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
If 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.
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.
To 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
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.
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 Act: 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 Climax: 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.)
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.
The 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?
- 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?
- What will turn the plot into the final Climactic encounter between the protagonist and the antagonistic force?
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
As 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?
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:
- Should You Outline Your Novel?
- Start Your Outline With These 4 Questions
- 3 Steps to Find the Heart of Your Story
- How to Find and Fill All Your Plot Holes
- 4 Ways to Write Backstory That Matters
- 3 Tips for Weaving Together Your Story’s Pieces
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your process for figuring out how to structure your story’s outline? Tell me in the comments!
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