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Planning a Story - Outline Made Simple

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Planning

You are ready. The idea is solid, portions of your story are coming together, and characters are speaking their dialogue to you in day dreams. It is time to give form to your next writing venture, and for that you will need a solid outline to secure the plot in place. You could just jump in and work out the sections later, but you risk the story coming out as a ramble if you aren't careful. An outline is in order. Forget regimented must-haves and bypass the constrictive and complicated layouts: planning can be a tricky game, so the best way forward is with a simple, tried-and-tested outline to fit most story arcs. With this easy outline, you highlight the main elements which will carry your story from beginning to end with as much or as little detail as you require. As you flesh out your plot, see your outline as a working document, subject to change and something you should expect to build on organically over time as your story takes better shape. Now, let's create!



Prop Up Main Characters


Whether you do this via character profiles, post-it notes, essays or anything in between, your need to know your team players who will be vital to the plot. First decide on the core elements of your protagonist(s) and their journey, objectives and who they are as people. You should know why they are leading the story and not someone else. It is then time to move onto the supporting roles such as the sidekicks or regular influencers who will provide neutral or positive effects on the tale. What role(s) will they play and how will they stand out as worthwhile additions to your cast?. Next, focus on the antagonists. These can often be the most fun or interesting in planning as their thoughts and actions will likely stand in stark contrast with the accepted moral of the reader, but the primary focus should remain on why they are working against the protagonist. Understanding character values and driving forces is imperative. It doesn't have to be complicated, as often the simplest of reasons can result in complicated emotions and actions. You will need to decide how many individual roles your story will require. Adventure tales will likely need an array of varied characters dotted throughout the journey, yet most romance-focused books rely on a much smaller group of people the reader will get to know intimately. Once you have your cast of character, pencil in their entrances and exits as your event plan takes shape. If you are planning a book series, decipher when characters would make the best narrative impact on the reader and don't be afraid to leave some waiting in the wings for a more opportune moment in a future book!



Establish the Status Quo


Straight away, the reader should know what the 'norm' is for your characters. This could be a calm, uneventful normality or be part of an on-going fiasco such as an active war period. However you wish to open your world to the reader, laying out your characters' individual and collective situations sets a much-needed foundation for your reader to stand on and soon move from. Think of it as setting up the chess board and giving the reader an opportunity to see who is in what position. Highlight established relationships, expectations, the positives in your protagonist's life and, of course, the negative. This is a great time to start your world-building by making the reader aware of some important structures in place and how this fictional world differs from our own. Just be sure not to over-burden your reader with information: organise your world-building so it is more of a sprinkle than an info-dump.



The Disruption


Now you have established the 'norm', disrupt it. After all, you need to demonstrate why this story is happening now. Think of it as the first domino falling into the second - what stopped it falling before, and why couldn't it stay upright a little longer? How you choose to do disrupt the status quo is down to you, but it must have the power to push one or more of your characters to act when they otherwise wouldn't have. A big announcement, a death, a door of opportunity opening, a trauma, a chance encounter - whatever it is will kick-start the main portion of your protagonist's story. The catalyst should be a clear moment or event, something which the reader can identify later as the 'moment it was all pushed into motion'. Everything after this should be a consequence, or a consequence of a consequence stemming from this one event.



Driving Motivation


Following on from the disruption, your main characters will be motivated to act. This won't be arbitrary: motivations and decisions will be understandable in the circumstances and the individual in question. This is a good opportunity to flesh out your main characters and start on early character development as personalities begin to face new situations. Good questions to ask are:


  • What is each character's long term and short term objectives?

  • What change do they want to see?

  • What do they want to prevent?

The answers could be as specific or vague as necessary, from winning the Olympic gold medal in figure skating to simply finishing the school year. Allow individuals to have both long and short term objectives which will help link their actions going forward. Characters may share goals but that does not necessarily mean they have a shared motive. When two heroes band together with the goal of defeating a villain, one could be seeking the safety of others whilst their partner could be after revenge. This distinction helps set individuals on their own unique path. Note: A character's outward motives do not need to reflect what is inside, and as the writer you can choose how much of a person's motives to reveal to the reader.



