Writing – The Basic Outline

One of the tools I think is most useful when you are starting a book is a strong outline.  This is the blueprint for the story you are building and when you spend a little time on it, it can show you new opportunities  and twists and turns that you hadn’t thought of before.

Some people say that writing outlines stifles creativity.  I think that’s pretty silly.  Those writers that just dive in and write the whole book without planning beforehand are actually still outlining…it’s just that the first draft is their outline.  Then, they have to start over, once they know what is going on.

Imagine, instead, that you work on a regular outline and make all your missteps and figure out your big ideas before you write 100,000 words.  That would save a lot of time and frustration, right?  Why not use a tool that’s going to help you?!

So, let’s get down to it and see what you can put in your basic outline…

Three Act Structure (Thank you, Syd Field!)

The basics of three act structure are very simple…beginning, middle and end.  Another way to look at it is set up, development and resolution.

What you get between each of these sections is what most screenwriters call a plot point.  It looks like this…

Act 1…beginning/set up

Plot point 1

Act 2…middle/development

Plot point 2

Act 3…end/resolution

If you put those down on a piece of paper and start to fill them out, then you’ve got a start on your outline!  But…you may need a bit more detail to make it really helpful.

Act 1 generally has two or three parts.  The very beginning shows the status quo of the world you are building and introduces the protagonist.  Then, something happens that gives us a hint of upcoming problem or opportunity that the protagonist has to figure out.  This is the inciting incident.  Remember that this is still Act 1 and that there is still some developing to do.  If you present the problem and have the hero tackle it immediately, then you don’t have much of a story.  Instead, take the time to give us a little more information about the hero.  Maybe they are reluctant to tackle the new problem (a reluctant hero is a pretty common theme and it can make the protagonist a little bit more relate-able.).  So, give us a chance to know the character a bit and give us some more info.  Like…

The antagonist…make sure we meet the antagonist in Act 1.  This character helps us know what the hero is up against and what is at stake.  Plus, you don’t want him or her to show up out of the blue later on…that’s pretty boring.  The antagonist needs to be present and after the same goal as the protagonist in order to be a threat.

Then, what separates the set up from the development in Act 2 is a moment when the hero is locked into the quest or struggle to figure out the problem that is hinted at in the inciting incident.  This point where the hero can’t turn back is Plot Point 1.

Then you’ve got the middle…the giant, hard to fill middle.  But, this is also where the fun stuff comes in.  Here you get to brainstorm all the painful things that happen to your protagonist and all the ways that she tries to solve the big problem.

Remember, at this point, you’re just doing a rough outline…so you don’t have to have the whole middle figure out yet.  I’ll give you some strategies for that later, I promise!

Then, when it’s time to get things wrapped up, you’ve got the point where the development ends and the resolution has to start.  This is Plot Point 2.  To keep this simple…PP2 is where the protagonist gets locked into the last struggle to solve the problem or achieve the goal.  Often, it’s a low point, when the goal looks out of reach.  Sometimes, it’s a bit of new information about the problem.  Play with it and make it your own, but just think of it as the moment when the hero places all her bets on one last strategy.

Then, all you’ve got left is Act 3.  In this last bit of the story, you’ve got two main elements, the climax and the conclusion.  In the climax, you’ve got the last, biggest struggle of the story, and if the hero wins, you’ve got a happy ending (probably mostly happy…as there was some sacrifice along the way, right?), and if the hero loses, you have a tragedy.

After the climax, there’s the conclusion.  In this, the hero may have learned something or gained something that can be brought back home to help others or maybe the protagonist just walks/rides off into the sunset.  Either way, this is the final wrap up and it gives the reader a moment to breathe after the big ending.

So, one last time with what your outline would look like…with a bit more detail…

Act 1…beginning/set up of initial situation and what the world is like. Meet the protagonist and antagonist

Inciting Incident…get a hint of the big problem or opportunity.  The hero might be reluctant to go after it.

Plot point 1…Hero is locked in on the journey.  This is the point of no return.

Act 2…middle/development.  Here, the protagonist has to try to solve the problem, but the antagonist puts up roadblocks and they struggle in new and interesting ways.  Things generally don’t go well for the hero.

Plot point 2…The moment the hero decides to launch into one final struggle to solve the problem.

Act 3…end/resolution…First there’s the climax, where everything is bigger and badder than ever before in your story.  This is the part that your reader will remember more than anything, so make it good.

Finally, there is the conclusion, where things are mostly wrapped up.


Remember, the outline is a tool to help you figure your story out, so you have less rewriting to do.  Remember the Jeet Kune Do maxim about absorbing what is useful and find out just how it can help you!


Talk to you soon!


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