Outlining

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.

Plot I

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.

Characters I

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.

Setting I

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.

Plot II

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

  • Setup:
    • The sisters Elsa and Anna are princesses in an 1840s Nordic seaport city-state.
    • Elsa has magic powers that can produce ice and snow.
    • When she accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, their parents decide they should grow up separately.
    • The parents are killed at sea and Elsa is to be crowned Queen at a coronation ceremony.
  • Conflict:
    • On the day of the ceremony, Anna, neglected and desperate for affection, meets Prince Hans and they agree to marry that same day.
    • When Anna asks for her sister’s blessing, Elsa becomes upset, unleashes an eternal winter, and flees the city to an ice fortress of her own making. The plot-level conflict is now revealed, and the heroes cannot escape it.
    • Anna sets off to search for Elsa, meeting some friends along the way. They find Elsa in her ice fortress, but she rejects them and accidentally strikes Anna with her ice powers again.
    • Anna and friends flee Elsa’s snow monster and learn that an act of true love will heal Anna’s frozen heart. They go to seek out her betrothed, Prince Hans, who is meanwhile off capturing Elsa to end the eternal winter.
    • When Anna and Hans reunite back in the city, it’s a plot twist: Hans reveals his evil plan to murder his way to the throne. He leaves Anna to die, and sentences Elsa to death for supposedly killing Anna.
  • Climax:
    • Anna’s friends come to the rescue, but the city is in a worsening eternal winter and Anna is still slowly dying of a frozen heart.
    • The final confrontation occurs in a blizzard on the frozen, icy bay, where Prince Hans comes to execute Elsa and finish off Anna.
    • As Hans’ sword comes down, Anna decides to shield her sister Elsa instead of saving herself. Anna’s frozen heart turns her body into magical ice, and the ice causes Prince Hans’ blade to break.
    • Elsa weeps for her frozen sister and Anna thaws out. It’s unclear which act of true love heals Anna: protecting Elsa, or her sister weeping for her and realizing what she’s done, or both. The message is clear, however: love heals a frozen heart and love conquers all.
  • Resolution:
    • Anna’s loyal friends are rewarded for their help, the city is back in springtime without the magical winter because love is the answer to controlling magical ice powers (somehow).
    • Prince Hans and other minor villains are banished, Anna and her true love Kristoff have a kiss, and Elsa is done being a cold-hearted ice queen and opens the gates of Arendelle for good. Anna and Elsa are friends again and everything is great (unless you’re a commoner slaving away to support the entrenched nobility).

