Writing an Outline of Your Novel*

By Glen C. Strathy

The final stage of preparation - writing an outline for your novel - builds on everything you have done so far. So if you haven't yet read the following articles, you may want to do so before we go further:

Part 1: Choosing an Idea.
Part 2: Choosing a Story Goal.
Part 3: Creating a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps.
Part 4: Plot Development
Part 5: Creating Archetypal Characters.
Part 6: Making Characters Memorable and Believable.
Part 7: Choosing Your Main Character and His/Her Essential Counterpart
Part 8: Choosing a Setting
Part 9: Choosing a Theme

Naturally, you don't have to follow these articles step-by-step in order. They are just a guide. But if you do, you will know a lot about your story, and will be well prepared to begin writing an outline – which will make the process of writing the first draft of your novel much easier.

Note that writing an outline may take some time. Don't try to do it in one afternoon. You may need to ponder, brainstorm, go for walks, play with ideas, etc. for many days until you discover the right plot events and the right sequence to put them in. And even after that, better ideas may still occur to you in the course of writing and revising your novel.

Also, don't take the following procedure for writing an outline as carved in stone. It is designed to help you with writing an outline that is dramatically sound, but not to dictate or constrain your creativity. Let your passion for your story be your ultimate guide.

Ready? Let's begin...

Writing an Outline Stage One:
The Overall Throughline (Main Plot)

Classical story theory, set down by Aristotle, goes as far as saying a good story will have 3 main events:

An inciting incident

A climax, crisis, or turning point

A resolution

Dramatica calls these events “signposts,” and adds one more. So your main plot or “overall story throughline” hangs on these four events...

Overall Signpost #1: The inciting incident

Overall Signpost #2: The complication

Overall Signpost #3: The climax

Overall Signpost #4: The resolution

Armando Saldana-Mora, author of Dramatica for Screenwriters, defines an event as an irreversible change in the characters' circumstances that is meaningful to them and gives them new and more important purposes.

So, with that definition in mind, the first step in writing an outline will be to take a look at the 8 Step Outline you created in Part 3 and decide what the four signposts of your main plot will be, using the following guidelines:

Signpost #1: What event will kick the story off? What change in the characters' circumstances will give them a new and meaningful purpose? For your protagonist, this event will likely cause him to begin his pursuit of the Story Goal.

Signpost #2: If you want your novel to have a tragic ending, the second signpost will be a major victory on the way to achieving the Story Goal. If your novel will end happily, the second signpost will give the protagonist a major setback. Either way, it will still be an irreversible change that sends the protagonist in a new direction towards achieving the Story Goal. It may also send your antagonist and other characters in new directions as well.

Signpost #3: This signpost marks the climax of the story. It is the event that puts your main character in a very tough situation, the outcome of which will determine decisively whether the Story Goal will be achieved. The climax is not the end of the story. However, it is the moment of greatest tension and the major turning point in the protagonist's fortunes. In a tragic story, it is the protagonist's greatest victory – after which everything goes wrong. In a novel with a happy ending, this is when things are at their worst, after which the protagonist starts winning.

Signpost #4: This final event will demonstrate the outcome of the climax. It is the protagonist's ultimate victory or defeat – the point where the Story Goal is either achieved or not. In traditional romances, it is the wedding or the declaration of absolute love. In tragedies, it is where the protagonist dies. Either way, nothing will ever be the same afterwards.

These four signposts are crucial, and for some writers deciding on them is enough preparation. But writing an outline which adds other dimensions to the story will make it far more emotionally compelling.

If that's your aim, the next step in writing an outline is to flesh out the main character's arc, known in Dramatica as the Main Character Throughline.

Writing an Outline Stage Two:
Your Main Character Throughline (Arc)

Story Path

As you know by now, in the course of the story, your main character will face a dilemma of whether or not to change the way he handles whatever problems life throws at him. (See the articles on Plot Development and Main Characters.) In fact, his choice determines the success or failure of the effort achieve the Story Goal. As with the overall story, four events are essential to this arc...

Main Character Signpost #1:

This event demonstrates who the main character is when the story begins. In particular, it shows his/her habitual way of dealing with problems. It may or may not be a successful way, but it is his way. As with the other signposts, this event should be a meaningful, irreversible change that sets up the main character's inner conflict. It challenges his old way of doing things and puts him on the path towards change.

Main Character Signpost #2:

The second signpost sends the main character in a new direction. It intensifies his dilemma by pressing him even harder to change.

Main Character Signpost #3:

Next comes the main character's personal crisis. He will be put in a position where he must either change or not change. There is no turning back or delaying the moment any longer. This is his personal turning point

Main Character Signpost #4:

The final event shows whether the main character's decision was good or bad. It is an event that determines his fate at the end of the story, one that either rewards or punishes his choice.

Of course, if you've read the article on, Main Characters you'll know that the second most important character is the Impact Character. In fact, the impact character is so important that the next step in writing an outline is to create a separate throughline to show his/her influence...

Writing an Outline Stage Three:
The Impact Character Throughline

The impact character's story is important because of the influence it has on the other characters, especially the main character. The impact character shows the main character an alternative way to deal with problems, which may or may not be better. The impact character's story will also be marked by four signposts ...

Impact Character Signpost #1:

This is an event that introduces the impact character and gives the main character and the reader a glimpse of a different approach to dealing with problems. Again, the impact character's approach may or may not appear successful at first.

