How to create an awesome plot outline! A step by step guide

Plot outline


authr button

After you’ve figured out the rough plot of your novel (I used the first 4 steps of Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method), it may help you to outline it.

An outline can be viewed as a basic ‘wire-frame’ of your plot which you can refer to throughout the first draft stage. Although it isn’t for everyone (some may find it too prescriptive), it can be helpful in ensuring that you don’t forget any of the major plot points or stages of character development. Your outline can also help you to figure out when to incorporate subplots, and to identify elements of your novel which don’t fit in with the overall storyline.

It is important to note that Becca and I outlined our novels in very different ways, and this is merely how I (Heather) outlined mine. I found the below outlining method very helpful, and I’m hoping it will help a few of you too. 

This method assumes that you have plotted your novel using the three act structure, and that you have a rough idea of your storyline. You can read more about planning your novel and using the three act structure here.  

This method gets you to think carefully about the beginning, middle and end of:

  • Your novel as a whole
  • Each of your three acts
  • The chapters and scenes within the acts

By doing this, you will (hopefully) end up with a detailed plan which summarises your novel in three varying degrees of detail.

You should end up with something that follows the below structure. (Click the image to enlarge). Please note that the image is just an example. Your plan might omit the romantic subplot and you may choose to plan your novel using scenes instead of chapters.

Plot planning teal

I have also included this second image (my actual, much uglier outline), to further illustrate this.

Plot outline examples

You can create your own outline by following the following steps!

  1. Start off by writing a summary for each of your three acts. What happens in each?
  2. Plot the beginning, middle and end of each of your three acts.
    What needs to logically happen in each act so that the protagonist can get from the beginning of the act to the end? As you plan each act, you will begin to see scenes and chapters forming.
  3. Once you start breaking the acts up into smaller chunks (either scenes of chapters), ensure that each of these also have meaningful beginnings, middles and ends. Each scene/chapter should be relevant to the plot and should propel the protagonist towards the chosen story goal. I chose to plan my novel using chapters, but this is just a personal preference (Becca used scenes instead).
  4. Continue to plan out each scene or chapter this way until you have reached the conclusion of your novel. Don’t worry if you have yet to decide on a specific ending to you novel – you can always leave this blank for now and write the ending after you know more about your characters and plot. You should however have a rough idea as to whether or not your protagonist achieves their goal.
  5. Once you have outlined the main plot, you can begin to think about subplots such as inner character conflict and romance story-lines. Separate these out into main ‘signposts’ and ‘turning points’ and intersperse them within your overall plot where you see necessary. You can have as many signposts as you see fit, but ensure that the events are reflective of, and add to, the main plot. The subplot points can appear wherever you wish and needn’t follow the below plan. As each novel will vary considerably, it is impossible to suggest where each of these points should be, hence you should use your own judgement when deciding where to include these.

Once you have figured out all of the above, grab an large piece of paper (bigger than A4 would be best!) and use the above to create a visual plot outline that follows the above plan. You can do this on word (using the table feature) if you prefer. I created my plan in Adobe InDesign. 

And VOILA! You now have a plot outline, which I hope will help you tackle the mountain that is the first draft! I know I found it incredibly helpful, and hopefully you will too!

What next?

There are several things you may want to do once you have finished your outline:

  • You can use it as a point of referral as you begin the drafting stage of your novel.
  • You can use it to analyse your plot structure in great detail before you move onto the next stage of the novel writing process.
  • You can use it to help you write a chapter by chapter synopsis. After I had completed my plot outline, I had planned to use it as such as I felt that a synopsis would help me write the first draft. This might be a helpful thing for you to do, if you like to plan in even greater detail before you begin the drafting stage. Personally though, I got to chapter three before I decided to stop writing the synopsis and just get on with writing the dreaded first draft!

Any questions, feel free to comment below 🙂 xxx

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