The Key Events


Often the meatiest section of a story, the core events carry your plot forwards and backwards between the beginning and the climax. The reason we highlight forwards and backwards is simple: not every event should take your protagonist closer to achieving their objective. Plot out obstacles your characters will face along the way. Which will they overcome, and which will result in failure? Balancing wins and losses, big and small, is no easy feat but it is important to keep hope alive. Let readers feel that progress is being made even when things go wrong. Your narrative should be impacted by both major and minor setups. Piecing together the order of events can be tricky, so it is a good idea to separate those which happen independently (i.e. on their own without influence from any other occasion) and those that only occur due to knock-on effects from previous incidents. This should give you a clearer picture of the overall story arc, whilst also ensuring your protagonist does not have too many setbacks in a row without relevant success! Too much of a good or bad thing will appear unrealistic - better to keep fortune swinging back and forth to increase tension.



The Climax


The climax is a core event which acts as an accumulation of everything which came before. Typically the deciding scene, it is a dramatic finality to much of the story's plot-lines. Whether the protagonist succeeds or fails in their objective, it is decided here. It could be the declarations of love running through a busy airport, the striking of the killer blow, or the race to the last evacuating helicopter - the reader's investment in the story should be at its peak, with.a desperate need to see how the scene will end. This does not mean you cannot have any key events afterwards, rather that the tension and vitalness of this scene cannot be outdone.



The Aftermath / The New Normal


Arguably this could be two distinct sections if the immediate after effects of the story's climax are far-reaching. The aftermath results from the climax, and can be described as still-moving parts. Falling chips, the fallout of what has just happened. For example, the death of someone in the climax may still cause reactions from numerous other characters in the proceeding scenes. This has to take place before we can understand how the wider situation has changed. After allowing the dust to settle, it is time to take stock and re-establish the situation now that the last domino has fallen. The 'New Normal' is the re-defined status quo, and there should be a marked difference. Contrary to popular belief, this change does not need to be physical or circumstantial - though those are the most obvious - but could also be a mindset adjustment, an altered outlook on life. Plan how you will make such changes clear. This will be especially important if you plan to continue the story in another book as it will be paving the way for the next chess board setup.



An Outline For Everyone


This is far from the only outline that could fit a traditional story arc, and this may not be suitable for your next writing venture, but the magic of outlines is that you do not need to stay within their confines. Feel free to use this layout as a guide or starting point. Adapt, add, or delete! Though it is designed to not exclude any genres - a one-size-fits-all approach - you may find a genre-specific plan better suit your needs. It is more than possible to merge sections from a variety of layouts, resulting in a truly unique ride. However, if you were looking for a simple, tried-and-tested outline to kick-start your planning, I hope you found it here!


You are ready. The idea is solid, portions of your story are coming together, and characters are speaking their dialogue to you in day dreams. It is time to give form to your next writing venture, and for that you will need a solid outline to secure the plot in place. You could just jump in and work out the sections later, but you risk the story coming out as a ramble if you aren't careful. An outline is in order. Forget regimented must-haves and bypass the constrictive and complicated layouts: planning can be a tricky game, so the best way forward is with a simple, tried-and-tested outline to fit most story arcs. With this easy outline, you highlight the main elements which will carry your story from beginning to end with as much or as little detail as you require. As you flesh out your plot, see your outline as a working document, subject to change and something you should expect to build on organically over time as your story takes better shape. Now, let's create!



Prop Up Main Characters


Whether you do this via character profiles, post-it notes, essays or anything in between, your need to know your team players who will be vital to the plot. First decide on the core elements of your protagonist(s) and their journey, objectives and who they are as people. You should know why they are leading the story and not someone else. It is then time to move onto the supporting roles such as the sidekicks or regular influencers who will provide neutral or positive effects on the tale. What role(s) will they play and how will they stand out as worthwhile additions to your cast?. Next, focus on the antagonists. These can often be the most fun or interesting in planning as their thoughts and actions will likely stand in stark contrast with the accepted moral of the reader, but the primary focus should remain on why they are working against the protagonist. Understanding character values and driving forces is imperative. It doesn't have to be complicated, as often the simplest of reasons can result in complicated emotions and actions. You will need to decide how many individual roles your story will require. Adventure tales will likely need an array of varied characters dotted throughout the journey, yet most romance-focused books rely on a much smaller group of people the reader will get to know intimately. Once you have your cast of character, pencil in their entrances and exits as your event plan takes shape. If you are planning a book series, decipher when characters would make the best narrative impact on the reader and don't be afraid to leave some waiting in the wings for a more opportune moment in a future book!



Establish the Status Quo


Straight away, the reader should know what the 'norm' is for your characters. This could be a calm, uneventful normality or be part of an on-going fiasco such as an active war period. However you wish to open your world to the reader, laying out your characters' individual and collective situations sets a much-needed foundation for your reader to stand on and soon move from. Think of it as setting up the chess board and giving the reader an opportunity to see who is in what position. Highlight established relationships, expectations, the positives in your protagonist's life and, of course, the negative. This is a great time to start your world-building by making the reader aware of some important structures in place and how this fictional world differs from our own. Just be sure not to over-burden your reader with information: organise your world-building so it is more of a sprinkle than an info-dump.



