The Novel Writer's Blog

How to Write a Plot Outline: A Complete Guide

18 Mar 2020

Contents

What is a plot outline?

The most basic plot outlines

The Hero’s Journey / The Universal Storyline

Doesn’t using this set of stages stifle creativity and turn us all into repetitive automatons?

Who came up with these stages anyway and why should I trust them?

Evolving the Hero’s Journey / Universal Plot Outline

Genre specific plot outlines

What are the benefits of writing a plot outline?

What are the disadvantages of writing a plot outline?

How to write a plot outline

 

What is a plot outline?

Plot outlines are story skeletons

A plot outline is like your story’s skeleton. It’s the bones on which you hang the flesh, blood, sweat and tears of your story.

It sketches out the underlying structure of your novel: its key stages, including critical developments and pivotal moments.

It doesn’t list all of the chapters, or everything that happens in them. Its sticks to the heart of the story – which is usually the personal journey of the protagonist, from who they are at the beginning to who they are at the end.

For some people an outline may simply be a few ideas floating around their head, for others it may be a 50,000 word document.

For our purposes, we’ll assume a plot outline is a written document of a few pages, covering key stages and turning points.

The most basic plot structures

The simplest plot outline could be based on the following structure:

For example:

  • Beginning – Harry is a bullied orphan living with his aunt and uncle who mistreat him
  • Middle – He joins a magical school and learns of great friends, enemies and challenges
  • End – He manages to stop and evil wizard from stealing an important artefact, and returns home confident and able to stand up for himself

But that’s simplistic to the point of being of limited use. So you may want to expand it into something like this:

For many people, this is enough of a structure on which to hang the main points of their story. Using these stages will help ensure the story feels satisfying to a reader.

Imagine how a reader might feel if you wrote a story with the stages in this order:

It hurts just to look at it. Imagine what it would be like to read.

Applying this distortion to the simplest of plot outline makes it clear why getting the stages out of order can be confusing, unsettling and even nonsensical.

This is an important lesson, because while the diagram above is almost laughable, it might not be so obvious when stages are out of order when using a more advanced structure. But there’s a high chance that readers will still feel less engaged and emotionally involved.

The Hero’s Journey / The Universal Storyline

The most popular and widely used plot structure is probably the Hero’s Journey, which goes something like this:

In this diagram, the higher the line, the higher the tension and stakes. The dip towards the end additionally represents a loss of hope.

Traditional diagrams depict the Hero’s Journey as a circle, but I find that doesn’t sit right with me, as it means the end point appears to be exactly the same as the start point.

Arguably, the linear diagram better represents the concept that the hero returns ‘home’ (back to the baseline), but they are further forward in their personal development than they were at the start.

 

Here’s a very brief explanation for each of these stages:

Ordinary World

The protagonist is introduced in their normal everyday life

Call to Adventure

Something happens to shake up the hero’s everyday life

Refusal of the Call

The hero often has doubts, just wants to stay in their safe existence

Meeting the Mentor

They meet someone who gives them advice that will be useful for the coming challenges

Crossing the Threshold

They change location or burn bridges in a metaphorical sense, meaning they cannot simply return to their old life as if nothing has happened

Tests, allies, enemies

They face various challenges, and make new friends

Approach the innermost cave

The hero prepares to battle terrible danger or inner conflict

The ordeal

The hero must face great demons, which could be internal or external, or both

Reward

The hero receives some kind of reward for facing their demons

Road Back

The hero begins their journey back to everyday life

Resurrection

The greatest battle and most dangerous encounter

Return with Elixir

The hero returns home triumphant

 

You can read about the stages of the Hero’s Journey in more detail here. Of course there are other plot structures (which we'll go into below), but most of the effective ones tend to be interpretations, variations and expansions on the above.

But before we go any further, let’s address some questions that writers sometimes raise with regards to the Hero’s Journey and other plot outlines.

Doesn’t using this set of stages stifle creativity and turn us all into repetitive automatons?

It’s important to realise that each of these stages can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, leading to an infinite variety of stories.

At first, it’s easy to be misled (especially by the wording) that this template will force your story into a particular style.

For example, at the most fundamental level, the word ‘Hero’ may give the impression you have to present a sword wielding, brawny young man who longs for adventure...

But this couldn't be further from the truth.

The ‘Hero’ just means the protagonist, and they don’t have to display any traditionally ‘heroic’ qualities at all. We are all the protagonist of our own experience, however flawed and morally questionable.

Similarly, the Call to Adventure doesn’t have to have anything to do with sirens, evil Kings or swordfights. It can be anything that unsettles and ordinary life.

So, while the hero could be a young man longing for exciting quests, and his call to adventure could be an old wizard telling him of a dragon who’s kidnapped a princess, it could equally be:

  • A high school airhead who’s just been dumped and decides to go to law school to try to win her boyfriend back.
  • A little girl who follows a rabbit down and hole, then has to find her way home.
  • Or even a widowed fish who needs to find his missing son.

Click here for more examples of the Hero’s Journey in a range of stories.

If you start looking out for it as you watch movies and read books, you will start to see how varied the interpretations are, and how the same concepts that be found in all genres and mediums.

In fact, because of your own personal experience of life and the world, you couldn’t write a book that was the same as someone else by following these stages, even if you tried.

Who came up with these stages anyway and why should I trust them?

One of the most important things to remember when following the Hero’s Journey and its variations, is that nobody invented them.

The Hero's Journey is based on work by Joseph Campbell, who analysed thousands of stories spanning the globe, from those told around tribal campfires to modern books and movies.