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

  • Setup:
    • The Accident
      • A young Kristoff harvests ice with a baby reindeer Sven (how long do reindeer live again?) and they sing a song with the refrain “beware the frozen heart”, setting up the theme.
      • A young Elsa and Anna play with Elsa’s snow powers. Anna is wounded by them.
    • Concealing Her Powers
      • The parents take the girls to the “wise savages”, the Trolls, to be healed. At the Troll Village, the Trolls explain Elsa’s magic to her parents and heal Anna, erasing her memories of Elsa’s powers. A young Kristoff watches all this (odd that he never mentions it later, isn’t it).
      • The girls are separated so that Elsa can’t hurt anyone. Anna sings Do You Want to Build a Snowman, showcasing her loneliness and setting up her character arc (detailed in the next section).
      • A montage is shown of the girls growing up segregated, then the parents go on a trip and are lost at sea, then there is a funeral.
    • Coronation Day
      • With her parents dead, Elsa is the new queen. They are finally opening up the gates of the castle, which they kept closed to isolate Elsa. Kristoff is in town, and the camera pans from group to group, introducing the many of the minor characters.
      • Anna sings For the First Time in Forever, about her isolation and her need for love.
      • Anna meets Prince Hans, Elsa is crowned in the church and barely controls her ice magic
  • Conflict:
    • Puppy Love
      • The two sisters awkwardly talk at the ball. Anna dances with the villainous and comedic Duke of Weselton.
      • Anna and Prince Hans dance, then sing the duet Love is an Open Door, which ends with Hans proposing marriage and her accepting
      • The two go to Elsa for her blessing but she refuses, then loses control of her ice magic and flees the city, plunging it into an eternal winter.
      • Anna vows to find her sister Elsa and sets off on horseback.
    • The Search for Elsa
      • Elsa flees to the north mountain, builds an ice fortress of solitude, and sings Let it Go.
        • Note that this song is where Elsa is rejecting the change in her character arc, and siding with what she wants (isolation), but not what she needs (her sister’s love, to become the Queen and stop running away from her problems).
      • Anna rides through the snow on her horse, but the horse is spooked and flees. She is dumped in the snow with no practical clothing, food, or shelter, then happens upon Oaken’s Trading Post (what luck).
      • At the trading post, Anna meets Kristoff, who is trying to buy supplies but doesn’t have enough money. Apparently Anna at least remembered her purse, if not anything practical.
    • A Ride
      • Anna hires Kristoff to lead her on a search for Elsa. Kristoff sings a song revealing his arc, Reindeer are Better than People. His arc is a mirror of Elsa’s.
      • Kristoff takes Anna up the mountain in his sleigh, pulled by Sven. They have character-revealing discussions, are chased by wolves, and lose the sled in a ludicrously unlikely leap over a chasm. Somehow the sled explodes in flames.
    • Olaf
      • The meet the snowman Olaf, who sings his song about wanting to experience summertime, setting up his arc (a minor and comedic one). Olaf knows where to go to find Elsa, so they let him tag along.
      • Meanwhile, Prince Hans is back in the city handing out blankets and appearing very noble. Then he sets out to find Anna and Elsa, with two of the Duke of Weselton’s goons. The association of these two factions foreshadows Hans’s treachery later.
    • Finding Elsa
      • Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven reach Elsa’s fortress. She tells them to get lost. Anna sing’s a few bars of Do You Want to Build a Snowman?, echoing some themes from the beginning.
      • At roughly the midpoint of the story, their relationship hits it’s lowest point and Elsa and Anna get in a fight (midpoint lows are very common). Elsa accidentally wounds Anna with her ice magic again, repeating the action from the beginning of the film and showing that Elsa still refuses to change, and Anna still wants her sister back. Nothing’s really changed, yet somehow everything is worse, which makes this a great midpoint low.
    • Snow Monster
      • Elsa summons the snow monster Marshmallow to throw out the intruders of her ice fortress, and he chases them off in a thrilling and unrealistic chase scene.
      • Anna begins to show symptoms of Elsa’s second attack, so they decide to take her to the Troll Village for help.
    • Family
      • The Trolls meet them, and sing a song about true love called Fixer Upper, and diagnose Anna.
      • Both Kristoff and Anna’s arcs begin to nudge from what they want to what they really need. However, Anna’s condition worsens, and Kristoff, noble as he is, sets off to deliver her to Prince Hans so his act of true love can save her.
    • Discovered
      • Prince Hans and the Duke of Weselton’s goons assault Elsa’s ice fortress.
      • Marshmallow the Snow Monster is defeated and Elsa is captured and put in chains back in the city’s dungeon.
    • Betrayal
      • Kristoff delivers Anna to Hans then Kristoff heads back out into the wilderness, feeling gloomy and resolving to stay with his isolationist ways (rejecting his change arc even though he’s beginning to realize that what he wants is not what he really needs).
      • Anna begs Hans to kiss her but he reveals himself as a villain all along. In classic villain style, he doesn’t actually wait around to make sure she dies, but tells everyone she did (groan).
    • What is Love?
      • Elsa is in prison but easily breaks out cause… ice powers can blow up castle walls… I guess.
      • Anna nearly dies of a frozen heart but Olaf saves her and she learns what true love really is. Her character arc is nearly complete.
  • Climax:
    • An Act of Love
      • Anna, Elsa, Hans, and Kristoff all stumble around in a blizzard (a metaphor?) on the frozen bay, where Prince Hans comes to execute Elsa and finish off Anna.
      • As Hans’ sword comes down, Anna shields her sister Elsa, Anna’s frozen heart turns her to magical ice, and the ice causes Prince Hans’ blade to break.
      • Elsa weeps for her frozen sister and thaws her out. It’s unclear which act of true love heals Anna: her protecting her sister, or her sister weeping for her. The message is clear, however: love heals a frozen heart and true love conquers all.
  • Resolution:
    • Open Gates
      • Anna’s loyal friends are rewarded for their help, the city is back in springtime without the magical winter because love is the answer to controlling magical ice powers (somehow).
      • Prince Hans and other minor villains are banished, Anna and her true love Kristoff have a kiss, and Elsa is done being a cold-hearted ice queen and opens the gates of Arendelle for good. Anna and Elsa are friends again and everything is great (unless you’re a commoner slaving away to support the entrenched nobility).

