Ah, the dreaded outline–aka plot synopsis. An invaluable aid in organizing a story before commencing the actual manuscript, and a requirement in marketing any manuscript to potential agents or publishers … yet how many inexperienced writers panic or hit dead ends in creating one?
When appealed to for help, it’s easy for an experienced writer to shrug and say, “Just put it together chronologically from start to finish.”
But there’s a bit more to it than that. Let’s consider a few tips. (Any repetition in the following points is deliberate and for emphasis.)
- Understand that a story idea or premise is not the same thing as a plot. You may have thought up a terrific concept. You may have devised a highly imaginative setting. You may be able to envision what your protagonist looks like. All of that is great, but those elements do not add up to a plot. Until you have an actual plot in mind, you cannot write an outline of it.
- To create a plot from your idea, you need the following elements: a protagonist that will serve as the most important character in the story; an objective for your protagonist that is specific and potentially obtainable; a foe for your protagonist to serve as the story’s antagonist or villain; and some idea of how, when, and where the story will end.
- It’s important that your protagonist character be an active individual. Your protagonist should not be remote, isolated, held prisoner, or someone to be rescued by other characters. In other words, your protagonist should not be someone living exiled on a distant island with all your other characters trying to effect a rescue. No, your protagonist should be the bloke hired to guide a group of adventurers deep into uncharted territory in order to save a person in need of rescue. Your protagonist is the character doing the primary work.
- You must create a villain. For some reason, bad guys tend to be overlooked by inexperienced writers. I’m not asking you to like them or defend their dastardly actions, but villains serve a vital purpose in making stories work. You need someone that actively tries to oppose the protagonist or stand in his or her way. And the stronger your villain, the better your story will be. Why? Because opposition challenges your protagonist, tests your protagonist, and forces your protagonist to become stronger and more heroic as the story progresses.
- Testing your protagonist is the whole point of writing a story. Fiction isn’t about creating a new system of magic, or evoking the desert sands of the Sahara. It’s about changing a protagonist from an ordinary person into a hero. Or in giving a naturally heroic person a place in which to shine.
- The end of a story–its climax–should be dramatic and dynamic. It’s the big showdown between hero and villain. It’s where your protagonist will resolve his or her story problem. It’s where your story is headed from page one. It should demonstrate in action (or words) who and what your protagonist really is made of, and your protagonist should defeat the villain.
- Take time to think through these elements carefully. Until you have all of them, you aren’t ready to start outlining.
- The outline should start at the point where your protagonist becomes actively involved in a problem, challenge, or dilemma. You can call this in medias res (in the middle of things) or you can think of it as the change in circumstances that forces the protagonist to take action. Outlines should not open with heavy descriptions of the setting or long explanations of what’s led up to the problem itself.
- From start to finish, you then summarize what will happen as your protagonist takes his or her first action to solve the story problem or reach the story objective–and is directly opposed by the villain. That first encounter is a roadblock. The protagonist will have to figure out a way to move past it and try again. Again, villain will oppose hero, forcing another, more daring, attempt. Step by step, in sequential order, summarize what happens through attempt and block, attempt and block, until the end. Your story involves dramatizing how your protagonist is forced from his or her comfort zone into taking progressively larger risks.
- Don’t be coy. You will not entice an editor’s curiosity by leaving out a critical event. An outline is no place for tricks. Include all the major turning points of the story. Will the outline read as dry and flat? Yes. Will it illustrate your talent for lyrical prose? No. (Nor should it.) Should it indicate that you have an active, sympathetic protagonist pursuing a clear, specific goal despite direct opposition from a villain? Yes.