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What is outlining? It’s planning your story. You might do this at the beginning, before writing anything—so-called “outliners” or “plotters.” Or maybe you outline at the end, after writing a draft and starting to revise it—so-called “discovery writers” or “pantsers.” Either way, you’ll need to do it.
“I don’t need to outline, ever,” you say. Maybe so, but unless you have the deep, innate understanding of story like a grand-master fiction writer (for example, Stephen King, who doesn’t outline), the first draft of what you write will probably not be very fun to read. Outlining is important because it makes our stories better, whether you do it before writing the first draft, or after.
Part I: Basic Outlining
Outlining is about organizing your story’s plot, characters, and setting. Imagine a story with zero structure: there’s no coherent plot conflict, the characters randomly do things or don’t, and the setting jumps from place to place. This is what most dreams are like, and you know how boring it is to listen to someone talk about what they dreamed last night—unless it was about you!
In short: a story needs structure, because without it, you don’t really have a story. You may have something, but a story is not what it is. The three primary pieces of structure are plot, character, and setting, so let’s start with plot.
What is a plot? It’s a series of events in a story, usually organized into scenes, that describe a conflict and the result. Two opposing sides have two opposing goals. There is conflict between them, and then the conflict comes to an end, usually with one side winning. Almost any story worth its salt can be broken down this way. Take a moment to think about some of your favorite books and movies. Who represents each side? Who is the hero (protagonist)? Who is the villain (antagonist)? What are they in conflict about?
Here’s a few examples:
- Toy Story is about a group of old toys (protagonists) in conflict with a new toy (first antagonist, Buzz Lightyear) and then the evil kid next door (second antagonist). After numerous conflicts, the old toys defeat the evil kid and the new toy is integrated into the group of toys (resolution of the two conflicts).
- The Shawshank Redemption is about two prisoners (protagonists) in conflict with the prison system, its employees, and other prisoners (the antagonists). They are assisted and hindered by many other characters, and eventually they escape (resolution of the conflict).
- Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about two lovers (protagonists) in conflict with each other (about their relationship) and with the world (that dislikes their homosexuality) and with their wives (who they never truly love). The conflict between the protagonists and the antagonists is resolved tragically in all three cases: the lovers can’t be together, “the world” kills one of them, and they have strained-at-best relationships with their families.
What about inner conflict? Indeed, a protagonist can be their own antagonist, and that can be a good character arc. But if that’s the only conflict in the story, it’s going to be one-dimensional, and you will probably end up with a wishy-washy, navel-gazing protagonist that’s not that fun to read about. Most great stories, like the ones above, have layers of external and internal conflict, or put another way, multiple story arcs and character arcs within a single story.
As an exercise, take your story and write up a short paragraph about the central conflict like the ones above, so you’ve got at least a basic plot idea, some characters, and a setting. If you are an extreme discovery writer, you can start writing from that alone. If not, the next step is to add some detail to those characters.
Stories have characters, and in modern commercial fiction, they have at least one compelling protagonist character that shows, to quote James Scott Bell, “strength of will against death stakes.” The stakes for that character may be literal death or a metaphorical death like loss of a loved one, career, or self-identity. A traditional protagonist typically is at least somewhat optimistic and hopeful about the future, and is action-oriented, meaning that they don’t do too much moping, waffling or navel-gazing. Can you have point-of-view characters who aren’t? Sure! George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is full of these characters. Just make sure you have at least one character that the readers can root for—that’s your protagonist.
The other big character will probably be one or more antagonists. These characters should have goals that are opposite to those of the protagonist. Like the protagonist(s), they should have motivations for those goals that make sense and should be the hero of their own story. In some cases, your antagonist may be an environment (e.g. a harsh desert or a strange planet) but ideally this environment will drive other characters to act against the hero’s goals (stealing his water, attacking him for being an invading alien).
