How to Structure Your Story’s Outline (How to Outline for NaNoWriMo, Pt. 7)

The Nanowrimo Guide to Outlining (How to Structure Your Story's Outline)Story outline and story structure—are they different terms describing the same thing? This is a question I frequently receive, and the answer is, “No, they’re completely different concepts and tools.” But learning how to structure your story’s outline is a crucial part of the preparation process.

So what’s the difference between outlining and structuring?

Outlining is a process, in which you brainstorm your entire story.

Structuring is a technique, by which you employ accepted theories of storytelling to give your story its best shape and form.

To return to one of my favorite analogies, we might say outlining is creative while structuring is logical.

This is why the outline is the perfect place to structure your story. When you use both together, they balance each other with their blend of strengths.

When to Structure Your Story’s Outline

Outlining Your Novel 500If structure is one of the most important factors in the success of a story, you’d think it would make sense to start your outline by figuring out the structure of your Three Acts. But, as you can see, I’ve waited until deep into the outlining process—seven posts into our series, almost the very end—before bringing in structure.

Why?

Because you can’t find the right structure for your story until you actually know your story. Outlining is about so much more than just structure. Outlining is about brainstorming multiple possibilities, getting to know your characters, and harmonizing your plot, character, and theme lines. You can’t choose the right plot points and pinch points for your story until you can see the overall shape of your story’s iceberg rising from the sea.

As you work through your outline’s General Sketches (which is the section of the outline we’ve dissected in the previous six posts in this series), you should certainly be aware of your story’s possible structure. You should be on the watch for the major plot points and developments that arise as you learn about your story’s exciting moments. But don’t try to impose a structure on your plot yet.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook 200To force structure on a story at too early a stage is inevitably to force the story itself. This tendency is the chief reason some authors feel story structure (and outlines) create passionless, cookie-cutter stories. You don’t want to impose structure on your story; you want to allow the story to find its own structure, so you can then strengthen it.

This is why I never consciously write out my story’s structure until about halfway through the General Sketches. At that point, I know enough about the story to identify at least half  its major structural beats. From there, I’ll spend the rest of the General Sketches filling in the blanks and searching for the rest of the missing beats. The farther I get into the outline, the more structured it becomes.

How to Structure Your Main Plot in the Outline

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

First, the basics. We could spend years discussing the finer points of story theory and structure (and, indeed, I’ve already written several books on the subject, including Structuring Your Novel). But the foundational structural elements you’ll want to be aware of in outlining your novel are as follows.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logoYou can also use the Story Structure Skeleton feature in the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software to help you work through your story’s important structural moments.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook Computer Program Story Structure Skeleton

The Most Important Elements of Story Structure

The First Act: which spans from the 1% mark to the 25% mark and presents the foundational period of setup for the story to follow.

The Hook: the opening moment that grabs reader curiosity.

The Inciting Event: which officially kicks off the plot and usually begins halfway through the First Act at the 12% mark.

The Key Event: which officially engages the protagonist in the events of the plot and which usually occurs at the First Plot Point.

The First Plot Point: which marks the end of the First Act and the end of the story’s setup in the character’s “Normal World.” It occurs around the 25% mark.

The First Half of the Second Act: which spans from the 25% mark to the 50% mark. This notes a period of reaction for the protagonist, in which he tries to cope with the events of the First Plot Point.

The First Pinch Point: which occurs at the 37% mark and is a reminder of the antagonistic force’s power and a setup for the Midpoint.

The Midpoint: which occurs at the 50% mark and is a moment of revelation for the protagonist as he comes into a clearer understanding of the true nature of the conflict.

The Second Half of the Second ActStructuring Your Novel Workbook: which spans from the 50% to the 75% marks. This is a period of action for the protagonist. Armed with his new understanding, found at the Midpoint, he can now take the action right to the antagonistic force.

The Second Pinch Point: which occurs at the 62% mark, halfway through the Second Half of the Second Act. Like the First Pinch Point, it is an emphasis or reminder of the antagonistic force and a set up for the Third Plot Point.

The Third Plot Point: which is a moment of seeming defeat for the protagonist and takes place around the 75% mark.

