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How to outline a novel

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten, G.K. Chesterson

Writing is an art, but story or narrative structure, the skeleton of your story, choosing what the audience knows and when they know it, its pinch points, has been refined and studied over the centuries in order to maximize dramatic effect -and it works!

There are many story structures used by writers, such as Freytag’s Pyramid, The Hero’s Journey, The Three Act Structure, Save the Cat Beat Sheet, Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, etc.

A solid story structure is essential to connecting with your readers in the most meaningful way, one that educates, entertains, and/or inspires them. It has the power to move or change emotions and feelings, to inspire, surprise, frighten, delight, or even make them laugh. How to outline a novel

How to outline a novel

 

The Three Act Structure

The Three Act Structure is a storytelling framework, a method of structuring and organizing your story. It is comprised of three acts, a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution.

  1. The hook grabs your readers’ attention, engages their curiosity, and whets their appetite for your story right from the start, leaving them anxious and wanting to read more.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

    Two beautiful girls: One is murdered after a teen party, and the other is accused. The accused girl wakes up with blood on her hands and has no memory of the night before. What really happened?, The Guilty Girl, by Patricia Gibney.

  2. The inciting event or incident sets the conflict into motion. It is the unexpected event in your story or plot that hooks the reader into the story and sets everything else that happens into motion. It is the catalyst for change, a ball of chaos that spins into the story and knocks the protagonist's life out of balance, and _out of their comfort zone where they were feeling happy, secure, comfortable, and totally in control.It creates tension and conflict, and the protagonist is faced with a new problem, dilemma, or challenge that they must overcome. It is a rude and terrible awakening that changes everything.

    “Prim!” I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way, immediately allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me. “I volunteer as tribute!” I gasp, The Hunger Games

  3. The key event is where the protagonist leaves his world, then faces and actively engages with the conflict for the first time and becomes embroiled in your plot. Things have changed dramatically, whether or not our hero really wants to or is yet committed to fully engaging with the conflict is somehow irrelevant. The point is that there is no going back, the old world is gone.

    “I’m a what?" gasped Harry. “A wizard, o’ course,” said Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even lower, “an’ a thumpin’ good’un I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit. With a mum an’ dad like yours, what else would yeh be?” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

    Futhermore, he or she is at least making a choice to do something about it.

  4. The First Plot Point is the point of no return for the main character, it forces the character away from the status quo. Our hero becomes trapped and tangled, unable to return, and forced to get involved in the conflict, whether they want to or not. Typically, it is something that happens to the protagonist, the protagonist is sometimes physically transported to a new place that immediately drives the plot forward, or maybe it is also a consequence of the character’s choice in the key event.

    Well, there you are, boy. Platform nine — platform ten. Your platform should be somewhere in the middle, but they don’t seem to have built it yet, do they?, Vernon Dursley. […] “Is it true?” he said. “They’re saying all down the train that Harry Potter’s in this compartment. So it’s you, is it?” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

  5. The first pinch point is when the protagonist’s forces come up and clash against the antagonist’s forces in the first minor battle. It should be centered around the antagonist’s actions. Readers need to experience the antagonist, feel his actions and power. Besides, it deepens the protagonist’s commitment to the story’s goal, to face the confrontation. An example could be found in the Hunger Games. Katniss, the hero, enters the game and is attacked. She flees and discovers Peeta has not only abandoned her, but joined a group of killers.

  1. The Pre-Midpoint Reactionary Hero. After accepting the call to adventure, our hero has begun the journey toward achieving the story’s goal. However, this journey is quite challenging, the obstacles ahead are enormous and even overwhelming, and their flaws, fears, self-doubts, etc. still weigh very heavy on their minds and souls. The hero is not ready yet, they need to grow and change, make a transition from one stage of life to another, to be able to resolve their challenges. He sometimes hesitates and refuses the conflict in a vain attempt to avoid pain. He is not aware of his power and capacity to change or conquer the new world.

    Unfortunately, the antagonist does not play nice. Of course, he or she is not going to disappear, go away, be reasoned with, and give up without a fight. This pushes our hero into survival mode where every man is for himself/herself, they refuse to stand and fight, but run literally or metaphorically for their lives without a safe place to go or hide, not weighing the cost, nor considering the consequences of their words and actions. In the Hunger Games, Katniss gathers supplies and runs for her life before being discovered and hunted by a group of tributes.

  2. The Game-Changing Midpoint, e.g., a deadline fast approaching, the threat of failure and its terrible consequences, a shocking plot twist that makes them realize they’ve been doing things the wrong way or just a dose of cold, undeniable truth and harsh reality that highlights what the protagonist maybe already knew but needs to accept and overcome. It pushes your protagonist from being reactive to proactive, to engage with the antagonist in a life-changing conflict, putting everything on the line.