Now you’ve got characters representing the two sides of a conflict, and a good idea of their goals, their motivation/stakes that drive them to achieve those goals, and who they are (a basic backstory that helps you build their point-of-view/voice). There may be many other characters along the way, such as mentors and team members, a third faction that opposes both the hero and the villain (e.g. the police or government), and many other one-dimensional characters that are necessary for the plot. Make a list of all of these characters, and write down the details that you now have.
Now you’ve got a basic plot and some character sketches. What’s the setting? Present day? 1840s London? The moons of Jupiter? A haunted temple that only exists in the dreams of Vishnu? All four of these places? Whatever it is, flesh it out with some notes on the setting(s).
Figure out how your characters interact with the setting. Is it unimportant, such as if the entire story takes place in a contemporary apartment? Or is the setting crucial, such as if the story is set in a fantasy world of your own making, where numerous world elements are involved in the plot. If you’re writing a historical, fantasy, or speculative/sci-fi setting, you may have to do some research to figure out how your important setting will interact with your plot and characters.
When you’re researching and planning your setting (often called “world-building”) beware of “world-builders disease,” which is when people become engrossed in research and world-building and end up not actually writing a story.
To avoid this, focus on plot questions you need answers to and then only research those. Unless something is a major plot element (e.g., the whole story takes place on a hydrogen dirigible, so you need to know a lot about those), save the research until you are writing and need to look something up.
Part II: Detailed Outlining
“Wait,” you say, “I only have a few sentences of plot, characters, and setting. How do I build a whole plot out of that?” Don’t worry, we’ll get there. Or, if you are a discovery writer, you might feel confident with what you’ve got and are ready to start writing and figure it out the rest as you go. If not, read on.
First, a note on organization. There are two popular ways to organize your outline: bullet points and spreadsheets, or effectively, lists and grids. Bullet-pointed lists are more familiar to most people, but arguably spreadsheets are more efficient, especially for long and complex projects. We’ll use bullet points here for simplicity, but if you’re interested in using spreadsheets, check out this post and this example.
There are a lot of ways to structure a story, and even more systems for describing these structures. You may have heard of the hero’s journey, the three-act structure, the five-act structure, the arch-plot, the nine building blocks, etc. How you think about it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you’ve got the what readers expect to find in a story:
- Setup: introduce the main character(s), their occupation and situation, and their personal/emotional goals. Near the end of the setup, reveal the character’s plot-level goals, the antagonist with opposing goals, and the story-level conflict.
- Conflict: the main character is drawn into the plot of the story. They have personal stakes in the outcome of the conflict (those “death stakes” mentioned above). The plot becomes increasingly complex, the stakes are raised, and the odds of success appear lower and lower. This is typically the bulk of the book.
- Climax: the conflict comes to a head, and the main character triumphs and the antagonists are defeated (unless you’re writing a tragedy, which is the opposite).
- Resolution: loose threads are wrapped up, and the audience is given some idea of how things will progress from here. This section is typically much shorter than the others.
Sounds simple? It is, honestly, although it’s frequently over-complicated in books and websites about writing.
The best way to study story structure is just watch a few episodes of a top-rated TV show or some top-rated movies. I would suggest studying books, but those take much more time to study than TV and movies, and the ideas are essentially the same.
Let’s break down the plot of one of my favorite movies, Disney’s animated musical Frozen. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry—the first thing we do is a quick plot summary (spoiler warning).
Frozen: Basic Plot
In general, a story is about a conflict, and this is the basic shape of conflict in stories: set up the conflict, work through the conflict, and end the conflict. You could call these Act I (setup), Act II (conflict, complications), and Act III (climax and resolution), or break them down further into smaller sections, or a thousand other things, but we’ll leave it open-ended because there are a lot of ways to do it.
And boy does it get overdone. For example, here’s a graphic that I found on Reddit, comparing 23 different plot structure archetypes that are all basically the same thing. But don’t worry about all that. Focus on setting up a conflict, building it up and complicating it, and then resolving it. Focus on how the plot affects the character’s inner journeys, and likewise how character journeys, motivations, and decisions affect the plot. These are the important things, not some big diagram or checklist.
