Advice, Writing

Outlining is Your Friend: Part 1

This post builds off of the foundations of my post on narrative structure and conflict. In this post, I’m going to talk about how I follow the standard narrative structure format to generate a plot line. Please note that this is just how I go about creating a plot, and it’s not necessarily the best way to do it for you. There are a ton of resources available online that can help you create the plot for your story or novel. I’ve included a list at the end of this post for you to check out.

Now, let’s look at the convoluted, somewhat arts-and-craftsy way that I go about creating a plot.

Generally speaking, I find coming up with the beginning and the ending of a story the easiest parts of writing. It’s easy to say “I want John to be sad at the beginning of the story, and by the end of it, happy.” In terms of narrative structure, that gives you your exposition and your conclusion. John was sad. Now he’s happy.

I usually do this with paper and crayons. No, I'm not kidding.
I usually do this with paper and crayons. No, I’m not kidding.

Once you have the beginning and the end of your story, you can start filling in the middle pieces. If you’re writing a tragedy, you want your character to look like he’s going to succeed. In a comedy, you want him to look like he’s going to fail. Now, obviously, you can tweak these around to either meet or dash your readers expectations, but for the sake of our example, we’ll keep it simple. There’s also a really good reason to do this: it makes the ending feel stronger, since it looks like everything’s going to fail or succeed, and then BAM! It goes the other direction. In our case, John is starting out sad, so we have to make him sadder before he can get happy.

For our story about John, we’ll start by fleshing out why he’s sad to start with. Let’s say John is a middle-aged man. He’s got a wife and kids and a house in the suburbs, but he’s kind of stuck in a rut. His boss is a jerk, he gets no recognition at work, and no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t seem to get that promotion. Here’s our exposition, the piece that sets up the story, the characters, and what’s happening.

Now we need our inciting incident: the thing that forces John out of whatever path he’s on and onto a new one. Since we’re also looking to make John sadder before he’s happy, it should probably be something unpleasant. We should also consider what our main conflict is in the story. Is it man versus man? Man versus nature? Man versus society? In this case (and because I like it), let’s make the conflict between John and himself. So, whatever our inciting incident is, it should be something that John does on his own that causes things to change. Let’s say he finally mouths off at his terrible boss and gets fired.

Let the string of terrible paint drawings continue.
Let the string of terrible paint drawings continue.

So, we’ve got our exposition, we’ve got our inciting incident, and we’ve got our ending. That means that we need our rising action, climax, and falling action. The rising action should be a series of events that leads to the climax, where things suddenly change for our protagonist. So, rising action could be that John doesn’t tell his wife that he’s lost his job. He hides their outstanding bills, pretends to go to work while really just moping in parks or something, and eventually, his house is foreclosed on and the power cut. Now, this furthers the conflict of man versus self, since all of these decisions are in John’s control. He could have told the truth. He could have looked for work. He could have not stopped in the park and cried for three hours to ducks. Instead, through his own actions, he’s made the situation even worse.

You guys are going to get tired of these, I promise.
You guys are going to get tired of these, I promise.

For the climax, something has to happen the shakes John out of his self-destructive spiral. This could be any number of things, but it should be something that leads to the falling action and the resolution. In this case, let’s say that somehow John stumbles into a job. It’s offered to him on a silver platter, and all that’s left is for John to decide to take it. Now, it’s not the perfect job. In fact, it’s more interesting if it’s a job that John doesn’t think he’ll enjoy. If the job is the CEO of a major bank, where John is sure to make lots of money and succeed, then there’s no struggle, and that means it’s boring. So, instead, it needs to be something simple or unappealing. Let’s say a job as a greeter at Walmart. Not glamorous, not fun, but it’s a paycheck that he desperately needs. With no other options, he takes the blue vest and starts immediately.

I switched it up on you. Gotta keep you on your toes.
I switched it up on you. Gotta keep you on your toes.

The falling action is going to be the series of events from the climax to the resolution that takes the character from either the bottom to the top, or from the top to the bottom. In this case, we’re going from bad to good. So John finds out that he loves being a greeter at Walmart. He’s the best greeter they’ve ever had. In fact, he’s so good at his job, he gets a raise and a promotion, just barely managing to scrape up enough cash to save his house and get the power turned back on. And everyone lived happily ever after.

I probably shouldn't have drawn all of these as a straight line, now that I stop and think about it...
I probably shouldn’t have drawn all of these as a straight line, now that I stop and think about it…

Again, this is a very simple example, but it shows you the basics of what you need to do. Determine what your starting and end points are. Find out what the conflict is going to be. Then figure out how low or how high you want to bring your character, and resolve it. You should always be upping the stakes each time you reach a major point in the story. If you don’t have conflict or strife or change, then the plot stagnates and gets boring. There’s a reason cliffhangers are so effective.

With a longer length piece, you’ll want to do this multiple times. Pick your main plot line, then add some subplots for interest. In Burner, the main plot is the murder mystery. However, there’s also a subplot about Kim’s personal growth, another about her relationship with other characters in the novel, and another about her history. All together, these plot lines make up the entire story.

For other approaches to creating plots, I highly recommend the following sites. This article on talks about another way to think about a story’s structure. I used it when tightening the plot of Burner and found it extremely helpful in narrowing the focus of my story. This article on Writer’s Digest describes a more flexible method for generating a plot, in the case where you don’t have a clear idea of where you want your character to be at the end of the story. This plot generator has a series of genres and formats to pick from, and it allows you to enter your own data before generating a story idea. It also generates a pretty basic cover and some fake reviews.

Zob Gloop is not wrong.
Zob Gloop is not wrong.

Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, from his book Save the Cat, is another great example of how to craft a plot. While it’s more directed to screenplays, it’s still a great way to think about your narrative and how it functions. There are also a ton of templates out there that you can use if you don’t feel like making one yourself.

You might also want to consider Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling while crafting your plot. They’re great guidelines for thinking about stories and how to tell them, and can really hone your narrative.

These are just some of the resources available online. You can also learn a lot about plot by looking at other stories and trying to find the five main points of the plot (exposition/inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). You can find examples in novels, short stories, television shows, radio plays or podcasts, really any kind of narrative fiction that’s out there. I would highly recommend looking for it as you consume media. It will hone your own sensibilities and make you more aware of cliches or tropes that should be avoided (I’ll write a post about cliches and tropes that go into some of the more problematic ones).

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I take a series of plot lines and turn them into a novel.

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