    Our heroes become fully committed to the story’s goal. They are offensive rather than defensive, compelling, and ready to go and do anything within their power to overcome their adversary, firmly anchored in the driver’s seat. They show unwavering determination to make it happen no matter what, even if that means sacrificing everything.

    After being hunted and trapped by a fearsome group of Tributes, Katniss takes strong and violent action to escape. This is the game-changing event that convinces her to stop running and start fighting to win the games.

  3. The Post-Midpoint Action Hero sees some important events taken place, the pace of the story feel faster, several significant instances of conflict occur, and protagonists gain confidence in their own abilities, judgement, and power, show true courage, and start developing their charisma and leadership capability.

  4. The second pinch point is going to be the battle for survival, a second turning point or major confrontation designed to emphasize how evil and powerful the antagonist really is. He is going to apply a strong and painful pressure on our hero. The protagonist must once again wrestle with their own flaws, conquer their self-sabotage fears, unhealed wounds, and unresolved traumas. However, this is where we start to see our hero as a better person and they handle adversity and conflict with courage, integrity, and determination.

When Gandalf fall into Moriah (The Hobbit ), leaving the fellowship grieved and leaderless, the plot took a terrible turn: “The Company stood rooted with horror staring into the pit.

‘You shall not pass!’ he said. […] At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness. With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.

You Shall Not Pass

You Shall Not Pass

 

  1. Supposed victory. The hero feels confident about the present and competence, that things will most likely work out. It is a mirage where our protagonist feel very close to achieving their goal, reaching their final destination, and finding happiness at last. However, it is short-lived and looming disaster is quietly unfolding and lurking around the shadows.

  2. Disaster strikes and everything goes wrong, very wrong. The antagonist delivers a fatal blow. The protagonist is utterly defeated by the antagonist. He or she despairs and seems to give up all hope -is everything lost?

    Jane Eyre’s supposed victory is when Jane and Rochester are very close to get married. However, disaster strikes and the secret comes out, Rochester has already a wife who lives at Thornfield.

  3. Dark moment. The disaster completely exposes and disarms our heroes. They are forced to realize that there is no time for excuses, apologies, what-ifs, or bullshit, they are the ones to blame for the whole fiasco, failure, and defeat and no one else. It is the moment of truth, the time to make a choice. They need to rise to the challenge and show their true colors, how far they have come in their growth, what is their true character.

    It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

    Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back. Bilbo Baggins: You can promise that I will come back? Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.

  4. Recovery is where our heroes must face their own flaws, conquer their self-defeating fears, blind spots, internal conflicts, and doubts, and overcome them to continue to the final climax, and by doing so emerge from the ashes with renewed strength, determination, and sense of purpose, serving as an inspiring role model and paving the way for others to follow and fight.

    Even the smallest person can change the course of the future, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

  5. The climactic confrontation is the great finale, the live-or-die, powerful conflict and showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist. It is where the stakes are higher, responsibility is greater, the danger is real and deadly, and the consequences are final. Our heroes fight against all odds, proving their transformation and growth, and facing not just the villains, but their fears, inner struggles, and self-doubts with courage, sacrifice, bravery, and unwavering determination.

  6. Victory. When our protagonist faces the biggest challenge of all, the decisive moment, they overcome the antagonist and achieve their goals. This is the moment that your reader were waiting for, in which good triumphs over evil. Life is good and rosy, everyone rejoices with pride and joy.

  7. The End. The conflict has been resolved. It is the time to figure out how their lives will continue and what physical and emotional scars, if any, they will carry and need to learn to cope with from now on. They may be able to return back home and try to rebuild their lives, but their world and lives will never be the same. Life goes on, but certain things will never go back to how they used to be. There may even be hints or suggestions of a sequel here.

I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin, The Matrix.

Save the cat

This is a variation of the three-act structure.

  1. Opening image. It is an opening snapshot or visual scene that represents the struggle and tone of the story, e.g., this first paragraph informs the readers that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is going to be a completely hilarious science-fiction book from start to finish.

    Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

  2. The Set-up presents the main character’s ordinary world, what is missing in their life, what they really want.

  3. Theme Stated. It happens during the set-up, it hints what the story is all really about. It is a truth spoken to the main character, but they cannot understand or accept it just yet. They will discover it by the end, they need some personal experience, to grow from challenges, failures, and setbacks, or maybe some context or perspective, e.g., Katness meets Gale in the woods and he taught her the truth, her journey is not just about survival, it’s about rebellion, standing up against injustice.

    We could do it, you know. Take off, live in the woods. It’s what we do anyway, The Hunger Games.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, Pride and Prejudice.

  4. Catalyst is the inciting event, a ball of chaos that wreaks havoc in anything it touches, where life as it is completely changes, the old world is collapsing and disappearing. Change is underway and there is no turning back from it.