In general, plots should become more complex, stakes should build, and tension should increase up until the final climax of the conflict. This is what keeps people turning those pages. You can complicate your plot in a lot of ways: introduce other factions, throw in surprises (plot twists), have the antagonist show their power, have more tragedies strike the hero, and generally just make it seem less and less likely that the protagonist will win, and more likely that the antagonists mounting forces will crush the protagonist. Watch some quality movies and TV shows, or read some good books, and pay attention to how conflict is set up, escalated, and resolved.
The next step is to take your plot and divide it into scenes. You don’t need a ton of details, but you should have a list of what happens in each one. Start with that plot summary that you’ve got divided up into a Setup, Conflict, Climax, Resolution. Now take each bullet point and figure out what scene(s) need to take place for that to thing to happen. Here are the scenes in Frozen, expanding on the plot outline we already have. The section titles are those from the DVD menu, and these may contain one or more actual scenes.
Frozen: Detailed Plot with List of Scenes
Now we have a detailed list of scenes that fit into our plot framework of setup, conflict, climax, resolution. You could further subdivide this into other plot frameworks as well, it’s not hard, but it’s also not really necessary unless you’re struggling with your plot.
Are you ready to write yet? This might be enough. If not, read on for more outlining.
Now that we’ve expanded our plot, let’s do the same for the characters and their developmental arcs (how they change over time). You may have noticed some references to that in the scene outline. Here’s a list of characters for Frozen.
Frozen: Character List
Here we have basic character arcs designed for the main characters (what they think they want, versus what they actually need). You can make character arcs as simple or complex as you need to, but I find the want/need dichotomy to be flexible and easy to work with. You may also have multiple arcs for the same character (e.g. Anna has to learn about romantic love, and also needs to reconcile with her estranged sister).
If you want to expand those bullet points on arcs, the next step is to tie each arc to the parts of the plot where developments actually happen. You want characters to change gradually and naturally, just like real people, not just in one sudden jump. You can identify points in your story where change happens and then make notes on each scene.
For example, here are the key points for Anna’s two character arcs (romantic love, sister relationship), most of which come through as songs rather than dialogue—this is a musical, after all.
Frozen: Detail of a Character’s Arcs
If you want to add this level of detail to your character notes, by all means, do so. It will help you understand your characters and link them more strongly to your plot, creating more emotional resonance for your readers.
You may also want expand your character descriptions, such as their looks, emotions, emotional goals, and their backstory, which will affect the character’s dialogue and voice. You may also want to make a note of what emotions characters are feeling in each scene, and attach those notes to the scene list.
Disney is typically weak on the detail and logic in their settings, and Frozen is no exception. While the setting works well in a fantasy movie for kids, if you’re working on setting for a full novel, make sure you do your research (if needed) and make sure your setting makes sense.
For example, if you have a city in the desert, you should have an idea of how they get food, water, and building materials. Everything has a cost, so what does this city use to pay for the things they can’t produce themselves?
If you have a space station, how do people earn their keep? What technologies are used to grow food, recycle water, and generate oxygen? What are the rules of the society that lives there? What is their culture like? This kind of stuff is called world-building, and you should at least do enough of it so that you’re not leaving giant plot holes in your story.
Disney settings often do not consider these basics and consequently create some plot holes. Here’s the setting outline for Frozen, which is fairly simple.
Frozen: Detail of the Setting
Okay, so now you have a plot summary, a list of scenes, a list of characters and their arcs, and a list of settings with your research notes, if any. You could easily start writing at this point, but if you really like to nail everything down with your outline, here are some more things you can think about adding to your outline.
Part III: Advanced Outlining
So you have a list of scenes. But how do you make these scenes compelling to read? This is scene structure. There are whole books on this, but it’s actually quite simple.
- Goal: start your scene with a goal for the character, and ideally, a good hook related to that goal that draws the reader into the scene.
