Outlining a novel is a daunting task. When we sit down to write an outline, there are so many questions running through our head. Is it enough to write a sentence for each scene or should I get detailed and write a paragraph? What if I don’t know every scene that is going to happen? Should go back to brainstorming if I don’t know enough to make a detailed outline of every single thing that is going to happen in my novel?
It’s enough to make us freeze up and decide not to write an outline at all.
I wrote my debut novel, The Hashna Stone, without ever creating a formal outline, so for my next writing project, I had to go back to the basics and figure it out.
An outline can be as simple as writing a sentence for each of the major plot points or as detailed as writing a rundown of each scene. With such varied methods, it leaves us wondering which is the “right” way to outline?
The answer: there isn’t a right way to outline.
There are many methods out there and they might all be “right” as long as they work for the individual using them. Outlining is just like novel writing. Each writer has to find the process that works for them by trail and error.
That being said, there are some methods that are tried and true and will get you “the best bang for you buck.” To save you some time so your aren’t stuck trying all the methods out there, I’m sharing the three that I’ve had the most success with.
The Seven Point Story Structure
This method will probably be best for the pantsers out there (writers who don’t like detailed outlines and prefer to fly by the seat of their pants). It can be done relatively quickly and there is no need to come up with every little detail of your story.
For all the plotters out there, it may not be detailed enough for you to use as an outline, but is a useful tool for shaping ideas into a story.
Here’s how it works.
- The Hook–Answer the question, “What keeps my reader reading after the first few pages?” Write down what it is that will make your reader wonder what happens next.
- First Plot Point–This is the point of no return for your character (think when Harry finds out that he is a wizard and leaves with Hagrid or when Frodo leaves the Shire).
- Pinch Point One–This is where something happens to make your character take action.
- Midpoint–Your character makes the decision to start going after his problem instead of running from it. It dramatically changes the direction your character was going.
- Pinch Point Two–Whatever is going wrong at this point in the story, make it get even worse. Make it so bad that it seems like the bad guy will actually win.
- Second Plot Point–This is where your character gets the last bit of information he needed to defeat the villain.
- Resolution–Defeat the bad guy, resolve the conflicts, and answer all the questions.
I learned about this method from Dan Wells in a podcast by Writing Excuses (give it a listen). It’s really fun and simple to use, making it a wonderful tool for developing ideas into stories early on, but it didn’t quite give me enough information to start writing my first draft.
Enter the 3 act-9 block-27 chapter method… (Yes, it is a mouthful)
3 act – 9 Block – 27 Chapter Method
This method doesn’t just have you come up with major plot points, but gives you three “blocks” within each act and has you break down each chapter within those blocks.
I was looking for more detail. This method’s middle name is “detail.” In fact, it was a little too detailed for me. I got really excited by the thought that I could have my whole novel so neatly set up before writing a single word of draft one but, for whatever reason, this method only worked partially for me.
I ended up with a lot of good plot points and a lot more information than if I hadn’t filled out this sheet, but I still didn’t feel ready to write the first draft after this. What I had under a lot of the chapters were single lines like “they come up with a plan to escape” or “plan successful.” It wasn’t enough to tell me what exactly happened in each chapter. When I tried to figure it out, my mind went blank and I lost interest.
For the most part, I really liked this method, but I still felt like something was missing.
(This article explains this method in much more detail)
The 15 Beat Story Structure
I didn’t stumble on this method until early this year, but I fell in love with it the moment I discovered it in a screenwriting book, Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. He suggests using notecards to come up with each beat, and even thought I’d used notecards before, the combination between them and this method worked like magic for me.
Act 1 / The Beginning
- Opening Image (0% to 1%) – A single scene beat that shows a “before” snapshot of the protagonist and the flawed world that he or she lives in.
- Theme Stated (5%) – A single scene beat in which a statement is made by someone (other than the protagonist) that hints at what the protagonist will learn before the end of the story.
- Setup (1% to 10%) – A multi-scene beat in which the reader gets to see what the protagonist’s life and the world are like–flaws and all.
- Catalyst (10%) – Inciting incident
- Debate (10% to 20%) – A multi-scene beat where the protagonist debates what he or she will do next.
- Break Into Two (20%) – Something big happens to make hero DECIDE to go to act 2.
Act 2A / The Middle (Part 1)
- B Story (22%) – A single scene beat that introduces a new character or characters who will ultimately serve to help the hero learn the theme.
- Fun and Games (20% to 50%) – A multi-scene beat where the reader gets to see the protagonist either shinning or floundering in their new world.
- Midpoint (50%) –a “false victory” or “false fail.”
Act 2B / The Middle (Part 2)
- Bad Guys Close In (50% to 75%) –
- All is Lost (75%) – Seems like total defeat (usually death happens)
- Dark Night of the Soul (75% to 80%) – A multi-scene beat in which the protagonist takes time to process everything that’s happened so far.
- Break Into Three (80%) – Hero realizes what they must do to overcome
Act 3 / The End
- Finale (80% to 99%)– A multi-scene beat where the protagonist proves they have learned the story’s theme.
- Final Image (99% to 100%) – (Should be the opposite of what the opening scene shows)
When using other methods, trying to come up with more than the most important plot points before having the first draft written left me feeling like I was hopeless at plotting or outlining (at one point, I was convinced that I was a pantser).
Suddenly plotting an outline went from something I mostly dreaded and struggled with to something I was excited to do.
This doesn’t mean that it is the best way to outline. It is just the one that clicked with me. I will probably continue using all three at some stage in the brainstorming/plotting process, but this is the one I use to get a more complete understanding of my story before I start drafting.
(Check out this blog post for a deeper explanation on how to use these plot points. I must have visited 50 times while plotting my novel. 😀 )
So while there may not be one “right” way to outline, there is a “right” way out there for you. You just have to find it.
I hope one of these methods will be yours. Try them all out with an old story you tossed aside or with your current work in progress and see what works for you. Who knows, maybe you will create your own hybrid outlining method. 🙂
Have you heard or tried of any of these methods before? What is your favorite way to plot/outline?
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