In doing so, Campbell identified similarities that emerged beyond all the borders and ages, and attempted to distil these common patterns into one fundamental ‘monomyth’. The Hero’s Journey is a modernised interpretation of that monomyth.

So, they are not a set of rules made up and laid out by some authority. They are a fundamental structure that emerged from the collective consciousness of our human psyche.

The success of the vast majority of bestsellers and box office hits is testament to the power of the Hero’s Journey to resonate with large numbers of people.

 

Cautions of the monomyth

Having said that… all interpretations we make of the world are shaped by our own experience, and the original monomyth laid out by Campbell certainly contains problematic terminology and elements.

Glaringly, there are those which focus on the traditionally male perspective and experience, but there are also issues with bias towards the western experience and attitudes of the time regarding dominance and individuality.

Campbell can’t be blamed for that, none of us can see the limitations of our own perspective because they are beyond our peripheral vision. However, it also means that we don’t need to treat his analysis as ‘sacred’.

And of course, the Hero’s Journey is already an interpretation of the original work, so it has already begun.

Despite these qualifications, disregarding the amazing insights discovered by Campbell would be like trying to write blindfolded.

If you chose to throw it all out and start from scratch, creating your own stages, pacing and progression then you coudl still write an incredible book. But there is a much stronger chance you won’t tap into the collective unconscious; in which case you’ll need to work much harder to engage the audience.

So instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we can continue to evolve this structure to fit our changing experiences and attitudes to the world.

 

Evolving the Hero’s Journey / Universal Plot Outline

Many have already begun this work, and created interpretations and variations which make it clearer that the emphasis is on a personal journey, rather than anything to do with men slaying dragons.

An excellent one is the Character Driven Hero’s Journey, as developed by Allen Palmer:

Incomplete

Protagonist is incomplete

Unsettled

An outside force appears to challenge them

Resistant

Protagonist refuses to do the right thing

Encouraged

Protagonist is pushed in the right direction

Committed

They burn their bridges so there’s no going back

Disoriented

Protagonist faces unfamiliar challenges

Inauthentic

They are faced with their flaw but refuse to address it

Confronted

They are confronted with their flaw and cannot ignore it

Reborn

They demonstrate that they have changed

Desperate

Complications ruin everything

Decisive

At the climax the protagonist must choose between their want and their need

 

Complete

Rewards are morally just

Other popular templates are the Save the Cat Beatsheet by Blake Snyder and Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure.

Genre specific plot outlines

And of course, people who write in specific genres are able to identify stages and elements which tend to crop up consistently within their own genres, and have a positive effect on the popularity of their stories.

We have created a bunch of genre specific plot outline templates, including:

  • Romance
  • Detective Noir
  • Character Driven Hero’s Journey
  • Mystery / Crime Thriller
  • Screenplay
  • Short Story

You can access all of these here.

What are the benefits of writing a plot outline?

Stronger first draft

If you outline your plot before you start writing, you can be confident your first draft will have a solid structure from the outset, rather than hoping for it to emerge organically, or having to retroactively go and apply it

This will save time and effort when it comes to redrafting and editing towards your final manuscript.

Direction and Completion

Knowing where you’re going helps you get there.

Writing a novel is a mammoth task which can feel overwhelming. Having a plot outline helps break it down into manageable chunks, with clear goals.

It can keep you motivated and on track.

Frees up creativity

Contrary to stifling creativity, having a plot outline frees you up to let the words flow, because you don’t have to be preoccupied with the worry that you’re going to write 50,000 words then find yourself in a dead end.

 

What are the disadvantages of writing a plot outline?

Could take away the thrill of discovery

Many writers don’t want to know too much about their story before they start, as the knowing sucks out the excitement of discovering the story as they write.

And some successful writers report that they never plan before they start.

But when you analyse their work, you will usually discover that the stages are in fact. So what gives?

It’s not that they’re being dishonest, it’s that they have absorbed these patterns from their experiences of books, movies and life and are applying them sub-consciously.

If you don’t feel writing out a plot outline works for you, then it’s even more important to internalise the universal structures, so you can rely on your subconscious to take care of putting them into practise.

Procrastination

Writers can sometimes be procrastinators to professional levels, so make sure you’re not doing your plot outline to death just to avoid starting your first draft.

 

How to write a plot outline

Find a plot outline that suits you

Read through a range of plot outline templates and see which resonates with you the most. You could even try completing a few different ones for your story idea.

Write a few sentences for each of the stages

For each of the stages write a few sentences which describe how that stage manifests in your novel.

Check it for flow

Read through the entire thing and make sure it flows and makes sense. Make adjustments for consistency.

Ongoing improvement

As you’re writing your first draft and subsequent drafts, treat your plot outline like a working document, not a set of commandments carved into stone.

If it needs tweaking and updating, that’s fine. You may decide to reorder the stages, add new ones, or remove some.

Don’t be too rigid

As with all rules of thumb, you can break the conventions to great effect – the important thing is that you know what you’re doing and why, rather than just fumbling because you don’t have the right tools in the first place.

Following the stages fairly closely is the easiest way to take advantage of the patterns of the collective unconscious. Deviating from them is to be encouraged, but you have to be aware of the impact it will have - both positivr and negative - and realise you may have to work harder and use other techniques to engage the audience and keep them emotionally hooked.

Good luck with your plot outlines! We'd love to see yours, so please share them in the comments. Also, if you have  other plot outline resources you'd like to share, we'd love to see those too!

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