Developing Ideas: A Basic Outline

This is where an idea finally becomes a story.

Even if you’re looking to be more spontaneous in your writing (which is one way to avoid some doubts, as well as increase your interest to see what happens), it helps to have a basic structural outline so you know your story is going somewhere. And while you can always meander from an outline, striking out into the unknown with nothing can make a total mess of a first draft. When does it end? What happens when? What needs to happen before that can happen? Maybe you can figure it out as you go along; I most definitely cannot.

But plotting in point-by-point detail, as I’ve done in the past, hasn’t worked for me either. I end up almost bored, uncertain of the pace, and most definitely doubtful about the details I’ve chosen.

You can use any tools for the basic outline that you wish. Perhaps the “Hero’s Journey” as defined by Joseph Campbell and Star Wars. Or the “doorway” structure defined by James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure. Or any number of advice articles and worksheets on the internet.

For my stories, I like to use Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Even though he can be a bit dogmatic, which might be intimidating or feel judgmental to an easily-influenced writer, his straightforward but flexible story elements can be applied to just about every story. And they’re very easy to spot in finished works in every medium, so you can find examples in your influences.

I believe I’ve described the basics of his structure technique before on this blog, and I also don’t know how much I can share from the book before we get into dicey territory, so I can only recommend reading it (check out your local library!).

But the key component of his structure is four parts, divided by three major events—the first plot point, the midpoint, and the second plot point. Then the two middle parts are divided by pinch points, while the first part contains the inciting incident, and the last part contains the climax and the resolution. So, for simplicity’s sake, here are the nine plot points that make up the basic outline:

  • Hook (what grabs the reader; first chapter; opening conflict)
  • Inciting Incident (what starts the story in earnest; what sets up the character’s goal)
  • First Plot Point (the character’s goal is defined; no going back)
  • First Pinch Point (the antagonist shows themselves; the conflict deepens)
  • Midpoint (the character switches from reacting to the conflict to moving forward actively)
  • Second Pinch Point (the antagonist shows again; the conflict builds)
  • Second Plot Point (a piece of information makes the climax inevitable; no going back)
  • Climax (the final conflict is resolved)
  • Resolution (after the conflict; the story is settled)

I may have butchered the explanations (go read the book!), but the basics are there. If you can define each of these points, in as much detail as you can manage, then your story will have a structure that will work.

And as far as pacing, I imagine each section (from one point to the next) being about an eighth of the story. So by the Inciting Incident, about 12,500 words (of a 100,000 word novel) will have passed; by the First Plot Point, 25,000, and so on. The only place where this really breaks down is in the last part, where you probably don’t need 12,500 words after the climax. Either the climax is longer, taking up more space (and perhaps beginning 12,500 words after the second plot point, with that space taken up by preparation for the climax), or you stretch out the other sections and make this the shortest. I think the most common route is that the climax of the book is just the longest plot point in itself; think of the long battles with the villain that cap off most epic action movies (perhaps not always something to emulate).

For my attempts at drafting, I’m going to focus on each 12,500-word section as its own unit, just to try and diminish the fear of tackling an entire novel. You know where each section begins, and where it ends, and get from one point to the other as best you can.

The basic outline should give you confidence in setting out for the unknown of your draft… It at least gives you a place to go.

But nothing makes drafting simple… And that’s where we’re headed next.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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