by Glen Strathy
Here’s an easy way to come up with a brief plot outline for your novel.
One of the most powerful secrets to creating plots that are emotionally compelling is to incorporate the 8 Basic Plot Elements. Starting with your story idea, you only need to make eight choices to ensure the plot of your future novel hangs together in a meaningful way.
The best part is that you can make these choices and construct a brief plot outline in less than an hour.
Sound intriguing? Then let’s get started.
I’ll describe each of the eight elements in turn. If you already have an idea for a novel you’re working on, get a pad of paper or your writer’s notebook. As you read through the rest of this page, jot down ideas for how each element might work in your story. At the end, I’ll show you how to use your choices to create a brief, well-rounded plot outline for your novel. If you don’t have an idea for a novel yet, just grab one from your imagination. It doesn’t have to be good. It’s just an exercise after all.
On the other hand, if you already have a draft for a novel, that you’re looking to revise, then ask yourself, as we go through these elements, whether you have included them in your story. Create a plot outline for your novel in the way suggested below. You may find you can strengthen your novel plot considerably by incorporating any plot element you neglected before.
The first element to include in your plot outline is the Story Goal, which we covered in detail in the previous article, The Key to a Solid Plot: Choosing a Story Goal. To summarize, the plot of any story is a sequence of events that constitute an attempt to solve a problem or attain a goal. The Story Goal is, generally speaking, what your protagonist wants to achieve or the problem he/she wants to resolve. It is also the goal/problem that involves or affects most, if not all the other characters in the story. It is “what the story is all about.”
For instance, let’s say we want to write a story about a 38-year-old female executive who has always put off having a family for the sake of her career and now finds herself lonely and regretting her choices. In this case, we might choose to make the Story Goal for her to find true love before it’s too late.
There are many ways we could involve other characters in this goal. For instance, we could give our protagonist …
… a mother who wants her to be happier.
… friends and colleagues at her company who are also unmarried and lonely (so that her success might inspire them).
… a jealous ex-boyfriend who tries to sabotage her love life.
… an elderly, lonely spinster of an aunt who doesn’t want the protagonist to make the same mistake she did.
… a happy young family who give her an example of what she has missed.
… a friend who married and divorced, and is now down on marriage. (Forcing the protagonist to work out whether her friend’s experience really applies to her – or whether it was just a case of choosing the wrong partner, or bad luck.)
We could even make the company where the protagonist works in danger of failing because it doesn’t appreciate the importance of family. It could be losing good employees to other companies that do.
In other words, after we have chosen a Story Goal, we will build a world around our protagonist that includes many perspectives on the problem and makes the goal important to everyone in that world. That’s why choosing the Story Goal is the most important first step in building a plot outline.
If you haven’t chosen a goal for your novel yet, do so now. Make a list of potential goals that fits the idea you are working on. Then choose choose one goal to base your plot outline on.
Once you have decided on a Story Goal, your next step is to ask yourself, “What would happen if the goal is not achieved? What is my protagonist afraid will happen if he/she doesn’t achieve the goal or solve the problem?”
The answer to these questions is the Consequence of the story. The Consequence is the negative situation or event that will result if the Goal is not achieved. Avoiding the Consequence justifies the effort required in pursuing the Story Goal, both to the characters in your novel and the reader, and that makes it an important part of your plot outline.
The combination of goal and consequence creates the main dramatic tension in your plot. It’s a carrot and stick approach that makes the plot meaningful.
In some stories, the protagonist may begin by deciding to resolve a problem or pursue a goal. Later, that goal becomes more meaningful when he discovers that a terrible consequence will occur if he fails. Other times, the protagonist may start off threatened by a terrible event, which thus motivates him/her to find way to avoid it.
As Melanie Anne Phillips points out, in some stories the consequence seems to be in effect when the story opens. Perhaps the evil despot is already on the throne and the Story Goal is to depose him. In that case, the consequence, if the protagonist fails, is that things will stay the way they are.
In our novel plot about the female executive, we’ve already come up with one possible Consequence – that she could end up like her spinster aunt. We could make the Consequence worse (perhaps the aunt dies of starvation because she is feeble and has no immediate family looking after her). Or we could create a different Consequence. Her employer may go bankrupt unless it becomes more family-friendly.
Write a list of possible Consequences you could have in your plot outline. Then choose one to be the counterpoint to your chosen Story Goal.
The third element of your plot outline, Requirements, describes what must be accomplished in order to achieve the goal. You can think of this as a checklist of one or more events. As the Requirements are met in the course of the novel, the reader will feel the characters are getting closer to the attainment of the goal.
Requirements create a state of excited anticipation in the reader’s mind, as he looks forward to the protagonist’s success.
What could the Requirements be in our executive story? Well, if the goal is for our protagonist to find true love, perhaps she will need to join a singles club or dating service so she can meet single men. Perhaps she will need to take a holiday or leave of absence from her job.
Ask yourself what event(s) might need to happen for the goal in your novel to be achieved. List as many possibilities as you can think of. To keep things simple for the moment, just choose one requirement for now to include in your plot outline.
Forewarnings are the counterpart to requirements. While requirements show that the story is progressing towards the achievement of the goal, forewarnings are events that show the consequence is getting closer. Forewarnings make the reader anxious that the consequence will occur before the protagonist can succeed.
In the plot outline for our story, events that could constitute Forewarnings might be…
While the Story Goal and Consequences create dramatic tension, Requirements and Forewarnings take the reader through an emotional roller coaster that oscillates between hope and fear. There will be places in the plot where it seems the protagonist is making progress, and others where it seems that everything is going wrong. Structure these well, and you will keep your reader turning pages non-stop.