    “Prim!” I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way, immediately allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me. “I volunteer as tribute!” I gasp, The Hunger Games

  5. Debate. The hero refuses the call to adventure because of fear, doubts, and insecurities. They try to avoid the conflict. The change is scary and difficult, adversaries are powerful, deceptive, wealthy, and/or fierce, risks are high, walls and obstacles are very challenging, and they pretty much doubt the journey they must take (Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? Is it worth it?). It is the last chance for them to hesitate, chicken out, and run for their lives.

    “Drink up,” said Ford, “you’ve got three pints to get through.” “Three pints?” said Arthur. “At lunchtime?” The man next to ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” Ford is trying to explain to his pal that the bulldozing of his house doesn’t really matter because the world is going to end, but Arthur does not believe him.

    [They both take deep breaths and speak at once.] Hiccup/Stoick: I’ve decided I don’t want to fight dragons/I think it’s time you learn to fight dragons. [beat] What? Stoick: Uh, you go first. Hiccup: No, no, you go first. Stoick: Alright. You get your wish. Dragon Training. You start in the morning. Hiccup: Oh man, I should have gone first!, How to Train your Dragon

  6. Break into Two. The hero makes a choice, takes a decision. It will put the plot in motion. It is where the hero’s journey really begins, it acts as a catalyst for the hero to leave his ordinary world behind, e.g., Neo decides to take the blue pill over the red pill.

    This your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more, The Matrix.

  7. B Story. A romantic subplot kicks in, a blossoming romance side plot that adds depth and emotional appeal. Although it is not part of the main plot of Batman saving Gotham, his relationship with Rachel is clearly very important in humanizing the hero, making it closer to the audience, and creating inner conflicts in his objectives. The B story character, such as a love interest, a mentor, a friend, exists to help your hero embrace his destiny or purpose. In the Matrix, Trinity gives Neo strength and courage to believe that he’s the chosen one.

  8. The Promise of the Premise or fun and games. This is a highly romantic or exciting section where the audience is entertained and have some fun. These are the scenes that the audience was waiting to watch in the movie. In Bruce Almighty, Bruce has lots of fun with his new God’s powers and the audience enjoy watching him. Peter Parker jumps, flips, and swings from the rooftops of New York City.

  9. Midpoint. Fun and games are over, it leads our readers back to the main story plot-line. A plot twist occurs where the stakes are raised, it is either a false/fake victory or a false/fake defeat. Morpheus takes Neo to meet The Oracle. She asks him if the thinks he’s the “One”, and New answers, “I’m not the one.” And the Oracle replies, “I am sorry kid.”

  10. Bad Guys Close In. The hero’s doubts, fears, and obstacles become greater. Their enemies regroup to fight him and tighten their grip. The hero’s plan fall apart and he is on the back foot, trying to deal with events that are spiraling out of control, backed into a corner. He is on his own, he must resist and stay strong. Back to The Matrix, Cypher betrays his friends and allows the agents to capture Morpheus.

  11. All is lost. Everything looks dark and bleak. The hero loses everything he’s gained so far. He is overpowered by the villain, his mentor dies or his girlfriend has an argument with him and they break up. This is the stage where mentors go to die, heroes hit rock bottom, and nothing worse can really happen to them. Back to The Hunger Games, this is when Rue is shot down by a spear and dies.

  12. Dark Night of the Soul. The hero or main character hits rock bottom and wallows in despair and inner conflict. He is pushed to the limits. He is hopeless, tired, defeated, clueless, drunk, and stupid. In the Titanic, Jack knows he cannot survive if he stays in the water but sacrifices his position on a floating piece of debris to give Rose a chance to live.

  13. Break into Three. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, inspiration occurs, hope is rekindled, information that reveals what the hero needs to do emerges, his courage to pursue his goals returns, and he decides to take action. In Matrix, Neo takes arms to save Morpheus from the agents and Trinity insists on going with him.

  14. Finale. The story goal is pursued once more and the hero confronts the villain, but this time lessons have been learned. There is a stronger, wiser, and more mature version of the hero, the one that has acquired and also incorporates the nugget of truth into the fight, allowing them to defeat their antagonists, conquer their inner conflicts, and resolve their goals.

  15. Final Image. It provides a final snapshot of life after the story, a new world opening up for the hero. Besides, there is also a five-point finale (Save the cat, The Hunger Games Book/Movie Beat Sheet Comparison).

A follow up of this article is available here, How to outline a novel II (with Scrivener).

Bibliography

  1. The Novel Smithy
  2. Well-Storied, Story Structure.
  3. reedsyblog, Story Structure: 7 Narrative Structures All Writers Should Know.
  4. Save the cat.
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