Impact Character Signpost #2:

The second signpost of the impact character's story mark's a change in the impact character's influence that intensifies his impact on the main character.

Impact Character Signpost #3:

The impact character's personal crisis has the biggest impact on the main character. In a story where the main character changes, the impact character will usually stay the same. If the main character stays the same, the impact character will usually be forced to change his ways. Either way, you need an event that shows what the impact character does when the pressure is at its height.

Impact Character Signpost #4:

The last signpost in this throughline will show the impact character's fate at the end of the story. What happens here may confirm or deny the validity of the main character's choice.

Writing an Outline Stage Four:
The Relationship Throughline

The fourth level to be addressed when writing an outline concerns the most important relationship in your novel: the one between the main and the impact characters. Whether the impact character is the main character's friend or foe, romantic interest or rival, mentor or pupil, this relationship also needs its own arc.

Relationship Signpost #1:

The first event in this throughline establishes the relationship between the main and impact characters at the start of the novel. Remember that it too is an irreversible and meaningful change that puts their relationship on a particular path. (In a romance novel, this may be the moment when the two lovers meet for the first time.)

Relationship Signpost #2:

The second event complicates or deepens this relationship further, taking it in a new direction (which can be negative or positive). (In a romance, this may be the lovers' first kiss.)

Relationship Signpost #3:

The climax of the relationship occurs here. It is the most difficult test of the relationship, and the outcome will determine where this relationship is going. (In a romance, this may be the “black moment” when the relationship faces its toughest test, right before the reversal. It is the dark before the dawn.)

Relationship Signpost #4:

This final event reveals how the relationship between the main and impact characters stands at the end of the story. (In a romance, it may be the ultimate declaration of love.)

Writing an Outline Stage Five:

Writing an outline composed of the four throughlines – Overall, Main Character, Impact Character, and Relationship – will ensure you have a novel that is rich and satisfying. Of course, you may also have subplots which will to be mapped separately with their own 4-part structure. Also, we should note that some novelists give their main characters more than one impact character – so that the main character's dilemma isn't so much between his approach and someone else's but which of two people he should emulate.

Nonetheless, if you reach this point you will have have a minimum of 16 key events for your novel. As you may guess, the four “Signpost #1s” will make up your first act. The Signpost #2s will go into Act 2, etc. That gives you four Acts, and four key events for each one.

Your next step in writing an outline will be to decide what order to put the signposts within each act. The 8 Essential Plot Elements will most likely go into the Overall Story signposts, but not necessarily. You decide where to put them that makes the most sense. You may also repeat elements several times. For instance, you may have several forewarnings or reqirements. You may give the characters dividends or exact costs at several points.

If your outline feels detailed enough at this point, you can stop here and start the actual novel writing. As you write, you will of course need to create additional events to take the reader from one signpost to the next. But the advantage is that will always know what signpost you are building towards. That's a big improvement over Aristotle's three events, which leave a lot of empty space to be filled in.

However, if you are interested in writing an outline that is even more complete, you can go to the next level and flesh out the signposts a little more.

Writing an Outline Stage 6:
Turn Signposts into Sequences

In essence, a novel can be described as one big event – a major change in the lives of the characters. In the telling, however, we break it down into a sequence of acts, each of which is composed of signposts.

Similarly, each signpost is an event that may be subdivided into three or four smaller events, becoming thus a sequence itself. Each signpost can have its own ...

Scene 1: Inciting event

Scene 2: Complication

Scene 3: Conflict

Scene 4: Resolution

Turning your 16 signposts into sequences will give you 48-64 events or scenes for your novel - a well-planned roadmap indeed. What's more, these scenes will not be randomly chosen. Each scene will be a crucial part of a signpost, which in turn is crucial event in your story. Writing an outline this detailed helps ensure the first draft of your novel will be very tight, with few extraneous scenes and no missing steps. This saves you a lot of editing when preparing your final draft.

Of course, you may also want/need to include subplots or a few transition scenes. But generally, every chapter of your novel will lead compellingly to the next, with no sagging middle or unnecessary detours.

Now for the final step...

Writing an Outline Stage Seven: Putting your scenes in order.

Now that you have 50-60 events for your story (the exact number doesn't matter), your next step is to arrange them in order.

You already know which signposts go into which acts. If you have broken each signpost into four events, each act will contain roughly 16 events.

The easiest way to decide on an order for each act is to write a summary of each event on an index card and lay out the cards for each throughline in order from start to finish in four parallel rows or columns. You may want to use a different colour of index card for each throughline.

Taking each act in turn, you then decide the order your events will occur in your story.

You can put the events in the order that feels best to you, jumping from one throughline to another whenever you like. The only requirement is that you tell each throughline's events in their proper order. For instance, you can interrupt one throughline to tell a bit of another, or a bit of all the others, but don't put the climax of a signpost before its inciting incident.

Later on, when you're writing your actual novel, you may decide to tell the end of the story before the start. But it is better to get the sequence of events clear in your outline first.

That's about as much detail as we should go into in one article. Further information and help on Writing an Outline will be added later.

*Based on Dramatica theory created by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley.

Do you have a question about writing an outline or any other aspect of novel writing? If so, visit our Questions About Novel Writing page to get the answers you need.

For the difference between a plot outline and a synopsis, click here.

Return to How to Write a Novel

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