach we’re going to recommend in this post is to start really simple, then start to build as you get more insight into detail. Here goes.
START WITH A BAREBONES OUTLINE
It’s commonly said that there are only seven plots in the world. We’re not totally sure about that, in fact, but it’s certainly true that pretty much every novel will adopt the same rough shape. That shape, at its simplest, is as follows:
Status quo: This is the situation at the start of the book. So, for example, if we were dealing with a Lee Child / Jack Reacher novel, the status quo might be “Jack Reacher is travelling through rural Montana, wanting to heal after a particularly bruising recent adventure.” At this point, nothing has happened. The situation is stable.
Inciting incident: The inciting incident is whatever happens to disturb that status quo. It could be an apparently small thing, or an obviously big one. So in Twilight, for example, the inciting incident is simply that Bella Swan’s attention is caught by an attractive – but odd – boy at school. In our Reacher story, it could be that an unseen sniper kills the bus driver dead and seems intent on killing everyone else on the bus too. Either way, the important issue is that the status quo has been disrupted. The reader already feels that a story has been set in motion.
Developments: This is the big middle chunk of your book. This is the part that probably occupies you from (say) 15,000 words into your book right up to 10 or 15,000 words before the end. It’s the scariest part of your outline, whether you’re a new novelist, or a seasoned scriptwriter, or anything in between. We’ll talk more about this element of your plot later in the post, but for now just bear in mind that your character will encounter obstacles, victories and reversals – but the victories won’t be permanent and the reversals won’t be lethal. Everything is still in play … but the stakes will gradually rise.
Climax: We said that the stakes gradually rise and, by the end of the book, the stakes feel like life and death. In a romance story, your protagonist will feel that she has to get this guy, because he is going to be her forever one. In a thriller, it’s not just that your protagonist’s life is in danger, it’s that some vast other risks are in play as well (a bomb in New York, a high school massacre, or whatever.) It’s not too much to say that the success of your book really stands and falls by how profound and engaging this climax moment feels.
Resolution: Then your story needs to resolve. It could be a triumphant resolution: Jack Reacher wrestles the bad guy on the lip of a gigantic dam and ends up hurling him over the edge to his destruction. Or it could be a bitter failure: The guy your romantic protagonist really, really wanted rejects her, or dies, or otherwise becomes unavailable. Or you could have some bittersweet ending. So in The Fault In Our Stars, the two romantic protagonists are truly in love (yay!), but their sickness takes its inevitable and tragic course.
I strongly recommend that, for the first draft of your plot outline, you simply use those five headings. Quite likely, you have a pretty clear idea in your head of the first two of those stages, and a fairly clear idea of the last two as well. So just write down whatever you know under those headings. If you don’t have a clear idea, just leave a blank or a write question to yourself. (For example: “Jack Reacher has to find a way to escape the prison. But how?”)
Most likely, the area where you’ll struggle most is the Developments section – but don’t worry. Just write what you know. We’re about to move to the next stage. Before that though, let me offer one more heading, which is kind of optional … and kind of doesn’t fit into a post on plot outline … except that it really, really does as well. So especially if you are writing a book with an interesting or complicated character, I suggest you make notes on:
Main character(s). A paragraph or two of notes on each of the main characters in your novel will help inform the work you do on plot – and vice versa. Your plotting insights will also enrich your main character. And because you want to think of character as fluid rather than static, you should also consider making some short notes on …
Character arc or character development. You want to sketch – in broad, simple terms only – how your main character changes or develops through the course of the book. More help on that here.
Got that? Good. OK:
ADD A MIDPOINT
We just said that the developments section is the one you’re going to struggle with the most – and that’s fine. That’s just part of the joy of writing. But we can make your job a bit easier.
The single hardest thing about that developments part of your book is that it feels very long and unstructured. So the simplest way to navigate it is to give yourself a solid anchor in the middle.
That anchor is typically a piece of major drama in a particular scene (read more about how to perfect that dramatic scene, here). Sometimes it’ll look as though the protagonist has ‘won’. Sometimes it’ll look like he/she has ‘lost’. But either way, because we’re not yet at the true climax of the book the defeat or victory will be a false or temporary one.
The actual type of drama involved will depend on your book. In a crime thriller (like the ones I write, for example) there will typically be an episode of action/adventure that also does something to change the complexion of the case being investigated. So I’ve had my protagonist get involved in hostage situations. I’ve had her be abducted. I’ve had her investigate a major unexplored cave system. And so on. They’re the sort of extended, memorable sequences that should echo long after the reader has finished the book.
A romantic story needs the same kind of major twists. So it could be that your happy couple go away on what should be the holiday of their dreams, only for things to go terribly wrong. Or an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend comes along to mess things up. Or something else.
If you can determine what your midpoint is, you’ll find your whole plot feels more manageable. Imagine your plot as a bridge. In the first ‘barebones’ version of your plot outline, we just had a major support at the Initiating Incident point and then again at the Climax/Resolution one. The rest of your plot was just a long stretch over the void.
By introducing a midpoint, you give yourself another major support element. So it’s like you only have to manage the span from the Initiating Incident to the Midpoint , then from the Midpoint to the Climax. By breaking that developments section into two, you’ll find it much, much easier to navigate.
HAVE A FIRM SENSE OF PURPOSE
It probably goes without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway …
No plot will cohere or feel compelling unless your protagonist has a really clear sense of purpose. That purpose can morph a little through the book, but it can’t change its essential nature.