The Third Act: which is the final quarter of the book, spanning from the 75% mark to the end, and in which the conflict is finally resolved, one way or another.

The Climax5 Secrets of Story Structure: which starts halfway through the Third Act, around the 88% mark and is heralded by a final turning point that pits the protagonist against the antagonistic force in the final battle.

The Climactic Moment: which occurs at the end of the Climax and is the true ending of the story, the moment when the conflict is finally resolved.

The Resolution: which ends the story with a final scene or two to tie up the loose ends.

(For myriad examples of how all these elements play out in popular books and movies, check out the Story Structure Database.)

Story Structure Database Screenshot

3 Steps to Identifying Your Story’s Structure

Once you’re deep enough into your brainstorming to have a general idea of your plot, you can use the following three steps to bring your story’s structure into focus.

1. Examine the Existing Story for Obvious Beats

Take a look at what you already know about your story. By now, you should already have a good grasp of the skeleton of your plot, the heart of your character arcs and themes, as well as your backstory and potential plot holes. You know a lot about this story. You know where your characters start out and where they end up.

So how do they get there? How do they move from Point A to Point Z?

Start by identifying the “big” scenes. Which scenes offer the trademark set-piece action for your story, the moments readers will remember most vividly after they close the book? Even more importantly, which scenes offer events that turn the plot in dramatic ways?

Start by looking for your major plot points:

1. The First Plot Point: a point of no return in which the protagonist engages irrevocably with the main conflict.

2. The Midpoint: the centerpiece of your entire story, which must feature a revelation that gives your protagonist new insight into the plot and allows him to shift from the reaction of the first half of the story and into action in the second half.

3. The Third Plot Point: the low moment of the entire story, in which your protagonist faces down death (literally, figuratively, or both).

These three are your most important scenes. Your entire story pivots around them. Once you have these cornerstone posts in place, it becomes comparatively easy to discover the rest of your story’s structure by implication.

Usually, you won’t have to look very hard for these scenes. They should pop right out at you. They’re big, they’re game-changing, and usually they’ll be the scenes you’re most excited about writing. If you can’t yet find these major structural posts, then it’s likely you don’t yet know enough about your story to focus on completing the rest of its structure.

If you’re having trouble finding any of these plot points, ask yourself:

1. What forces your protagonist to leave his Normal World and fully engage with the conflict?

2. At what point, in the middle of the story, does your character begin shifting into a place of empowerment in both his inner and outer journeys?

3. What scene completely knocks your protagonist’s feet out from under him and makes him wonder if he has the strength to go on?

And while you’re at it, also ask yourself:

4. Can you make any of these bigger, more interesting, and with higher stakes?

These plot points define your story. If they’re not big and impressive, your story won’t be either.

2. Write a List and Make Note of the Missing Pieces

As you start discovering the specific pieces of your story’s structure, make a list. List all your major structural beats on the left side of a piece of paper, then fill out the right side with the scenes you feel meet the respective requirements.

Storming Outline TranscriptThe blanks will pop out. You may be able to fill in some of them right away. Others you can make a guess at for now. And still others will provide you the next round of questions you need to ask to start connecting the dots between your major plot points, so that you can create a seamless plot.

3. Brainstorm Answers to Fill in the Gaps

Just as you did in the earlier sections of the General Sketches, you’ll now return to the technique of asking yourself lots of questions on the page. What needs to happen to fill in the blanks between your known plot points?

For example:

  • How will your protagonist first brush the main conflict at the Inciting Event? How will he (or a proxy) initially reject the Call to Adventure?
  • How will your protagonist react to the events of the First Plot Point?
  • What pinches from the antagonistic force will provide new clues and turn the conflict on either side of the Midpoint?
  • What seeming victory will occur right before the low moment of the Third Plot Point?
  • How will the character react to the tragedy of the Third Plot Point?

Always keep in mind that none of these structural beats exists in isolation. One must always build off those that preceded it and into those that follow. Always ask yourself: How does this plot beat affect the next one?

Keep asking and answering until you completely fill out your structural checklist.

