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The story skeleton is where we give your plot a few more bones, and see how it starts to take shape.
(If you haven’t done a premise, then it’s no big deal, you can create your plot outline without, and you can go back to it later if you decide you want to).
Luckily for us, we don't have to grope around in the dark, guessing at what elements we should include in our story and in what order, to create a gripping and satisfactory story with a good beginning, middle and end.
That's because research shows that there is a common template that the vast majority of popular stories follow.
Background of the Skeleton Outline
This story commonality was discovered by Joseph Campbell, who studied myths and stories across many different cultures since the dawn of storytelling. While doing so, he discovered many of the same elements kept coming up over and over again, regardless of location or era.
In 1949 Campbell condensed what he found into what he called the Monomyth, seventeen stages which take a hero from their ordinary world through a series of tests and trials, to a final climax.
The Monomyth has been interpreted many different ways over the decades, the most well-known of which is the Hero’s Journey, by Chris Vogler.
Other story professionals, such as Michael Haugue and Allen Palmer have added their own analyses and interpretations based on books and movies that move us and gain wide popularity.
Our Universal templates brings together all the most popular structures and elements into a simplified set of stages, which is designed to be specific enough to give you a solid structure to work in, but broad enough to be open to an infinite number of interpretations.
Once you’re familiar with the universal plot outline, you will start to notice these stages popping up in every book you read and movie you see.
First we’ll take a look at the full list of stages, then we’ll go into detail about what each of them consists of.
The Universal Story Skeleton
|The Status Quo||The New World||Final conflict|
|The Complication||External Obstacles||Return Home|
|Crossing the Threshold||Temptation|
Let’s look at each of the stages in detail.
We’ll provide examples of how each of these stages are represented in: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Lion King.
As you will see, stories interpret the stages in different ways, for example the order of the stages is mixed up in the Lion King.
Once you’re familiar with the stages, you can either follow them closely or veer wildly from their traditional interpretation – the choice will depend on the effect you want to create.
The Status Quo
Introduce the main character’s world and establish their want (what they think will make them happy) and their need (what will actually bring them happiness).
The character clearly has something missing from their life and they are unsatisfied with their current existence.
|Story||The Status Quo|
|The Hunger Games||Katniss lives in a bleak world, where she is forced to shoot squirrels for food. She wants her family to survive. She needs to maintain her humanity.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry lives with his Aunt, Uncle and Cousin, who treat him unfairly and make his life a misery. He wants his real parents. He needs love and friendship.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||Offred is forced to live as nothing more than a breeding vessel, with no freedom or rights. She wants to stay out of trouble. She needs to be treated like a human.|
|The Lion King||Simba is heir to the plains, with a loving family and friends. He wants to be able to do whatever he wants. He needs to learn that with power comes responsibility.|
Something happens to shake the character’s world, and offers them an opportunity, or creates a threat.
The hero may respond to the complication by accepting the challenge, refusing it, ignoring it, or something else.
|The Hunger Games||Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is selected to take part in the Hunger Games, where she will almost certainly be killed. Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry receives an invitation to a magical school.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||The doctor offers to impregnate Offred.|
|The Lion King||Simba’s father dies and Simba believes it’s his fault. He is filled with guilt and shame, and flees.|
Crossing the Threshold
The character crosses some kind of barrier (could be physical but doesn’t have to be), which means it is not possible to return to their old life.
|Story||Crossing the Threshold|
|The Hunger Games||Katniss travels to the Capitol and enters the Hunger Games Arena.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry travels to Hogwarts and moves into the dormitory.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||Offred enters the Commander’s office and begins secretly spending time with him.|
|The Lion King||Simba travels through the thorns and baking desert to a new and different jungle world.|
The New World
The character is now in a new and unfamiliar situation, trying to navigate unknown rules and challenges. There is often a mentor character who gives guidance on how to survive the new world and provides the hero with helpful items.
|Story||The New World|
|The Hunger Games||Katniss must battle for survival in the Hunger Games Arena, which is rife with things that want to kill her, while also ingratiating herself with the public.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry must navigate a school where nothing is ordinary, including classes, bullies and friends.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||Through the Commander Offred learns more about the secret underground side of their society.|
|The Lion King||Simba learns about a new carefree, vegetarian lifestyle with Timon and Pumba.|
The character must face a series of conflicts, each of increasing difficulty and stakes. Some they will win, some they will lose.
