Once you’re confident in your premise, it’s time to start fleshing things out. The plot is the chain of events that make up your story. Even if you’re not writing a plot-driven story, things have to happen to your characters. Understanding the traditional ways of structuring stories will help you to give form to your own ideas. Outlining your plot is the easiest way to get organized.
But what if I don’t like outlining?
Pretty sure everyone is aware of the great debate between outliners and pantsers (folks who write by the seat of their pants). If you are a pantser and proud, then you might be thinking this post isn’t for you. But here’s something to think about: you have a general idea of what you want to happen in your head, right? A vague conception of your main character and an inkling of how things will turn out for them? WRITE IT DOWN.
There’s nothing worse than having to start over because you lost track of what you wanted and wrote yourself into a corner. Trust me, I know. Writing down your basic ideas is the bare minimum, but it can still be considered an outline.
Also, I highly recommend creating an outline after the fact to help with the revision process. So you’ll still want to know how to do it!
Story Structure: The Basics
Most novels follow a three-act structure. This comes from the idea that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One is the setup, where you describe your main character’s regular life and/or what the world looked like before the events of the story. Act Two is the rising action—basically, all the exciting stuff leading up to the climax—and Act Three is the resolution and description of how things have changed.
Within those acts are moments that propel the character through the events.
The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the thing that kicks everything off. The main character meets their love interest; the boy finds out he’s a wizard; the hobbit passes down the Ring. At the very least, you’ll want to know what this moment is going to be for your story.
The First Complication
Many writers confuse this moment with the inciting incident, but they are different things. The first complication is the moment when the main character realizes things are not going to be as easy as they thought. They discover there is some obstacle keeping them from being with their love interest; turns out the boy is also linked to the biggest bad the wizarding world has ever known; the evil that created the Ring is coming back to take over the world.
All is Lost
This is usually around the middle to end of the book. In this moment, something happens to make the main character feel hopeless. They had a big, relationship-ending fight with their love interest; the boy has to face off against the bad guy alone. This moment is important because it takes the main character down a peg before the climax, increasing the stakes.
This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, and another good one to brainstorm about before hand. All the answers get revealed and the main character is either victorious or . . . not.
This is pretty straightforward. The results of the climax and what that means for the main character and/or their world are revealed. The main character gets their love interest; the boy defeats his opponent, but not the big bad who he now knows is back and coming after him.
Another Outlining Method
If you want to go into even more detail than just outlining the basic structure, you can also outline on a chapter or even scene level. While there are no rules about how many chapters make up a book, the average is between twelve and twenty. Your outline might look something like this:
Scene One – Inciting Incident
Scene Three – First Complication
Don’t focus on making your story fit the outline, though. Make the outline to fit your story. Don’t put restrictions on your story like how many scenes need to be in each chapter, some might have more and some might have less. The best outlines are the ones that are flexible.
Filling in the Outline
To make the most use out of this outline, you’ll want to fill in the details you have planned already. Some writers find one or two sentence descriptions to be plenty, while others write paragraphs detailing what happens in each chapter or scene.
Check out the worksheet I made to get you started. Fill it in with as much, or as little, detail as you like!
Tools to Make it Easier
Scrivener’s corkboard view is my absolute favorite tool for creating an outline for a novel. The fact that you can write summaries and drag and drop whole sections makes organizing so easy.
You can also make an outline in Word or Google Docs, or even go super old school and use a pen and paper. Finding what works for you is a running theme in all (good) writing advice.