How to Structure Your Character Arcs

Creating Character ArcsAs you know by now, structure and character arcs are integrally linked (which I talk about in my new book Creating Character Arcs). Your character’s inner conflict will mirror the structure of the plot’s outer conflict—and, indeed, be integrally related to and affected by it. As you’re mapping out the plot’s structure, you also want to be thinking about your characters’ arcs.

When you identify an important beat in your plot, ask yourself: How does this fulfill the requirements of the character arc? How do the inner and outer conflicts affect each other to create this beat?

For example, at the Midpoint, the character will experience a plot-based revelation that gives him insight into the antagonistic force and allows him to start taking control of the conflict. But he must also experience a personal Moment of Truth, within his character arc, that shows him the power of the Truth he’s been avoiding up to this point. Sometimes these two will require separate beats, or sometimes one revelation will lead into the other. But you always want them to be two sides of the same coin. Optimally, the character shouldn’t be able to have one revelation without the other.

Follow this same pattern as you outline all your structural moments. How is the outer conflict driving the character’s inner journey—and vice versa? As you’re listing your structural beats, note the character arcs beats right alongside them.

How to Structure Subplots

What about subplots? Should you also structure them in the outline?

Definitely.

We can loosely define subplots as the independent journeys of secondary characters, in which the protagonist may or may not be deeply involved. They should exist in a story only to drive the main plot and/or provide contrast and complexity to the main theme. This means they must be integral to the main structure.

Fortunately, they’re easy to outline. Identify any major characters or plotlines who follow a slightly different course from the protagonist. For example, in my portal fantasy sequel work-in-progress Dreambreaker, I’m featuring three POV characters—the protagonist, Chris; the female lead, Allara; and a sidekick character, a Cherazim named Thorne. Each of these characters will be following their own arcs and thus have their own subplots within the story. This means they each need to have their journeys appropriately influenced by the main structural beats.

Once you’ve identified your subplots/characters, take a look at their roles within the main structural beats. If they are present or involved in these moments in the story, how will their character arcs will be appropriately affected by them? How will the protagonist’s arc affect the minor characters’ arcs at these points?

If the subplot characters are not involved in the main structural beats, you’ll have to create independent beats for them. But these beats must be either influencers of or influenced by the main beats. Otherwise, you have to ask yourself if the subplot is, in fact, pertinent to the story.

Figuring out how to structure your story’s outline is perhaps the single biggest step in the entire outlining process. This is why you’ll spend a good chunk of time building up to this step, so you can make the most educated decisions possible about your story. Once you’ve completed your structure, you will have gained a complete big-picture view of your story. You will have completed the General Sketches. From here, you’re almost ready to start constructing your scene outline!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’re going to talk about the last step before your scene outline: character sketches.

Previously in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your process for figuring out how to structure your story’s outline? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Eric Troyer says:

    This is really helpful. I also just finished reading your outline of “Storming.” Seeing how you apply story structure theory to a real work is very enlightening. I’m finally getting back to writing and am excited to apply all this to my own work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed Storming‘s outline transcript. Outlining can actually be a hard thing to explain. Sometimes the best way to understand it is to see it in action.

  2. Well, I tried. It’s a pity nobody told my characters to keep to the plot points.

    Seriously, something like your structure does come out in my novels. It’s not ever exactly that, but if it was strictly according to formula would it be even vaguely interesting?

    Incidentally both of the Jane novels have a complete arc, but so does the composite story as a whole, so we have two “Third Plot Points”, one in each volume. The first is when Jane is kneeling beside the body of her dead lover. The second is when she realises that she has won, but thinks that it is at the cost of her own life. Jane and Arthur (antagonist) are in a small spaceship which is about to crash into the sun:

    For a moment there was a different expression on Arthur’s face—almost a hint of regret. ‘Jane, do you think we go somewhere afterwards?’
    ‘Afterlife? I haven’t a clue. I just hope I’ll see Alan again—I want to say sorry.’ There was a bang under the deck. ‘That was the first big piece going. No, Arthur, I’m happy. I’ve stopped you killing people, and I’ve stopped you getting the drive.’
    ‘You—You damned woman.’
    Jane smiled. ‘Thank you, I see you appreciate my talents at last. But I’ve no regrets. Or just one. I’d hoped that they’d bury me near Alan so that we could be together in the end. My only sadness is that there’ll be nothing for them to bury—Alan’s going to be alone for all time. And I’ll be part of a star that’s barely visible in his sky. Can you hear that?’
    There was a faint murmuring, as of mice scuttling around under the deck.
    ‘Something’s beginning to boil. Probably what’s left of the heat shielding. I’d guess about three minutes now.’

