There’s more than one way to outline a story.
(TL;DR Story outline template at the end of this post!)
You’ll see a myriad of methods published all over the place about the best way to do it, but ultimately, the best method is just the one that you’ll use. That is, if you plan to outline at all – many people don’t and discovery write their way to success.
I haven’t done too much research into all the different methods, because I just latched on to the first one that I learned about (from Writing Excuses, natch), which is the Seven Point Story Structure a la Dan Wells (he originally got it from a role-playing book, but it’s now widely associated with him). The idea is that every story goes sequentially through the following seven points:
- Turn 1
- Pinch 1
- Pinch 2
- Turn 2
The hook establishes what’s going on and what your character’s starting state is, whether it’s internal or external (a little plug here for the MICE quotient, which is another way to think about structure and story arcs). What are their stakes in the story? One of the key bits is that this starting state is opposite their state at the resolution/climax.
Turn 1 is some inciting incident that starts the story and puts the character on the path you’ve set for them. Often referred to as “a call to adventure.”
Once they are off adventuring, they’ll encounter pinch 1, which is where something (usually external) forces them to step up and act.
The midpoint (which does not have to be the physical midpoint) is where your character moves from reaction to action and starts to move towards their end state.
Pinch 2 is where something goes terribly wrong! Plans go awry, people get kidnapped, stakes are raised.
Following pinch 2 then is turn 2, where your hero gets the last piece of information or bit of power they need to be victorious.
And finally, resolution – the climax of the story. The hero goes and solves whatever the plot problem was and reaches their final state (opposite where they were in the hook).
I’ve found this framework helpful in thinking about stories. As an exercise to understand structure better, it’s fun to apply it to stories (in whatever medium you like) that you already know. I’ve been using it in conjunction with JK Rowling’s hugely impressive plot spreadsheet (update: cleaner link here from the Better Novel Project).
In her spreadsheet, Rowling lays out the plot and subplots with each of their necessary story beats and which chapter they will fall in. I’m not really thinking about chapters yet, but I think diagramming the arcs this way will be helpful to see how everything lines up once a draft is put together.
And since I also like spreadsheets, I made one that combines both of these things and put it on the internets. Feel free to make a copy for yourself and use for your storying adventures! Let me know if you have any comments or suggestions for it.
Update: My friend Bobert suggested adding two additional columns to the “main outline” tab: ‘Questions Your Readers Should Be Asking’ and ‘Promises Made (and then Fulfilled)’. These were concepts talked about in Writing Excuses (we heard about it in season 10, but it’s discussed repeatedly because it’s important). For the first, as you’re writing and putting together your story, you should ask yourself “What answer are readers turning the pages in order to discover?” Actually writing it out in your outline can help ensure that you don’t forget the point of the scene.
The second, the idea of promises being made to the reader, is heavily tied to the first. Writers make promises to Readers through foreshadowing or laying groundwork – providing questions or clues, holes that need to be filled in. Keeping track of what promises you make helps you make sure that you follow through and fulfill them in the end, or else you end up with a frustrated Reader and an unsatisfying read. This can be tied into the MICE quotient, which is angling for its own post at some point.
Hopefully that clarifies some things!