How to Create an Outline for Your Novel

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How to Create an Outline for Your Novel

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 4 “Preparing Your Plot” – Section 1 “The Outline”

 Green Bat 1 by DesdemonaDeBlake

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Plot is what happens in your story. Every story needs structure, just as every body needs a skeleton. It is how you 'flesh out and clothe' your structure that makes each story unique.”

-Caroline Lawrence

Of all of the topics to discuss in writing a novel, none of them inspire quite so much ire as that of outlining your story. As artists, we sometimes want to believe in the concept of absolute freedom from form and convention, and that our achievements come from personal brilliance, total creativity, and ingenuity. However, when we consider how visual artists are critiqued when audience-appreciation for their piece is diminished by a lack of shading, poor color selection, bad perspective, or any number of faults which objectively cause the art to diminish in effect, we realize that this is an artistic double-standard. Writers are architects who are building a glorious tower of words, characters, and story, but we often forget that towers must perform certain basic functions—such as keeping out the rain, creating even surfaces for furniture and people to stand, or even surviving gravity through a geometrically sound foundation. We achieve these basic necessities by using simple conventions and tools that have been perfected over the years—like floors, steel beams, walls, indoor plumbing, and windows. Novels, like towers, also have basic functions that are necessary for a meaningful connection with the audience—such as immersion, characters, events, and a plot designed in such a way to pull the reader in and make them experience the story—and so novels also require the tools and conventions that have been developed by the masters of our art. There are countless types of outlines available for making a powerful story—varying from complex and specific lists of plot elements, to simply having a clear beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, it is certainly possible to subconsciously create a plot with success, by piecing together everything you've learned about outlines by reading books and watching movies. However, for my method of creating an outline with deliberation, purpose, and planning, we will be using one that has enough detail that we can look at it piece-by-piece and discuss each element; it is the Twelve-Point Plot Outline.

The Twelve-Point Plot Outline

(With a sample from the 2002 production of Spiderman)

Act I – Beginning- (Setting up the Story)

The Beginning

For your readers to appreciate the journey of your heroes, they must have a look at what life was for the hero before the journey began. In the Beginning plot-point, show the norm of the hero's life, while setting up the event or chain of events that will trigger the story and upcoming Inciting Incident. In other words, line up the dominoes that you plan on toppling over, and build anticipation in the reader. Also, begin to reveal your world and introduce your major characters.

-Peter Parker is a high-school nerd, dealing with bullies, his feelings for a girl named MJ, and the process of learning how to be a good person from his Uncle Ben. He goes on a field trip to a science lab where genetically altered spider are being created.

The Inciting Incident

There are two major events that happen in Act I. The first event is the one that changes your protagonist's world/life in a way that cannot be reversed—the Inciting Incident. This is to be the big change that is the catalyst for the story to be possible, the bomb that alters everything.

-Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, gets super-powers, and uses them to make his life more tolerable.

The First Turning Point

The second major event in Act I is the one that is deeply personal to the protagonist—the First Turning Point. This is an event that is even more life-changing than (but related to) the Inciting Incident, and is what brings the protagonist to decide how they are going to react to the Inciting Incident.

-Peter Parker is ripped off by the owner of a wrestling arena, and so allows the owner to be mugged to get even. The mugger then kills Uncle Ben, and Parker awakens to the idea that his power comes with responsibility and consequences if he does not use them well. He becomes a vigilante for justice.

Act II – Middle - (Confronting the Antagonist Forces)

The Rising Action

Now that your protagonist has been set on a course of action, they must stand and move towards it—this is the Rising Action plot-point. Usually, this will be a series of attempts of the protagonist to achieve his/her goal, before he/she is skilled or capable enough to succeed. This step usually includes many light failures, successes, adventures, and misadventures, that serve to strengthen the hero and teach them more about themselves. Things begin to gradually get better/worse, depending upon what sort of story you are telling, and upon the natural consequences of the protagonist's actions.

-Parker tries to learn how to use his powers, and acts as a hero, with varying degrees of success and appreciation from the public. This makes him begin to rely emotionally on public approval from his actions as a hero. However, he grows in competence.

The First Pinch Point

During the First Pinch Point, the primary antagonist will do something dark or critical, that puts pressure on the protagonist to react. This pressure is created to lead up to the first confrontation, to build up tension by showing readers the power set against the protagonist, and to point out the weaknesses still present in the hero.