- Conflict: this is the bulk of your scene by far. The character wants something, but has trouble getting it.
- Result: how the scene-level conflict ends. Usually this will not be in the character’s favor (a disaster, a hollow victory, a win but at a great cost), which raises the stakes and increases the pressure on the character.
- Reaction: how does your character feel about the Result?
- Dilemma: what does your character do now?
- Decision: your character decides what to do, and this leads to the new Goal for the next scene that they’re in.
So, the next level of outlining for plot is to determine the structure of each scene. Who is the point-of-view character? What does that character want (Goal)? What trouble do they face in getting it (conflict)? and so forth.
Note that the Goal, Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision are typically quite short and may even be implied. If you spend too much time in these sections of the scene, it will slow down your pacing, but this may be desirable, as the dilemma is similar to the conflict, and you can get some good character development done there.
Lets take one of the scenes from Frozen and break it into its parts:
Frozen: Detail of a Scene
Theme is “what your story is really all about.”
For most Disney the theme is that “true love conquers all” (Frozen) or “friendship is what happiness” (Toy Story) or something similar to that. You may have an idea for your theme, but then when you write it, it ends up being something else. Or maybe, you want to outline your theme and really make sure it shows up in the key moments in your story.
Let’s look at the things that drive home the “true love” theme in Frozen. You start out with two isolated sisters who love each other but can’t be together. One of them falls into a puppy-love situation with the wrong guy. These are the beginnings of the two big “love” arcs, and like all good arcs, they start out in the “wrong place” and move to the “right place” — the characters want one thing, but they truly need something else.
Throughout the rest of the movie, we get a lot of looks at love:
- parental love (King/Queen caring for injured Anna)
- puppy love (Anna and Hans)
- friendship love (Olaf and Anna, Olaf and Sven)
- familial love (the Oaken family, the Trolls)
- the love of a pet/steed (Kristoff and Sven the reindeer)
- sibling love (Anna and Elsa, by the end)
- romantic love (Anna and Kristoff, by the end)
- self-love (Elsa, by the end)
The story is steeped in love, but it’s not slapping you in the face—it’s just there, as part of the story and part of the lives of the characters—if you know where to look.
Meanwhile, the antagonists represent the opposite of love. The Duke of Weselton only cares about money, and fears things he can’t understand. The evil Prince Hans uses false love to manipulate people to gain power.
Theme can seem complex, but it’s really not that big of a deal. Pick a good theme, and make sure you show a lot of different takes on it throughout the story. Make the protagonists the ones who develop, through their character arcs, to realize that theme. Meanwhile, make the antagonists represent the opposite of that theme, and then make sure they’re defeated.
Can you have multiple themes? Sure thing. You could even have one for each character. But the more you have, the more complicated your story gets, the longer it gets, and the less likely your reader will be to find the threads of the theme in this giant tapestry.
Emotion and Resonance
What emotions are in this scene? If you had to boil this scene down to one emotional word, what would it be? What emotion is each character feeling? What emotion is the reader supposed to feel? Is it the same as the characters? Will it resonate with the reader, or will they shrug? Do the emotions resonate with the theme?
In your outline, you may want to add space to answer these questions for each scene. Another way to do it is to ask yourself, “what purpose does this scene have, why is it here?” and then provide answers from the perspective of plot, character, setting, theme, emotion, etc.
Let’s take a look at the scene above, where Kristoff and Anna visit the Troll Village.
- What purpose does this scene serve? It brings Anna and Kristoff closer together, it shows Kristoff’s backstory, and it show’s that Anna is in grave danger.
- What character developments happen? Kristoff’s soft side is shown more, Anna gets ill from her sister’s poison and also begins to realize she has a lot to learn about Love.
