Choosing Your Outline Method
Updated: Oct 11
Being a Plantser (Plotter/Pantser) I never get far in outlines. Or if I do, once I start writing, it all changes.
BUT I love at least figuring out the plot points and writing ideas down.
And outlines are super handy for challenges like NaNoWriMo.
Below is how I've outlined various books, and then the different methods you can use.
Have fun outlining!
How I Outline:
I have a general idea of where my MC starts off, the inciting incident, the climax, and the end. I write those down using the Save the Cat beat sheet and brainstorm the other beats/plot points. I write linearly and don't like to skip scenes, although I have done it when I just can't figure a scene out.
Previously I've tried the 3 Act Structure (which Save the Cat uses the bones of), and the skeletal outline, in which I just list a bunch of scenes out. The skeletal outline helps me figure out where I need more of something, or if there are any plot holes. Laying it out like that also helps with chapter summaries, which later helps with your synopsis.
I also keep a notebook or use a word doc to jot scenes and ideas down. More often then not, the scenes come to me as I'm writing. The downside of that is remembering what I'm creating, so I've started to fill out an outline as I'm writing, or making a comment in my word document about the world, character, or whatever, that I need to remember later.
Various Outline Options Listed Below:
Save the Cat Beat Sheet
3 Act Structure
Save the Cat Beat Sheet
My favorite! This was adapted from Blake Snyder's screen play outline, and Jessica Brody turned it into a tool for writing novels. I highly recommend the book and using note cards or Trello for your scenes. Save the Cat follows the 3 Act Structure but delves a little deeper.
There's also a calculator to help you stay on target percentage or page number wise.
3 Act Structure
The 3 Act Structure is the most known of the outlines. We learn this in school, it’s most typical in screenplays. I feel like this structure is the gateway outline. It’s a great starting point. And even when you try other outlines, somehow your story typically turns into the 3 Act Structure. It’s very detailed, and I’ve included many graphics for visual reference. I’ll let them do the descriptions of each point.
This method is easy to break up into percentages of your word count. The first and final quarter of your book are 25% each, and the middle makes up the 50%. Sometimes people create the 4 Act Structure which breaks the Second Act into 2 parts.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is a full circle story- they’ll end up back where they started but changed from the experience. It can follow a 3 or 4 act structure. The 4 acts are: Hero leaves their ordinary world; Hero experiences Death & Rebirth; Hero is initiated into their new life; Hero returns home, permanently changed.
The 3 acts would be broken up like so:
Act 1: Introduce the hero & his/her world. Something or someone gives the hero a call to action and refuses it. The hero then encounters a mentor or supernatural aid and accepts the call to action into another world. Rising action- series of actions moving the hero toward their goal while facing setbacks from the antag; they’re in the reactive phase. Characters can help them along this phase with info and such.
Act 2: Death & Rebirth cycle (the old hero dies and a new one is formed from the challenge). Takes place between 50%-75% of the story. The hero learns a new truth about themselves or the world. They must face and overcome their flaw that’s holding them back. Afterwards, they must apologize to the other characters for what their flaw did to them.
Act 3: The hero returns to their normal world but their perception of it or themselves makes them form a new ‘normal’ world. The hero is also rewarded for their journey & feat. Can tie up loose ends and show the hero in their new normal.
Story Circle is based off The Hero's Journey and focuses on your Character's Arc. For this you draw a circle and divide it in half vertically, and then divide the circle again horizontally. Create your own circle based on this picture.
1. A character is in a zone of comfort
2. But they want something
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. They adapt to it
5. They get what they wanted
6. They pay a heavy price for it
7. Then they return to their familiar situation
8. But they've changed from the journey
The Freytag Model
This model is similar to the hero’s journey, and the three-act structure, but not as complex. There’s a structure model to follow, but it leaves the details to the writer. There’s no percentage or set word count to have in each of the 5 sections, so you can have more freedom with that. With this model you’re making note of the over-arching sections of your story.
This model aims at creating an exposition or introduction (setting the stage); rising action, or development of conflict; climax; falling action (the response to this conflict); and denouement (the resolution and tying up of loose ends).
With these 5 sections written out, you can see how your story will fit together, and what details you need to fill in the story.
In a synopsis, you basically write out the plot of your novel. You don’t have formal structure until after you’ve written the synopsis. It’s more informal and free flow, you’re essentially just telling your story. You can include notes/ramblings in this first jot down.
If you’re going to query agents and publishers, most want a synopsis, so this way, you already have that step down! Granted, you’ll probably need to tighten it up (get rid of notes/ramblings) and make it more hard hitting.
This can be a tool for your first draft. You’re essentially expanding between each sentence you wrote, fleshing it out, and creating a viable story line outline. This outline works well for shorter stories.
During this method you’ll figure out what elements- setting, characters, conflicts, mysteries, etc,- drive your story. And if you haven’t figured those elements out, writing out the synopsis will help.
The Skeletal Outline
The skeletal outline, is the bones of your story…get it? You can sort of take any model to base this outline off of, but basically you’ll start with your plot points. Bulletpoints work best for this, but do whatever style suits you.
Write out your plot points: Plot point 1, kicks the story off. Plot point 2 is the midpoint, the turning point in story. Plot point 3, main character’s (MC) lowest low (before the climax). Plot Point 4, how the MC wins & resolution. In a 70k-90k word count, aim for 15 1,500 word scenes in act 1, 30 1,500 scenes in act 2, and 15 1,500 word scenes in act 3.
Write out what needs to happen between your plot points: Minor plot points/scenes. Each plot point scene will be about 1500 words in a 70k-90k word count.
Look over your plot points/scenes, is this enough to make a book? How can you flesh it out?
Skeletal outline gives a birds-eye view, it’s easy to spot weak points, or scenes you need to do differently.
The snowflake outline is one way to outline out of many. It’s a great outline to use when you have a single idea for your story because it’s an expanding outline.
You write down a one sentence summary of your story. This is essentially your hook for the book, so make it good.
You then turn that sentence into a full paragraph with the story set up, plot points, and ending. You’ll want 5 sentences.
Sentence 1 is the story set up.
Sentence 2-4 is each disaster/conflict plot point.
Sentence 5 is the ending.
Now we expand even more. Dig into each of your characters and write a summary that states their name, motivation, goal, conflict, and how they’ll handle that conflict. What their character arc will be.
Continue expanding to the level of detail you need. For pantsers it’s less, for plotters it’s more. You can expand to character sheets and world building sheets. Whatever you need to make writing your story easier.
That's the list of the most frequently used outlining methods. I hope this helps you in your plotting and drafting. Good luck!
For more helpful tips, check out my YouTube Channel.