At this stage the obstacles tend to be more external, whereas later in the story the hero will be forced to face the worst demons of all – the ones that live inside.
|The Hunger Games||The other tributes try to kill Katniss, she has to win her weapon from the Cornucopia, she discovers her ally is working with her enemies, a fireball severely burns her leg.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Snape and Draco bully him, a troll attacks his friend, he gets caught out of bed after hours and is punished.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||Offred must navigate Jezebels, keep her affair with Nick secret, take part in group executions, and deal with Ofglen’s requests for her to gather information.|
|The Lion King||The hyenas attack Simba and Nala as cubs, he’s caught in a Wildebeest stampede (out of linear order).|
The character should be faced with the choice between their want and their need. They are finally being offered what they’ve wanted all along, but if they accept it, they know they will sacrifice what they really need forever.
This frequently happens at the midpoint of the story to avoid the ‘sagging middle’ syndrome, by providing a highly charged emotional scene.
|The Hunger Games||Katniss wants to survive, but she needs to maintain her humanity. To win the games she will have to kill Peeta. But if she does so, she will have lost her humanity.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry wants his parents, and becomes obsessed with seeing them in the enchanted mirror. But if he stays there too long he will miss out on his real life, which contains real people who love him.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||Offred wants to stay out of trouble, but she needs to be treated like a human. If she has an affair with Nick she is risking serious consequences, but he makes her feel like a person again.|
|The Lion King||Simba wants to hide away and not accept his responsibilities. But if he doesn’t go home and face his fears, his family and pride will suffer.|
The character loses everything, and falls into a pit of despair. It seems that there is no way to recover from this and all is lost. But after wallowing for some time, the character finds one last ounce of willpower, picks themself up and prepares for one, crazy, against the odds, last-ditch attempt.
|The Hunger Games||Rue is killed.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry is caught sneaking around after hours and is punished, causing Gryffindor house to drop to last place. He is shunned.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||Ofglen is gone, probably hanged herself rather than be punished by the secret police.|
|The Lion King||Simba admits to his mother that he’s responsible for Mufasa’s death.|
The character should face their nemesis at the end of the story, and show how they have changed from the person they were at the beginning of the story.
|The Hunger Games||When the Game Makers change the rules, giving her no choice but to kill Peeta. She refuses, threatening to commit suicide rather than lose her humanity by killing Peeta.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||With the help of his friends, Harry makes it through a series of enchanted obstacles and faces Voldemort.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||With the secret police coming for her, Offred has to choose between suicide and trusting Nick when he says it’s actually the resistance coming to save her.|
|The Lion King||Simba battles Scar|
After the final conflict, loose ends can be tied up, and the hero’s new world depicted. In the vast majority of cases, the hero will have made the right decision and chosen their need over their want. Sometimes, making this correct decision leads them to also unexpectedly win their want as well, as an added bonus. The protagonist is seen as emotionally evolved, a whole and complete person.
|The Hunger Games||Katniss returns home a hero. She has maintained her humanity and improved her home situation.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry returns home to his mean family, but now they fear and respect him, and he has a future with his Hogwarts family to look forward to.|
|The Handmaid’s Tale||Nick did arrange for Offred to escape, but we have no idea whether she remained safe or was recaptured.|
|The Lion King||Simba and Nala have their own cub ready to take its place in the circle of life.|
Specific Genre Plot Outlines
While most stories follow these stages, each genre also has its own specific features and nuances.
We’ve created a collection of genre specific plot outlines as follows:
- The Hero’s Journey
- Character Driven
- Detective Noir
- Mystery / Crime Thriller
- Short Story
These Story Templates can be found in the Novel Factory in the Plot Manager and Subplot Manager.
Click the button 'Add Plot Template' to access them. Each Plot Template has its own unique stages, with each stage described and explained.
These genre specific Plot Outlines can also be downloaded as PDFs here.
We Can Help You Use a Skeleton Outline
In the Novel Factory, go to the Plot Manager, and click 'Add Plot Outline'. Choose from the templates. Replace the title and descriptions on the index cards with details from your story.
Shuffle, add and remove index cards to represent stages and scenes where necessary.
Or, if you're not using the software, use these Plot Outline PDF Templates.