Writing a novel is a big undertaking, but creating a plot outline is a great way to generate ideas and get organised. What exactly is a plot outline, though? And how do you write one? In this post, we’ll explain the basics.
What is a Plot Outline?
A plot outline is a summary of your story. The four key components are:
Premise – Start by writing a short summary explaining the premise of your story. Briefly introduce your protagonist and other essential characters, the setting and the central conflict of your story.
Characters – Next, create a list of the major characters that will be a part of your story. Think about their back stories, physical descriptions, needs and motivations, relationships with other characters and the role they will play throughout your story. You don’t have to do this for every minor character (e.g. there’s no need to add ‘shopkeeper’ to your list just because you plan to have a scene in a shop at some point). But if they’re a named character who will do something of note in your story, make sure to list them here.
Setting – Include a section with notes on where and when your story is going to take place. You can even create a list of key locations, complete with descriptions, that you can use while drafting your story.
Scene-by-scene breakdown – The core of your plot outline is a scene-by-scene breakdown of what will happen in your story. This will provide a helpful overview of your narrative, helping you to plan the drafting process and spot potential plot holes, inconsistencies, etc., from the outset.
We will look at how to develop this final section in more detail below.
Writing a Plot Outline
Okay, so how do you actually outline the plot of your story? There are many ways you can approach this, but we suggest starting with the big picture and then building on it with specific details. For example:
Step one – Outline the overall plot of your story in very broad terms. One simple way to do this is to break it down into three acts, including:
The setup (i.e. what is happening before the action of the story begins and the inciting incident that introduces a source of conflict).
The rising action (i.e. how your characters respond to the inciting incident and the journey they take to achieve their goals).
The conclusion (i.e. the climax of the action and how the main conflict that has been driving the story will be resolved).
Step two – Break down each of the main acts into a series of scenes. Summarise who will be in them, where they will happen and what will happen to advance the plot. You’ll probably find that the second act is longer than the first and third acts, taking around half of the story.
Step three – For each of the scenes you have outlined, go back and flesh out what will occur. Think about how each scene or plot point will be resolved, and the impact they will have on your story and the characters involved.
For variations of this system, you can try another way of conceiving your narrative structure. For instance, you could try using Freytag’s Pyramid or the Hero’s Journey rather than a three-act structure. Or you can try a more visual approach, placing each plot point along a story line rather than simply listing them with bullet points.
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The key is to choose an outline format that suits your needs. As such, feel free to experiment with different styles and see which one works for you!
Updating Your Outline
It might be that you’re only creating an outline as part of the planning process for your novel. But it may also be worth updating your plot outline as you write.
You can then incorporate any changes you make to the story, setting or characters while drafting. This means you can use your plot outline as an aid while editing your writing. Or you can share it with an editor or proofreader if you hire one.
And if you are looking for help with editing a novel or even just a second opinion on your plot outline, our team of expert editors is available 24/7 to help proofread books, short stories, etc. Try uploading a trial document today to find out more!