- What purpose does the setting serve in this scene? It hearkens back to the beginning when Anna’s parents visit the Troll Village, this time with Kristoff taking Anna there for help instead of her parents. This reuse of setting implies (symbols/theme) that Kristoff cares as much about her as her parents (or, more cynically, that he is her new daddy now that the old one is dead, fulfilling the traditional/stereotypical male role of “taking care of the weak woman”)
- What emotions do the characters feel? Kristoff is worried about Anna. Anna is curious about Kristoff. The trolls are jubilant, thinking that they are going to marry, then serious when they discover Anna’s illness. These all make sense.
- What emotions do the viewers feel? At first, it ain’t all that serious and so we enjoy the humorous song from the Trolls and the setup of Kristoff trying to interrupt them. Kristoff’s worries begin to mount, however, and we start to feel worried for Anna when she is stricken with another fainting spell from her sister’s ice. We transition from Anna’s curiosity and humor to Kristoff’s concern throughout the scene.
Symbols are repeated elements in your story that help your themes or character arcs resonate.
Be careful with symbols—they’re often overwrought. You want them to subtly represent the themes and/or conflicts in your story. You don’t really need them if you don’t want, but they do help make a theme resonate and tie plot to character.
Two big symbolic elements in Frozen are ice and doors.
The ice is the most obvious. The first scene is cutting ice and the song about “beware the frozen heart”. Throughout the story, Elsa makes more and more ice as she resists her sister’s love, and the ice/winter gets worse and worse until the character arcs are realized and the plot climax (which takes place literally on blocks of ice) is complete, at which point everything thaws.
The use of doors is a bit more subtle, but is found throughout the story. During the sister’s childhood, there are numerous closed doors during their segregation, and the castle gates are kept permanently closed. On coronation day, they plan to open the doors for one day, representative of Anna finally seeing her sister Elsa. Then there’s the duet Love is an Open Door, which has a montage of the two lovers running through a whole bunch of open doors. As the conflict rises, there are several “doors bursting open” and “doors slamming” moments. A particularly poignant one is when the castle gates are shut on Kristoff after he drops off the frozen-hearted Anna and he realizes he’s in love with her, but now she’s on the other side of the door and going back to her betrothed. Finally, Elsa declares that the castle gates will never be close again.
You can plan out your symbols, or they may come to you when you write, or you might not want to use any at all and not worry about it. Framing is the same way.
Framing is when you use similar things to bookend or wrap around a series of events.
For example, you may use the same setting or plot elements or dialogue lines at the beginning and end of a story, or even at the beginning and end of a scene. Like symbols, framing isn’t necessary, but when used well it can help your theme, plot, and characters resonate with the reader.
Frozen doesn’t do much framing. The beginning of the story starts harvesting ice high in the mountains and with Elsa and Anna playing in the castle. The end takes place in the town square with the gates open. We get a bit of it with the gates closed / open in the beginning / end, but it’s not exceptionally strong (and that’s okay).
A better example of framing is in the book The Count of Monte Cristo. The first scenes take place in the town of Marseilles, where a young Edmond Dantes returns from a sea voyage to marry his betrothed, visits his loving father at his apartment, and then has everything ripped away from him when he is wrongfully arrested at the wedding dinner.
At the end of this 1000+ page book, many years later, the Count returns to Marseilles and walks past the places he used to know. He visits his father’s apartment, now a ruin, and confronts his former fiancee who betrayed him. The story begins and ends with the same settings and characters, bringing closure, but also showing how much things have changed.
You can do use framing for the whole book, for acts, or for scenes, or for the beginning and end of a character arc, or for whenever you want to drive home how things have changed from the beginning to the end of something.
How do you go deeper into characters than we already did? You develop them further to make them more unique, which typically involves beefing up their backstory and strengthening their voice. This is best done with characters where you think, “hmm, maybe this character is a bit of a cliche or a stereotype.”
You can also add layers to their arcs, you add more arcs, and you tie them more strongly to the plot. In Frozen, take a look at the example of Anna’s two arcs in Part II, and then imagine some more arcs for her. For example, maybe she has unresolved issues about her parents deaths or anger at them or at Elsa for being pushed away and sidelined for so many years. Then you would take these arcs and find (or create) the scenes where those developmental moments occur. You can also tie the characters to specific settings, themes, and symbols, and plan all that out in your outline.