The Disruption


Now you have established the 'norm', disrupt it. After all, you need to demonstrate why this story is happening now. Think of it as the first domino falling into the second - what stopped it falling before, and why couldn't it stay upright a little longer? How you choose to do disrupt the status quo is down to you, but it must have the power to push one or more of your characters to act when they otherwise wouldn't have. A big announcement, a death, a door of opportunity opening, a trauma, a chance encounter - whatever it is will kick-start the main portion of your protagonist's story. The catalyst should be a clear moment or event, something which the reader can identify later as the 'moment it was all pushed into motion'. Everything after this should be a consequence, or a consequence of a consequence stemming from this one event.



Driving Motivation


Following on from the disruption, your main characters will be motivated to act. This won't be arbitrary: motivations and decisions will be understandable in the circumstances and the individual in question. This is a good opportunity to flesh out your main characters and start on early character development as personalities begin to face new situations. Good questions to ask are:


  • What is each character's long term and short term objectives?

  • What change do they want to see?

  • What do they want to prevent?

The answers could be as specific or vague as necessary, from winning the Olympic gold medal in figure skating to simply finishing the school year. Allow individuals to have both long and short term objectives which will help link their actions going forward. Characters may share goals but that does not necessarily mean they have a shared motive. When two heroes band together with the goal of defeating a villain, one could be seeking the safety of others whilst their partner could be after revenge. This distinction helps set individuals on their own unique path. Note: A character's outward motives do not need to reflect what is inside, and as the writer you can choose how much of a person's motives to reveal to the reader.



The Key Events


Often the meatiest section of a story, the core events carry your plot forwards and backwards between the beginning and the climax. The reason we highlight forwards and backwards is simple: not every event should take your protagonist closer to achieving their objective. Plot out obstacles your characters will face along the way. Which will they overcome, and which will result in failure? Balancing wins and losses, big and small, is no easy feat but it is important to keep hope alive. Let readers feel that progress is being made even when things go wrong. Your narrative should be impacted by both major and minor setups. Piecing together the order of events can be tricky, so it is a good idea to separate those which happen independently (i.e. on their own without influence from any other occasion) and those that only occur due to knock-on effects from previous incidents. This should give you a clearer picture of the overall story arc, whilst also ensuring your protagonist does not have too many setbacks in a row without relevant success! Too much of a good or bad thing will appear unrealistic - better to keep fortune swinging back and forth to increase tension.



The Climax


The climax is a core event which acts as an accumulation of everything which came before. Typically the deciding scene, it is a dramatic finality to much of the story's plot-lines. Whether the protagonist succeeds or fails in their objective, it is decided here. It could be the declarations of love running through a busy airport, the striking of the killer blow, or the race to the last evacuating helicopter - the reader's investment in the story should be at its peak, with.a desperate need to see how the scene will end. This does not mean you cannot have any key events afterwards, rather that the tension and vitalness of this scene cannot be outdone.



The Aftermath / The New Normal


Arguably this could be two distinct sections if the immediate after effects of the story's climax are far-reaching. The aftermath results from the climax, and can be described as still-moving parts. Falling chips, the fallout of what has just happened. For example, the death of someone in the climax may still cause reactions from numerous other characters in the proceeding scenes. This has to take place before we can understand how the wider situation has changed. After allowing the dust to settle, it is time to take stock and re-establish the situation now that the last domino has fallen. The 'New Normal' is the re-defined status quo, and there should be a marked difference. Contrary to popular belief, this change does not need to be physical or circumstantial - though those are the most obvious - but could also be a mindset adjustment, an altered outlook on life. Plan how you will make such changes clear. This will be especially important if you plan to continue the story in another book as it will be paving the way for the next chess board setup.



An Outline For Everyone


This is far from the only outline that could fit a traditional story arc, and this may not be suitable for your next writing venture, but the magic of outlines is that you do not need to stay within their confines. Feel free to use this layout as a guide or starting point. Adapt, add, or delete! Though it is designed to not exclude any genres - a one-size-fits-all approach - you may find a genre-specific plan better suit your needs. It is more than possible to merge sections from a variety of layouts, resulting in a truly unique ride. However, if you were looking for a simple, tried-and-tested outline to kick-start your planning, I hope you found it here!


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