Character should be at the core of plot outline, so start thinking where you need to take your character before all else. Take Harry Potter.
Battling a magical equivalent of xenophobic violence carried out by Voldemort outside Hogwarts, Harry’s nature means he’s compelled to fight, much as he’s forced into it. (As you can’t have a passive protagonist.) Harry himself seeks connection with others, growing up with abuse under the Dursleys’ roof.
So that’s Harry’s core drive and it drives J.K. Rowling’s plot development.
There’s mirroring here, too. Voldemort (or Tom Riddle) also grew up isolated and uncared for in formative years without parents, like Harry. He, though, rejects love for control, is driven to oppress others. He adopts his alias, Voldemort, and recruits his Death Eaters. That drives plot, too.
Protagonists and antagonists can feed off each other like this, tailored to mirror each other, to hinder, harm, sicken each other.
And this is not only true for science-fiction or fantasy.
A plot outline must be driven by character to be heartfelt, to create catharsis, and it’s this that makes the outcome of J.K. Rowling’s books count for Harry’s readers, for any bestselling book, so know your protagonist before you really get going with plot. Sometimes writers begin with a plot, sometimes with a character.
Whichever way you choose it, you can’t have a plot inconsistent with your characterisation, and your protagonist must need or want something to stir up things, for a plot even to happen.
It means characters will have (outer) goals, consistent with (inner) motivation.
Goals of heroes and villains may even look similar – but motive distinguishes one from another.
‘Heroes’ like the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare’s Richard III may desire to win in battle (a goal), to create peace (a motive), whereas ‘villains’ like Richard want to win for very different motives and purposes.
It’s simple, but a key distinction in character creation and plot planning.
Goals then need to be determined as early as possible, and can always shift (usually evolving for better or worse).
Motivation needs to stay consistent.
To take another classic example in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy Bennet’s hope of marrying for love is more abstract principle than defined goal. In that era, we know Lizzy must marry but she’s in no hurry, and doesn’t chase love. She seeks what makes her happiest (‘I dearly love a laugh’), often witty banter (and oftener with Darcy) during the story. (more info on JA’s great plotting template here.)
Things only click to specifics when she does, at last, fall for Darcy. Lizzy’s ‘goal’ changes when she wants to be married to Darcy but her belief in marriage for love hasn’t altered.
Plot development needs drama – and mounting jeopardy
This is true even for ‘quieter’ stories, novels where protagonists seem stuck in spaces of inaction, as in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
No matter your genre, each scene should keep a story moving, throwing the protagonist off-balance. Things may get better or worse, but they need to be constantly changing. You may be following a discernible plot outline, but you need to build momentum, just as you’d see in a plot diagram.
Another way to think about the same thing is to ask what the dramatic purpose of each chapter is. Setting the scene is not a dramatic purpose. Nor is filling in backstory. Change and disequilibrium create drama, so your story must move in this sense.
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is first in a fantasy series that throws us constantly. Eddard Stark’s fate at the novel’s close is a first warning that we can never sit comfortably. We’re gripped by the series’ emotional shocks and twists (more so than the gruesomeness of events – and that’s important – it’s not the shock of what’s happening, but the fact we care so much about the characters).
Characters, too, are in constant evolution, through fluctuating events and emotional states. Stronger (seemingly) characters are lost to the warring and power ploys of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire, even as (initially) weaker characters like Daenerys Targaryen grow strong, gathering support. No one knows what to expect, who may ultimately sit on the Iron Throne.
So plot to surprise us, to thrill us.
And if the protagonist is in the same position at the end of the chapter as at the start, then delete the chapter, or story momentum will suffer.
A thriller-like plot urgency that increases as your novel goes on will secure and keep your reader’s attention. And your protagonist’s goal needs to matter more than anything else in the world.
Thrillers typically get writing this urgency down to a fine art (though no matter genre, there’s no reason urgency should be lacking in your plot).
Harry Bingham is author of the DC Fiona Griffiths series of crime novels. In each case, investigations follow discovery of a body. By three-quarters of the way into a Fiona Griffiths novel, it becomes clear that (a) the specific murder case Fi works on involves new, atypical layers of horror, and (b) the protagonist’s own life or security is in question (as is her mental health, since Fi suffers from Cotard’s syndrome).
In each case, there’s a solution to the mystery and climax to events – and it’s true that crime fiction, more than any genre after romance, has structures and conventions that need to be followed.
Still, the basic model of that structure underlies every good novel, no matter its genre.
A very early introduction to the motivating pull of the story;
A sequence of adventures with the effect of constantly subverting possible answers to that core question;
A marked increase in physical or emotional jeopardy (or both), towards the end of the novel;
A proper resolution of all questions raised and a new status quo.
Bear in mind, if jeopardy in your story doesn’t increase, story urgency matters less. That means raising the stakes emotionally, asking yourself what’s at stake if your protagonist doesn’t ‘win’ at the plot you’ve created for them.
Most novels have just one central protagonist, and it often works best.
It can be the best choice for first-time writers, helping drive plot and keeping plot central to that one protagonist’s journey.
If you do want multiple protagonists, it’s generally advisable you don’t go for more than three, and make sure that each of those three protagonists is fully fleshed out.
There can be tension and immediacy in novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl that have two characters narrating, such as twisted pairing Nick and Amy. It can work for a romance with two protagonists, i.e. sisters Elinor and Marianne in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
And a very few authors like George R.R. Martin write successfully with more. Chapters in A Game of Thrones are reserved for the Starks, apart from Daenerys and Tyrion, but in subsequent books, other characters are given chapters and a voice, serving also as antagonists to one another. Cersei Lannister, for instance, is a villain throughout A Game of Thrones, but gets her own chapters in A Feast for Crows. She becomes both antagonist and anti-heroine.
Look at more on plot outlines, templates, and where to go next
Consider classic structures for plot outlines.
In Joseph Campbell’s analysis, Campbell identifies an Invitation (where the hero is asked to take on the challenge), a Refusal (the hero says no), an Acceptance (something happens to change the hero’s mind), an Adventure (the hero seeks to master the challenge), a Failure (everything comes to a head and it seems like the hero has failed), then a Triumph (just when it all seems too late, the hero pulls off a magnificent triumph).
It sounds formulaic, but on analysis, many classics follow variations on this theme. It’s a starting point to consider. Commercial fiction does this, but so do literary classics. (Think of Shakespeare’s plays.) It’s smart to consider rules of thumb, and you can always bend them.