I recognize that there are a lot of writers who enjoy writing by the seat of their pants. Aka, Pantsers. I can see the lure of it; it’s like being a biker on the open road. No map = complete freedom to go wherever you feel. Nothing but you and the thrill of the ride. It’s the journey, not the destination, am I right?
The trouble with total freedom + no set direction = major likelihood of getting lost or hitting a dead end.
I know too many writers who give up on a story because they didn’t plan out where to go ahead of time. They lose momentum somewhere in the middle, run out of ideas, get discouraged, and give up. I don’t want that to happen to you. So here is my process for plot outlining, which has worked since I was just a wee twelve-year-old. I believe it can work for you, too.
Step 1: Print out my customizable plot outline
I created a printable plot outline based on the ones I came up with for my first three novels, available here. I recommend using this, as it goes along best with the steps in this post. Alternatively, you could grab a piece of paper and pencil and draw one main line along the middle of the paper to signify the main conflict. Then draw bubbles on it and around it to signify other plot points. Connect them with arrows.
Step 2: Know the Inciting Incident, Climax, & Conclusion
When you go to start a story, you likely already know the primary characters and the main conflict that the story is about. That’s great. Now consider this: what is the most exciting/most dramatic part of the conflict, your MC’s big moment, their make-it-or-break-it? This is the climax, and should come just before the end of the story, about one or two chapters away.
How do you want the story to end? Does the conflict get resolved? How? If it’s a standalone, you’ll want to make the last scene one where all loose ends finally get wrapped up. If it’s part of a series, you’ll want to leave it on a cliffhanger: unanswered questions, or a moment of tension. This is the resolution.
You’ll want to start the story as close to the inciting incident as possible. This is where the main conflict begins. How the MC chooses to deal with it sets the course of the story.
Step 3: Distinguish Your Subplots
Subplots are any storylines that differ from the main conflict, yet cannot stand without the context of the main conflict. They are interwoven into the main conflict, all adding up to the climax. In the plot outline sheet I created, there are two distinct threads of plot-point bubbles going along the top and the bottom of the main story line. The top strand is for your first subplot, the bottom is for your second. Both, in their own way, add to the main conflict along the main line (numbers 2, 4, & 6 on the sheet). Main events that propel Subplot 1 towards the climax should be written in the circles along the top, and the events that propel Subplot 2 towards the climax should be written in the circles along the bottom.
Step 4: Set a Chapter-Count Goal
When I write, I actually don’t set word count goals. To me, word count is secondary to the natural progression of the plot. Whether the story progresses to it’s natural end in 62,000 words or 110,000 words doesn’t matter; a well-developed, naturally flowing story is the aim. So decide how many chapters you want to aim for. Do you want to wrap it up in thirty? twenty-five? I always set my goal at twenty chapters for the first draft. If I realize I need more later on, I usually do that in the second draft. As for the first draft, decide how many chapters you’re aiming for and stick to that when outlining.
Step 5: Fill Each Chapter with Plot-Propelling Incidents
Consider what you know:
- You know the inciting incident.
- You know the main conflict.
- You know the subplots.
- You know the climax.
- You know the resolution.
Now it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. I like to have enough bubbles in my plot outline to cover the number of chapters I’m aiming for. That way, each bubble containing a major plot-propelling incident = one chapter. While filling out your outline, think about ways that you could propel the main conflict and each subplot forward. Are there any smaller conflicts you could add to build up tension for the climax? Are there any character-defining moments you could slide in? And if you’re really pressed for ideas, you can always add in a chapter that’s just plain fun. You don’t have to pressure it into progressing the plot. You can just have fun with it, allow it to be a catharsis chapter. “Catharsis” is a literary term for a moment free from drama or tension, a time that gives the audience/reader a break to just laugh it off or calm down after a particularly tense scene. This is important for having a balanced story. Plus readers typically love them.
Also, here’s my complimentary video tutorial on making plot outlines. (It goes along with the whole blog post so you get the full gamut of info):
Those are my 5 steps to crafting a fail-proof plot outline. Did you find this helpful? Have you used a different outlining technique in the past? Let me know in the comments! And don’t forget to grab your free plot outline worksheet here.
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