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.

Characters II

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

  • Major Characters
    • Elsa
      • Description: The eldest sister, has ice magic powers, blonde, blue eyed
      • Wants: to be a recluse and ignore society and her family and her royal responsibilities because of her shame/fear of her ice powers
      • Needs: to be accepted and loved by her family and society and to claim the throne of Arendelle.
    • Anna
      • Description: The younger sister, has no powers, red-haired, blue-eyed
      • Wants: to be loved, so she agrees to marry some guy she just met
      • Needs: to have a loving relationship with her sister again, needs to meet and fall in love with a guy who is a good fit for her
    • Prince Hans
      • Description: Anna’s (false) love interest, primary villain (but not revealed until just before the climax). Has twelve brothers and no chance of ever getting his own throne.
      • Wants: to marry into the Arendelle royal family and murder his way to the top
      • Needs: to be defeated, or get some therapy I guess
    • Kristoff
      • Description: Anna’s (true) love interest, a seller of ice, raised by trolls, big and woke blonde oaf
      • Wants: to deliver ice and to be a solitary woodsman
      • Needs: true love and an end to his loneliness
    • Olaf
      • Description: A reanimated snowman conjured by Elsa’s powers who acts primarily as comedy relief and emotional support
      • Wants: to experience summer, but doesn’t understand that he’ll melt
      • Needs: friendship, a way to prevent being melted
  • Minor Characters
    • Duke of Weselton
      • A minor villain / comedic relief with two unnamed henchmen
    • Sven
      • A reindeer owned by Kristoff. He likes to eat carrots.
    • Oaken and family
      • A sporting goods retailer. He has a barn where Kristoff stays the night.
    • Marshmallow
      • A snow monster conjured by Elsa to scare people away from her ice fortress
    • Pabbie and Bulda and others
      • Trolls who act as “wise savages”. They raise the orphan Kristoff and help the humans understand Elsa’s ice curse and how to heal it.
    • King Agnarr and Queen Iduna
      • Elsa and Anna’s parents who are only present in one early scene
    • Kai and Gerda (commoners), the Bishop, and other miscellaneous  townsfolk, including ice-harvesting men who train Kristoff in the trade

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

  • The initial state:
    • Anna is emotionally starved as a child, which is clearly communicated in her song, Do you Want to Build a Snowman? This sets up the sisterhood arc.
    • On the day of the coronation, Anna is overflowing with a need for human contact and love, and sings the song For the First time in Forever about this.
  • The rejection of the truth:
    • When Anna meets Prince Hans, she falls in love even though they just met and agrees to marry him. This is communicated in their duet Love is an Open Door.
    • Note that Anna is getting what she wants, but not what she needs, which is an important part of most character arcs: the character often has to discover what they really need by trying to get the wrong thing first.
  • Questioning herself:
    • Anna’s arc begins to bend when she meets Kristoff, and she starts questioning what she thought she wanted (marriage to Hans). This really comes across in the song Fixer Upper, which is a more realistic portrayal of love. This is the first big step on her road to discovery of what she truly needs.
  • The big change:
    • There aren’t any musical numbers after this, as the plot moves faster, the conflict intensifies, and the stakes are raised. The next big change for her is a conversation with Olaf by the fireplace after the traitorous Prince Hans is revealed, and she admits that she doesn’t know anything about love, and realizes that Kristoff is the right person for her, not Hans.
    • Note that this big personal change comes at a great cost—she is nearly killed by Hans’ treachery. Big personal changes should come at extreme moments, and typically at a great cost, just like in real life (e.g. you don’t start eating right until you have that heart attack).
  • Closure of Sisterhood arc:
    • With this new knowledge of what love is, Anna goes to rescue her sister Elsa, and ultimately sacrifices herself to save Elsa by deflecting the evil Prince Han’s execution blade. The first of her two major arcs (sisterhood with Elsa) is complete.
  • Closure of Romance arc:
    • With the new knowledge that Kristoff is the right guy for her, Anna punches Prince Hans over the edge of a boat, and then she and Kristoff kiss. The second of her two arcs (romance) is complete.