So a Jack Reacher novel, for example, might start with Reacher trying to protect the bus passengers from the sniper … but as the narrative evolves, he might end battling a plot to – I don’t know – swamp Great Falls in drugs, or plant a bomb under the state Capitol, or whatever it is. But there has to be a solid continuity in what drives him throughout the book. He can’t start off chasing bad guys in Montana, then zoom off somewhere else and start some totally different story.
The way to be sure that your outline is staying on track is to define, upfront, what your character’s motivation is. You may also want to state explicitly what his/her antagonist is and what the obstacles in the way of success are. (That approach works better for some books than others, so if it doesn’t quite make sense to you, you can just ignore it. What’s the antagonist in Twilight, for example? There isn’t really a great answer to that question.)
INTEGRATE YOUR CHARACTERS
So far, we’ve spoken of a plot outline as something almost mechanical – like a piece of clockwork you just have to wind up and set in motion.
But of course your plot is propelled by its characters and the best stories aren’t character-led or plot-led, but led equally and powerfully by both. You can read more about plotting here.
To take an example, think of John Le Carre’sThe Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The twisty, double-crossing plot needed a suspicious and experienced spy at its heart. And if that sounds cold, then the spy, Alec Leamas, also had a desperate desire to find love, to be able to trust again after his years of secret service. That character – cynical, but with that hopeless dab of longing – turned an efficient spy story into a twentieth century masterpiece.
The best way to bring your characters and plot into perfect synchrony is to develop them both together. So you probably want to work on your character worksheets (more here) at the same time as you’re developing your story outline.
So you might fill out your developments section with a new idea you had for a scene there. That might trigger an insight into your character, so you’d go and add something to your character worksheet. Then back again.
You’ll find you don’t even need to work too hard on the integration. If you develop your story and your characters alongside each other, each element will bleed into and influence the next. The process will happen automatically and in a beautifully seamless way.
COMPLETE YOUR OUTLINE
How far you take your outline is very much up to you. Some writers like to plan very intensively. Some like to use the Snowflake method. I know writers who will write a detailed 30 page synopsis of their novel before they proceed. I know others (like me!) who do the absolute bare minimum. Who just trust their instincts to be able to create on the run, if you like.
So I’m not going to tell you how far you need to take your outline. What I will say is that if you want a detailed plot outline template to follow, then you may well want to use Blake Snyder’s famous beat sheet from his ‘Save the Cat’ book. That book was written for screenwriters and doesn’t have universal applicability to novelists, but a lot of people find it helpful all the same. So if you are Mr or Ms Detailed and you want a roadmap, then here it is:
Opening image. This is like a touchstone for where your protagonist is at the very opening of the book.
Theme stated. All decent books (or films) should have some underlying theme or debate. You want some statement of that theme – possibly playful; you don’t have to be too heavy – in the opening couple of chapters of the book.
Set-up. This corresponds roughly to our Status Quo section
Catalyst. This corresponds roughly to our Initiating Incident section.
Debate. Is the hero going to rise to the challenge posed by the Initiating Incident? Quite often there’s a refusal or reluctance, before something tips the hero into changing their mind.
Break into two. That’s the moment that launches the story from the opening set-up into the excitement of the Developments section. It’s where your character decides to accept the adventure being offered and launches off into the guts of your story itself.
B story.A really good tip this. Very often, there’ll be some secondary story to accompany your main one. So if you are writing a broadly action-themed novel, the secondary story might be a romantic one. Introducing that that secondary tale right after the opening section is done and dusted feels just about right in terms of timing.
Fun and Games. This is Snyder-speak for the opening round of action, where your premise really starts to make itself felt. So if you were writing (let’s say) an ‘action’ film set in an old folks home, this is where you’d really start to have fun with the premise. Yes, things are at stake here, but this is still the lower stakes portion of the book. Things seem to matter, but they’re not that consequential compared with what follows.
Midpoint. As discussed above. The quivering dagger at the dead centre of your book.
Bad guys close in. After the midpoint, things feel more consequential. Yes, your character may notch up some ‘wins’, but the mood, broadly, will be one of increasing seriousness as you move towards the climax of your story.
All is Lost. It looks like everything is lost. Bond is captured and the villain is going to detonate his bomb. Or Lizzy’s Bennett’s silly sister has gone and destroyed her hopes of happiness with Darcy.
Dark Night of the Soul. This is the interior / emotional counterpart of the ‘all is lost’ moment. It’s how the character reflects to themselves after the disaster that’s just happened.
Break into three. This is the moment where the character bursts out of their despair. Where they come up with one last desperate stratagem, or some last effort of will.
Finale. This is the climax and resolution elements we’ve already spoken of.
Closing image. This is the image that shows where we are now – and is often a mirror image, in some way, of where we were.
As I say, there’ll be elements of that template that may seem very helpful, and others that may not especially speak to you. So grab what you want. Discard what you don’t.
Good. That’s not indiscipline at work. That’s creativity.
But also –
You’ll make mistakes. You’ll screw up. You’ll have ideas, you’ll write them down – then you’ll figure out they’re bad and you’ll delete them again.
Good. That’s not incompetence at work, it’s creativity.
A cyclical, repetitive, trial-and-error type process is exactly what you’re after. That also means you’re not going to be able to sit down and develop a decent plot in a weekend. That’s not how it works (or almost never anyway.)
So give yourself time. Forgive yourself errors. And have fun.
Harry Bingham has been a pro author for twenty years and more. He’s been trad published and self-published, and hit bestseller lists via both routes. He’s also had his work adapted for the screen, has had a ton of critical acclaim, and been published all over the world. (You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here.)