As I hem and haw my way toward my next writing project, I have taken several swipes at an outline. I’m an outliner, yes. Without an outline, I’m writing word salad into a desert. I don’t always follow my outline, but I need a rough map at least.
Over the years I’ve developed a generic outline template designed mainly to keep the pace. Certain key scenes are necessary in any novel I write. In principle, I could write those ten or twelve key scenes first then connect the dots, but I’ve never done that. Doesn’t feel right to me.
I’m especially concerned to avoid the mid-belly sag that often occurs in Act 2, so this outline is specific about how major scenes are distributed. It tends to be front-loaded, because even though I personally prefer a long, subtle lead-in, most readers don’t. The times we live in demand immediate developments.
Also, the wrap-up, in Act 3 seems truncated by stuffing it into the last 25% of the story, but that’s also what readers like: a ka-bam! ending.
I think the outline will work for genre fiction as well as literary (character-driven). The main difference is whether the story drivers are “in the world” or “in the gut.”
I tend to write short novels, 72K to 75K words because that’s about all the attention span I have. I try to, as Elmore Leonard advised, “leave out the parts that readers skip.” But you could apply the pacing percentages to 100,000 words just as well.
Is it formulaic? Of course. But it’s just a framework, not the finished house. I’m already thinking of how the story I have in mind will not follow this outline. Still, I will use it to get me started and lead me forward and alert me to dreaded pace sag.
The structure this template shows could be mapped into a visually graphic format, as long as the proportions for each “bubble” were conserved.
Abbreviations Used: PP=Plot Peak; ANT=Antagonist. AP=Ant-Point. MC=Main Character. RI=Romantic Interest. RC=Reaction Character. SQ=Status Quo. Hamartia = hidden weakness or secret shame; MC’s Achilles’ heel. WOM= a main advisor (“Wise old Man” or other). NLT= No later than. PN=Narrator. %= proportion of total projected page or word count to maintain a good pace. Italic highlight = Landmark Scene that cannot be skipped.
0% Act 1. Setup, Intro MC with opening image. Shows MC’s world and character. MC reacts to a small, foreshadowing conflict which is also a hook. Not the trigger, but something is not right. Patch it over while revealing the theme and the character of MC. Show MC’s dominant trait and hidden need (hamartia); the inner demons. Show but don’t explain.
10% NLT. Trigger event Disrupts (upends) the SQ; Rocks the world. Trigger is exogenous to MC but specific to MC, not generic. MC’s reaction sets the plot in motion. Define the Story goal. What does MC WANT, specifically?
15% MC’s Initial Reaction to trigger is a failure, makes things worse. Confusing. Introduce or hint at ANT by way of explanation of the failure.
20% Rubicon. PP1 Basic conflict is clear. MC is over his or her head, acts irreversibly though it doesn’t seem so at the time (e.g. cheats, breaks law, crosses the river, etc.) A point of no return. Story path is set for MC: Get the MacGuffin, escape the threat, save the farm, do your duty, begin the journey.
25% NLT Act 2. Response phase. MC is victim of slings and arrows (and own hamartia). MC acts repeatedly to fix SQ, often overconfident, and fails. Obstacles and complications are self-generated. Romantic story begins often badly. RI is diffident or offended.
30% MC is bewildered.Each response sets up the next obstacle. MC is digging his or her own hole, walking into it, but doesn’t realize. AntP1 point. Ant is clearly revealed and personified (not abstract). Romantic story shows signs of hope.
40% Complications. Stakes go up. Potential for loss is greater than formerly realized. It’s serious. MC suffers failure, pain and loss. Is afraid. MC can’t go back, can’t see forward. Romantic relationship is on the rocks. Escalation continues. MC tries harder; fails again.
50% Midpoint. Turning point. Some hope is seen. The romance recovers tentatively. New info or resource comes to light and a plan becomes possible. MC goes on the offensive for the first time. Hopes are high. Despite best efforts, big plan fails. Hope is dashed. Precious resources are lost. No Plan B. No other options apparent. Disaster.
55% The Pit. Romantic and other relationships break down, in anger, disappointment, misunderstanding, etc. MC discouraged. Doubts self. Questions goals. RC advises courage, perseverance but MC is wracked with fear and doubt.
60% AntP2. We need a bigger boat moment. ANT appears in full strength and wins a major skirmish, ups the ante. Seemingly insurmountable obstacle arises. The problem is much larger than previously thought; overwhelming.
65% Rock Bottom. Ant prevails. Dark night of the soul. MC is ruined, Alone and near death. MC Despairs. MC gives up and wanders off. Quits the field. Leaves the project, abandons the story goal. Complete Failure is realized, Only ashes left;
70% The turn: PP2, Critical Choice. MC hears from RC, RI, or gets advice from WOM; or, MC takes unexpected inspiration from an insignificant and odd thing, something that might have been planted earlier unnoticed; a special device, a memory, a person, a risky passage or technique. MC decides to go with that, despite the inner demons. MC plans a desperate chance a seemingly mad, irrational decision that goes against type. What the hell, do the right thing moment. Possibly against advice of RC, RI.
75% NLT Act 3. Confrontation. MC arranges a situation to confront ANT. Sets it up. RI may be at risk. Can withhold information from reader, showing only the setup.
85% Climax. Big showdown. White vs black hats as MC confronts ANT. MC prevails (which was not guaranteed) or dies. MC triumph (or noble death). But the story goal is achieved. RI is won.
95% Character Reversal. MC is a new person (or martyr). MC has overcome ANT, achieved the story goal and has possible epiphany. Understands the hamartia (need not be spelled out). Solid relationship with RI.
<100% Resolution Mirrors the opening image but in a new SQ. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Developed by Bill Adams from various sources. http://billadamsphd.net.