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.

Setting II

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

  • Arendelle: an 1840s Nordic seaport city-state, where much of the story takes place. Their economy is (presumably) based on fishing, farming, and selling ice. Despite gunpowder having been invented, they seem to prefer the sword and crossbow. Social class is strictly enforced, with a monarchy controlling nearly all of the wealth, supported by a thin merchant class and a large underclass, but the underclass is perfectly fine with this. There appears to be no disease, hunger, or poverty. The only physically attractive people are members of the ruling class or those destined for it (i.e. Kristoff). Commoners are ugly, so we don’t feel bad for them.
    • The castle: Where Anna and Elsa grow up, and where many of the plot events take place
    • The town square: A bog-standard fantasy-world town square
    • The harbor: Where boats are moored and the scene of the climax
    • The church: Used for the coronation ceremony
  • The path to the North Mountain: a snowy road where Anna must travel to seek out her sister Elsa
    • Oaken’s sporting goods store, which is inexplicably and conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. This is where Anna first meets Kristoff and hires him to take her to the North Mountain.
    • The Troll Village, where the trolls live. Somehow it’s not buried in snow, even though everything else is. Magic!
  • The North Mountain: a steep, snowy mountain
    • Elsa’s ice fortress of solitude is built on the mountainside. The fortress doesn’t seem to have a kitchen or plumbing but I guess she doesn’t need to eat or drink or go to the bathroom or anything.

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

Plot III

Scene Structure

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

One of my favorite scenes is when Kristoff and Anna visit the Troll Village to seek out help for Anna’s frozen heart and instead get a crazy song.

  • Goal
    • Get some help from the Trolls for Anna’s frozen heart. This goal was established at the end of the last scene, and is the result of Anna getting blasted in the heart by Elsa’s ice magic.
  • Conflict (the bulk of the scene):
    • At first the Trolls don’t show up, and Olaf suggests that Kristoff is making it all up and may be delusional. Anna turns to go, oh no!
    • The trolls appear, and are so chatty they won’t let Kristoff explain what he wants: his goal keeps getting delayed. Worse, they think that he’s bringing home a girl (Anna) to “meet the parents.”
    • The trolls start a big musical number to try and convince Anna to marry Kristoff, to his great embarrassment (more conflict, and more delay of his achievement of his scene goal). The trolls go on about “the clumpy way he walks” and the “grumpy way he talks”, etc.
    • Kristoff becomes more exasperated, and tells them Anna’s engaged to someone else. Do they pipe down? No, it’s time for verse two! The Trolls are the antagonist here, delaying the achievement of the scene goal and frustrating and embarrassing Kristoff (and to a lesser degree, Anna).
    • The trolls end their big musical number with an attempt to make Kristoff and Anna get married (literally, they place them at an altar), but Kristoff stops it.
  • Result (disaster):
    • The conflict with the belligerent-yet-musical trolls is over, but then Anna collapses. Oh no, a disaster!
    • The trolls tell Kristoff that her frozen heart will kill her, and it can only be healed by an act of true love.
  • Reaction (implied):
    • Kristoff is upset by this, naturally. This is barely shown by more than a facial expression. In a book, there might be some thoughts or dialogue from the point-of-view character. Or maybe not.
  • Dilemma (implied):
    • Kristoff only takes a moment. He’s a hero, so he knows what to do. The dilemma almost doesn’t exist in this scene, and that’s okay—there’s nothing to really agonize over. If he was less of a Disney hero, he might argue that they should leave her behind with the Trolls, or try to kiss her himself, or maybe steal her wallet.
  • Decision:
    • Kristoff calls to his reindeer Sven, then they hop on and he announces the new goal: to get Anna to her betrothed, Prince Hans, for true love’s kiss, which must be the act of true love that the Trolls are talking about.

Theme

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.

Symbols

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

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.

Characters III

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.

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.

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.

Setting III

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Good luck!