-After quickly incapacitating Parker, the Green Goblin tells him that the citizens he protects will eventually turn on him, and offers a partnership to rule over the city, arguing that fighting will lead to senseless destruction of pathetic people.

The Midpoint

During the Midpoint, the protagonist reacts to the First Pinch Point, confronts the antagonist, and fails in a very critical way. This plot point is meant to illustrate the power of the antagonist, as well as the immensity of the challenge ahead of the hero.

-Parker refuses the Green Goblins offer, and they fight—leading to Parker's failure to stop the Goblin and his arm being cut.

The Disaster

The Disaster is the plot point at which the hero deals with the consequences of failure. The actions that the protagonist takes will usually all be bad, destructive, and poorly thought out, due to the demoralizing failure that took place during the midpoint.

-The cut on Parker's arm reveals his identity to the Green Goblin, and his refusal insights anger; so the Goblin strikes at Parker by attacking everyone he loves. True to the Goblin's prediction, the city turns against Spiderman. Parker is crushed by the weight of the city's hatred and his own guilt.

The Second Pinch Point

While the majority of the plot-points should be centered around the actions of the protagonist, the Second Pinch Point is centered around the antagonistic force. Though the hero is still crushed, an event takes place which shows the power of the antagonist and creates a pressure that will eventually cause the hero to feel forced to action, even as they deal with their previous failure and its consequences. The purpose of this step is to have made the hero tumble to the lowest and most difficult depths possible, and then provide a reason that the protagonist MUST climb back up.

-The Goblin kidnaps MJ, the girl Parker loves.

The Second Turning Point

During the Second Turning Point, an event occurs that serves as a catalyst for the hero to stand back up and fight. Though this plot-point is similar to the Second Pinch Point, this step is not necessarily driven by the antagonist, nor centered around it, and it can function in a number of ways—by pushing the hero to rage, by giving them hope, by allowing them to see their own hidden strength, or any other realization that serves to strengthen them. The moment is very personal to the protagonist and their personal growth.

-The Goblin calls and tells Parker that he has taken MJ—pushing him past his depression and hopelessness into a protective rage for her. Though it's clearly a trap and Parker is outmatched situationally and by level of power, he goes after the Goblin to save MJ because he cares about her.

Act III – End – (Resolving the Conflict)

The Stand Up

Within the Stand Up plot-point, the protagonist rises to the challenge of the antagonist, with a renewed sense of purpose and self-discovery. Here, the protagonist will be fueled by whatever encouraged them during the Second Turning Point, and have some measure of success that will rejuvenate their spirit at least enough to fight.

-Parker is given a choice on whether to save MJ or a trolley full of children, and manages to save both of them. This nearly leads to his death, but he is saved by New Yorkers who consider Spidey to be one of their own.

The Climax

The Climax is the final battle, where the protagonist overcomes or is overcome by the antagonist. The main plot-line of the story is concluded. Even if the overarching story is not completely resolved (if you plan on writing a sequel or want to leave it somewhat open-ended) the primary struggle between the protagonist and and antagonist, which you established as the core of your plot, should have some sort of resolution.

-Parker fights the Goblin, still overcome by the Goblin's superiority, until he comes to the realization of the consequences to MJ, his family, and the citizens of New York if he fails. This gives him the strength to defeat the Goblin—who inadvertently kills himself.

The Epilogue

Just like the Beginning, the Epilogue plot-point establishes how your world and characters are changed by the events of the story. Show your audience a glimpse into the new norm for each of these after the story is concluded.

-Parker now fully realizes the weight of his existence, as he watched his friends in mourning over the death of the Goblin—his best friend's father. Though MJ now returns his feelings, Parker decides that his responsibility is to protect them both as Spiderman and Parker; so he pushes away his friends, family, and MJ, so that they will not be endangered again. Devotes himself to being a vigilante.

Weekly recommended reading: Hamlet by William “Billy” Shakespeare (In addition to the many amazing things you can learn from Shakespeare, especially about plot, the written format of his play illustrates the effects of mastering each plot point. I recommend either reading it if you are comfortable with the language, or else watching it with a copy of the script in hand so that you can watch the transition between Acts. This Act-by-Act summary will help… Note that instead of a 3-Act format, Shakespeare uses a 5-Act format. However the same plot-points can be found in each.)