For example, here’s how our plot outline might look so far …
"A female executive in her late 30s has been married to her job. But she has a wake-up call when her elderly, spinster aunt dies alone and neglected (consequence). The executive decides that she needs to have a family before she suffers the same fate (goal). In order to do this, she hires a dating service and arranges to go on several dates (requirements). But each date ends in disaster (forewarnings)."
As you can see, using just these four elements, a story plot is starting to emerge that will take the reader on a series of emotional twists and turns. And we’re only halfway through our 8 plot elements! (Of course, we started with the four most important ones.)
Notice too that these elements come in pairs that balance each other. This is an important secret for creating tension and momentum in your plot.
Before moving on to the remaining elements, list some possible events that could serve as Forewarnings in your story. For now, just choose one. See if you can create a brief plot outline like the example above using just the first four elements.
Generally speaking, good plots are about problems that mean a lot to the characters. If a problem is trivial, then neither the protagonist nor the reader has a reason to get worked up about it. You want your readers to get worked up about your novel. So you must give your protagonist a goal that matters.
One sign that a problem or goal matters to the protagonist is that he/she is willing to make sacrifices or suffer pain in order to achieve it. Such sacrifices are called Costs.
Classic examples of Costs include the hard-boiled detective who gets beaten up at some point in his investigation, or the heroic tales in which the hero must suffer injury or give up a cherished possession to reach his goal. However, Costs can come in many other ways. Protagonists can be asked to give up their pride, self-respect, money, security, an attitude, an idealized memory, the life of a friend, or anything else they hold dear. If you make the costs steep and illustrate how hard the sacrifice is for the protagonist, the reader will feel that the protagonist deserves to achieve the goal.
In the case of our female executive, perhaps she must give up a promotion she has worked hard for because it would require her to travel so much that she would have no chance of settling down and raising a family.
Make a list of possible Costs your protagonist might be forced to endure in order to achieve the Story Goal. Again, just choose one idea to include in your plot outline for now.
The element that balances Costs in your plot outline is Dividends. Dividends are rewards that characters receive along the journey towards the Story Goal. Unlike Requirements, Dividends are not necessary for the goal to be achieved. They may be unrelated to the goal entirely. But they are something that would never have occurred if the characters hadn’t made the effort to achieve the goal.
In the case of our executive, perhaps her efforts to meet men give her an idea for creating a business of her own – a kind of executive dating service, for instance, that will lead her to a happier career. Or perhaps the quest for love and family forces her to become more compassionate towards her co-workers when their family responsibilities interfere with work.
List possible ways to reward your characters and choose one that feels appropriate for your plot outline. Then move on to our final pair of elements.
Prerequisites are events that must happen in order for the Requirements to happen. They are an added layer of challenges to your plot outline. Like Requirements, as Prerequisites are met, the reader feels progress is being made towards the goal. For instance, in order to free the Princess, the hero must recovery the key from its hiding place, but first (Prerequisite) he must defeat the dragon guarding it. In order to win the maiden’s hand, the gallant suitor must show he would not risk losing her for anything. But before he has a chance to do that, he must show he is willing to risk everything to win her (Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice).
If the Requirement for our novel about the executive is that she must go out on several dates, perhaps the Prerequisite is that she must sign up at a dating service, buy a new wardrobe, or get a make-over.
Take a look at your chosen Requirement and make a list of possible Prerequisites that must be accomplished before the requirement can be met. Choose one.
The last element to balance your plot outline, Preconditions, is a junior version of Forewarnings. Preconditions are small impediments in the plot. They are stipulations laid down by certain characters that make it more difficult for the Story Goal to be achieved.
A classic example is Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth’s quest for happiness is made more difficult by the terms of her grandfather’s will, which state that the family property can only be inherited by males. This means that, upon her father’s death, Elizabeth and her sisters will be penniless unless they find good husbands first.
However there are many other ways characters can impose conditions that impede the attainment of the Story Goal. They can make their help conditional on favours, insist on arduous rules, or negotiate tough terms.
For instance, perhaps the company where our female executive works has a rule that executives must attend meetings very early in the day - say 6AM on Saturdays. This rule makes it very hard for her to go on Friday night dates and be alert in the meetings. Or perhaps the singles club she joins has some seemingly unfair rules that cause her problems.
You know what to do by now. List possible Preconditions your characters might encounter, and choose one you like.
Once you have chosen your eight elements, the next step is to arrange them into a brief plot summary. It doesn’t matter what order you put them in, so long as all eight are included. In fact, most of the elements can be repeated or included in more than one way.
For example, here’s how we might put together all eight elements for our executive story together into a one-paragraph plot outline…
“A female executive in her late 30s has been married to her job. But she has a wake-up call when her elderly, spinster aunt dies alone and neglected (consequence). The executive decides that she needs to have a family before she suffers the same fate (goal). So she buys a new wardrobe and signs on with a dating service (prerequisites). Her boss offers her a promotion that would involve a lot of travel, but she turns it down, so that she will have time to meet some men (cost). She goes on several dates (requirements). But each one ends in disaster (forewarnings). On top of that, because the agency arranges all her dates for Friday nights, she ends up arriving tired and late for the company’s mandatory 6AM Saturday morning meetings (preconditions). Along the way, however, she starts to realize how the company’s policies are very unfair to people with families or social lives outside work, and she begins to develop compassion for some of her co-workers that leads to improved relationships in the office (dividend).”
You’ve probably noticed there’s still one thing missing from our plot outline: how the story ends. We haven’t forgotten. Go to the next lesson to see how to use Plot Development to round out your Plot Outline.