An important part of further developing and planning your characters is understanding their emotions, because this guides their reactions and decisions in each scene. This will strengthen their voice and also strengthen the emotional resonance of your story with the reader. You may want to figure out answers to questions like “what’s the main emotion each character is feeling in each scene” and combine that with the list of “what emotion do I want the reader to feel in this scene, and what parts of the scene drive that effect” (above) and note that in your outline. Spreadsheets or bullet points can give you columns or sections, respectively, on the emotional goals of your scene.
Be careful: there is an optimal amount of character complexity: too little and you have a stereotype or a boring nobody, but too much and you have an unrelatable, inconsistent mess. Somewhere in the middle, you have gold.
In general, the longer your story is and the fewer developed characters you have, the more complex your characters can be, the more developmental arcs they can have, and the more you can tie their changes to the plot. For example, the Count of Monte Cristo is a very complex character, but he’s also the sole protagonist in a 1000+ page novel, so he has the room to be complex. Most of the other characters don’t undergo much change.
I could dive into another Frozen example here, but it’s already done for me in the movie Frozen II, where we get substantially greater detail on the character’s backstories and their trials and tribulations. Imagine taking some of those backstories and plot lines in the sequel and making them subplots for a novel-length version of Frozen. You could also take some of the minor characters and expand them to major characters—for example, take the Duke of Weselton and make him a full-fledged antagonist.
How do you further expand on setting? You keep doing research, you keep world-building, and you keep expanding on what you’ve got—but only so that it serves the end goal of creating a richer story and a stronger, more unique, and more thematic setting. Don’t just world-build because you’re afraid of actually writing.
Most of the settings in Disney movies are cliches or tropes, and like the character example above, they could benefit from being worked over by beefing up their history, sociology, economies, and descriptive details, then working those things into the plot.
As an exercise, let’s take a setting and beef it up.
For example, maybe your notes for a setting are just “a snowy forest”. What else is in that forest? What kind of plants and animals live there? Was this forest once a battlefield and it has old rusty swords and petrified skeletons everywhere? Is it pristine old growth, or has it been cut an logged for generations and has the scars to prove it? Are there streams and creeks or is this a dry mountainside? How steep is the terrain? What elevation are you at? Are there risks of avalanches? How old is the snow? How many layers down does it go? Is it soft, or hard and icy? Is it on the trees or not? Are their glaciers? Frozen waterfalls? Inexplicable trading posts in the middle of nowhere?
Really getting into these questions on setting will help you describe it better, help your characters interact with it, and allow you to use it to boost your story’s plot, theme, and resonance.
Well, you made it all this way. Are you sick of talking about the movie Frozen yet? I know I am. Here are a few key points to close:
- You only have to outline as much as you feel you need to. If you are good starting a story with a one-line premise, by all means, go for it. Once you’re done, the ideas here will help you revise the story and whip it into shape.
- Spreadsheets can be really handy for organizing big outlines, because you don’t have to repeat the structure. For example, you can have a spreadsheet with a list of scenes down the side. Then across the top, you can have a header row with labels like Goal, Conflict, Resolution, Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. You can then fill out this grid and design all your scenes. Character spreadsheets are also very useful for the same reason. More on this here and here.
- Watch out for getting bogged down in outlining and world-building. If you spend a year outlining and world-building your first novel without ever writing it, you probably aren’t going to be a very good writer, and you’ll need a lot of practice to get better—practice that you didn’t get, because you were creating a five-hundred-page outline.
- A lot of writing approaches over-complicate things, usually to sell books and drive advertising revenue (we don’t do that here). They give you fifty-point checklists for scene or story structure, huge lists of character questions for arcs, and workbooks for forcing your story into a specific box. Stick to the essentials of plot, character and setting, and then write the story that you want to write and make it the best story you can. And if you don’t like it, you can always change it later.