    (Of course she survives, and readers who have been paying close attention to the tech stuff just have enough clues to work out how.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The reason story structure works and is important is because it is deeply ingrained into the way humans see and experience the world. The good part of this for writers is that most of us are already instinctively incorporating structural principles into our stories. A conscious understanding of those principles then allows us to strengthen the bits we’re already doing right and correct those that are falling short. Structure doesn’t create a formulaic journey (unless you’re forcing it onto the story, instead of letting the story “find” its own structure).

      • I think we are in agreement on this one. Certainly I’d agree about instinctively incorporating the principles. Also I’d agree about the story finding its structure.

        I’ll say now what I ought to have said in the beginning. Thanks for the blog post, it’s helped me to rethink what I am doing.

        I tend to outline progressively. I start off with perhaps three or four points on the plot arc, and then fill in the gaps. I can’t do a complete pantser without getting lost, but the detail only emerges as I write. I know where I want to get to at the end of each set of chapters, but the route to get there isn’t planned too far in advance.

        For example I knew that after Alan died that Jane would have problems being accepted as a Space Fleet officer again, everyone would think she was too traumatised to go on as before. I also knew that she would do an outrageous stunt to get back.

        What the stunt actually was I didn’t know until I got to writing the passage.

        Anyway, thanks again for making me think.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Actually, this is very much makes me think of my process in the actual outlining stage: knowing a few landmarks and then figuring out how to fill in the space in between. Kinda goes back to my theory about how we all pants and outline–just at different stages of the process.

  3. You joked elsewhere that en engine was a foreign language… and there are times I feel the same way about outlining/structure. I hear what you’re saying, but like trying to comprehend advanced physics or the popularity of Frozen, it evades me.

    Over the weekend I re-watched Finding Nemo and was surprised to actually recognize a couple of set-up/payoff elements. So, I tried looking for the midpoint halfway through the movie, didn’t see it. Later on, I checked the Story Structure Database to see the breakdown and was surprised to see you mention what the Inciting Event was and that it was early, as well as what you said was the midpoint for both Marlin and Nemo… which I thought fell a bit later than the midpoint of the movie.

    The plots and subplots of the two main characters Marlin and Nemo are different until the tank crew hears that Marlin is trying to find Nemo when the two sides work toward that common goal (seems they were trying to escape before but not so much to get Nemo home as it was just to get back to the ocean (for Gil).

    So, plot is Marlin finding Nemo and bringing him home, and subplot making it to Sydney?? And for Nemo, escaping the tank (getting back to the ocean) subplot escaping Darla??? And then there’s theme… arrgh!! oh no, Let It Go just popped into my head! I just don’t get it!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, Nemo‘s structure is a bit of a mess, which was interesting for me when I analyzed it for the Story Structure Database–because it made me realize this one of the reasons this movie has always been one of my least favorite of the Pixar films (even before I understood story structure). Finding Nemo would not be my top recommendation for studying story structure. (On the other hand, Iron Man is a really good study. It has a simple, but very tight and complex structure.)

      • lol.. that’s great! Just when I think I’m starting to pick up a little of the language I find out I’m learning slang from a questionable source.

        Thank you for the link/recommendation, I’ll have to find the movie someplace as I haven’t seen it since it’s theatrical release and need to refresh my memory. In the meantime I’ll re-read your Marvel series article on it as well.

  4. Thanks for putting all of this in one place. Outlining is still difficult for me since I find pantsing more fun, but it’s so imp0rtant to plan ahead or the novel just doesn’t go anywhere.

    As for how I outline, I tend to just use the “feels right” method and then compare that to a more structured 3-act after the first draft.