Write-a-Novel Exercise 4.1

Fill out the Twelve-Point Plot Outline with the events you plan on happening in your plot. Each of these plot-points will be discussed in much greater detail when we begin our chapter on getting from one plot-point to the next. For now, your plot outline will exist as something to work on in terms of bullet points, to think about and adjust as we move on to fitting our stories with a cast of great characters. Compare your planned outline with your map, and begin to look at what complications and dynamic situations will arise between the two (will your character be stuck in the desert and having to find water or fight off mummies after he/she is defeated in the midpoint?) Also, begin looking at movies and stories in terms of plot-points, and see how many you can identify.

Critique other people's work by analyzing whether the sequence of events that the protagonist causes/endures makes sense as a logical progression.

Click here to submit your exercise. 


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TalkerNotYawner's avatar
Can the Rising Action be structured? If so, how?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
It can be structured however you like ... even with its own 12-point plot if you prefer.
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
Alright, thanks for replying.

There is this story that I like called Transformers Spacefarers. It is on and it is structured into story arcs (like the ones you would see in anime or manga). Is it advisable to structure a novel using multiple story arcs?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
You can do so ... as long as you find a way to prepare your reader ahead of time for your structure. I'm not sure how you would do that ... perhaps in the description of your story before a reader picks it up, like calling it a serial or something. Also keep in mind that structures that deviate from the norm may repel a number of readers. I'm not trying to discourage you or tell you not to do it, just trying to provide realistic expectations.
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
Yeah, I guess that does break from the norm. Sorry if I am bouncing all over the place with my ideas, I just want to find a method that works for me. Thanks for all the help!
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
No worries! Totally understand.
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
Maybe it's just because of the outline I am making (which I hope to share with you on one of the submissions), but I am sort of confused. What exactly is the difference between the Second Turning Point and the Stand Up. They seem to be the same; motivate the protagonist to act.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
The difference is like the difference between the Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point. They can be rolled into a singular event and are closely related. But the Stand Up is an event more centered around the Protagonist while the Second Turning Point is more centered around the Antagonist. 


The Hero finds out that the villain is going to destroy the world, so she forces herself to do something about it. (Second Turning Point)
The Hero is on her way to face the villain and realizes that she does have the inner strength to face impossible odds. (Stand Up)

Some stories will have both or only one of these. You can structure your story however you want. These are just two points in your story which motivate your character to go forward. One comes from within the hero while the other comes from outside influence/need. 
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
Okay. So in my story, where the antagonistic force is my protagonist's desire to never grow up, the Second Turning point is where he realizes that he needs to let go of his childhood. The Stand is where he actually does it?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
That sounds right to me. 
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
Alright thanks! Sorry to be bothering you with all of these questions. (P.S.: I will definitely have more XD)
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
I have a question. Should I create my outline before I finish creating all my characters or after. I have already created my main characters, but have not finished all of my supporting characters.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Personally, I would finish my characters first, just to make sure there is room for them and that they are fully integrated into the outline. Of course, you could always work on the outline and the characters at the same time. 
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
The last option might work best for me. Right now, I am starting my twelve point outline. Due to the fact that my story is a coming-of-age story, I am thinking about incorporating a Frame Narrative but I will decide that once I have finished the main plot outline.
Will the inciting incident and first turning point always be separate? I have a story in which the main character's mother dies, and this leads her to go on a quest across the country searching for the killer. I feel like this counts more as the first turning point rather than the inciting incident, but it could fit both and I'm not sure what else the inciting incident could be in this plot. Advice?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
All plot points can be shifted/blended/adapted in a variety of ways. This outline is not a set of rules as requirements for writing a good novel. It's just a list of tools you have at your disposal. My only advice would just to do what best serves your story. You may find that the two separate points show up organically or that they blend into one point. As long as it works for the story, you're golden. 
Simlouca's avatar
My problem is similar to TheBaneOfHelios'.
I have two main parallel storys, both happening at the same time. In story 1 (S1) I show a little part of the protagonists day life, but in S2, I feel like everything is happening the way I wanted to, but the reader may be lost, since it's his first contact with the character. S2 starts at the Incident as well. Should I clarify his relationship with his father or let the reader situate himself with phrases here and there? For it's basically this — his relationship with his father — that moves him — the character —, but I feel like if I clarify everything, the reader will see him as merely a puppet, something he is'nt. Also, the prologue is about a third part, who I really needed to explain the motivations. Yet, she appears only at S2, where she befriends the character, then betrays him, then helps him again. Maybe it's too messy? Should I change the prologue to something about S2 day life?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
In my experience, it's been more important to make everything as clear as possible. Don't worry about being too forward. If your test-reader complain you can fix it in another draft. It will be more helpful to you if the test reader understands too well than if they don't get it at all. That being said, you will have to work at it. Balance in exposition is difficult to achieve.

Are your stories interdependent, or can you separate them into different novels?
Simlouca's avatar
I'll try to get better at exposing. Yet, I'm afraid I'll show everything in the beginning and bore the reader with a long text about fairy politics and technical terms about humans who have metal parts in their body. I think I somehow describe the characters feelings and needs, but the reader is lost in the question "Why does it matter at all?", since I think I don't really let it clear who are the main important ones.

Plus, they are independent from each other, but S1 suddenly clashes S2 in the end, and in some parts there are references one could only understand reading thr other S. In addition, I do think that if I separate them, one will get too bored to read the other, for I don't think they can work one without the other. I wanted to make sober stories that happen at the same time, but in different places and with different characters, but somehow everything is connected, like Resident Evil 6, where there are three campaigns that are connected in minor moments.
For example - please don't laugh like everyone does - the antagonist of S2 is a human skin dealer fairy - sorry if I spelled wrong. I'm foreign -, who is legalized by the fairy queen. So said, I wanted to express what kind of queen would legalize that, but not in S2. Then S1 appears and shows the fairy queen's way of seeing things: she's racist. It's these minor things I wanted to tell the reader, but could'nt in a S2 only story.

I think I need a test reader, since I have none to read what I write for fear they would think it's too weird.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Yes, a test reader is vital. But you can likely find a Writing Partner here on Deviant Art, someone who will read your work if you read theirs. Lots of writers are looking for that. Additionally, you can join the Greenbats, which is a critique group that is slowly coming together. Or there are also others. 


The reason I ask about the plots is that your best bet may be to work them as sequels. Even though they are happening simultaneously, you may have better luck if you engage them one at a time. Obviously, I haven't read it so I can't say for sure, but it sounds like dividing them would solve a lot of your problems, and you could focus on one side of the story at a time. This would make it a lot of fun to read the other book, and allow the reader to be surprised by all the connections. 

And don't worry about your story being silly. All literature is silly in a way. I mean, my own is utterly ridiculous with my friendly monsters. Even classical literature is silly. I mean, an entire story about a man hunting a whale? The silliness is a good thing, It is a huge part of what people love about stories. Albert Camus said that "Fiction is the lie by which we tell the truth." I would take it one step further by saying that fiction is the silliness by which we engage with the most serious and important topics to the human condition. So embrace it and be proud of your silliness. 
Simlouca's avatar
The Greenbats sound amazing, but I will have to translate my entire work into english — and still make it sound cool. Nevertheless, I'll see if I find a brazillian in it. If not, I shall translate it all. :D

I think I'll work in both separate, writing only one at a time, and in the end I'll see if they work together.

And thanks :D
Weidenlied's avatar
Quick questions: So, how long are these parts to be? I've got a first draft with 202 word-pages, and it takes me almost three chapters, or thirty pages approx., to get to the inciting incident. Is that too long?

And, secondly: It takes my story a really, really long time to reveal who the antagonist actually is (that is to say, which of the "good" guys is the evil one), so I'm wondering what to do with the mid point? I mean, any real confrontation cannot come with the antagonist before he's been revealed...
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
To answer your first question, length completely depends on your style and target audience. If you working a draft, especially, I wouldn't worry about writing too much because you can cut and edit content more easily than adding new, so keep it up :)

For your second question, that sort of mystery is a perfectly valid form of storytelling. I would advise you use an antagonistic shadow, which is the removed actions set up by the antagonist, like a trap or something. Or you can disguise your antagonist and have them attack under alias.

I hope that helps!
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