  5. I’m just about to finish my draft for NaNoWriMo and move into the editing process. I made an outline of scenes before November 1, from which I’ve been writing, but in the back of my mind, as I was writing, I knew things were missing, weren’t as rich as I wanted them to be, weren’t going to deliver the story in my mind. This article provides important insight into that issue for me. I can’t wait to finish the last 8K words of my novella so I have the time to go back and draw my structure according to these guidelines and see where I need to fill in and beef up. I have my plot points. You’re helping me recognize the gooey yummy stuff that feeds them properly. Thank you so much. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Gooey yummy” is exactly right! Structure is such a game-changing, mind-blowing realization when it finally clicks into place. It makes everything about writing that much better!

  6. The last month or so, since I began using plot points, I can’t express how blessed I feel having come across KM. Writing is fun again. I love wha I do. I see a future with words. Can’t wait to start my next novel and undertake it from outlining to hiring editorial help. I have leaned so much. Katie, you really should teach an online novel writing class. You’d have knocking on your door. Including me. Thanks so much, Katie.

  7. “…knowing a few landmarks and then figuring out how to fill in the space in between. ”

    This is what I do, drilling deeper for the details as I get closer to each part of the story.

    Here’s an example of one detail I’m trying to work out. My Second Act is when Joe & Hannah are together as a couple, but a secret one as there’s is a forbidden relationship. I’ve decided on the crisis that breaks them apart and moves it into the Third Act, and would be hard pressed to change it now. Meanwhile, I wonder how long could they realistically keep their relationship from their parents? I allowed three months, but wrote out a first draft of a scene where Joe’s mom gets suspicious and confronts him. It works great with what comes before, but I have a hard time connecting ti with what I want to come later. In order to get to the next plot point, Mom needs to not share this with her sister, and I know that might be hard to accept – even if she does tell her son, “But you can’t be having sx! If you get caught you could go to jail.” I want to make the situation for the couple as swell as possible before it all falls apart, and this would be an early crack. Problems, problems. Great scene, and I still may have to chuck it.

    Spoiler – He breaks his promise and they get intimate one more time. Then she gets pregnant. Of course, he brought it all on himself (we have to be mean to our characters!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It all comes down to the logical progression. I’m trying to figure that out in the scene I’m currently outlining. How to logically get the character from the last scene to the important next scene.

      • I think I’m good at developing those logical connections, but this one has been sitting there, bugging me.

        Writing this today made me brainstorm it for the last hour or so. They can’t keep it from their parents forever. I can’t expect Joe’s mom not to tell her sister. Therefor, I think I have to let them come out. “Let us be the ones to tell Aunt Janet.”

        Right now I’m visualizing the stunned look on Aunt Janet’s face as she receives the news. That would require a very grudging acceptance with close supervision. It lasts 2 or 3 weeks. Then the icy stares.

        This might work!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Whenever other characters are stunned, that’s usually a good scene!

          • Stunned melting into burning anger.

            “I trusted you – she is my baby!” (Hannah’s younger sister) Donna coughed. My aunt glanced at her, and then at her husband as he turned and left the room.

            So much subtext too.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I applaud subtext. 🙂

  8. As this is a post on structure, I thought it would be appropriate to ask: What do you think of the structure of Villette, by Charlotte Bronte?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s been so long since I’ve read it, I can’t really say. Jane Eyre‘s structure is spot-on, so I would presume Villette‘s was as well.

  9. Thanks for this outlining series, it’s incredibly helpful – as is everything else you most generously provide on this site.

    I have one small request; would it be possible for you to identify the Hook and Key Event in future additions to the Story Structure Database ? I find the hook hard to pin down at times, so multiple examples would definitely help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ll try to mention the Key Event more frequently, although often, if I don’t delineate it, it’s because it’s basically one and the same as the First Plot Point in question. As for the Hook, it is almost always the very first scene (or should be, if it’s not).

  10. Fantastic, informative article with spot-on, succinct guidelines. I will have this at the ready for every outline, and also as a writing checklist to review during edits and revisions. Endless thanks.

  11. “Don’t try to assimilate advice just because someone says it with conviction. Use your own experiences and understanding to collect the bits that work for you and to incorporate them into your own process in the most meaningful way.”

    This sounds like a character arc! From mindlessly obeying others to making one’s own decisions.

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