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Linear and Circular Methods to Outline your Plot

Updated on October 7, 2016

I never start a novel unless I know how it will end. Over the years, I have tried different ways to outline my novels, some linear, some circular, and some a combination of both. Please keep in mind that no single outlining method is better than any other method is, and some outlines lend themselves better to certain genres than others do. You must be comfortable with whatever outlining method you choose—and be bold in deviating from that outline when necessary.

Linear outlines

Thanks to Gustav Freytag, you are most likely familiar with the simplest of all outlines:

If you follow Freytag’s outline, however, your climax will come in the middle of your novel, which may lead your reader to skip the second half of your book. Most modern novelists have lengthened the rising action stage and shortened the falling action stage so this does not happen.

A variation on Freytag’s work is “The 5 C’s of Plot”:

· Character(s)

· Conflict(s)

· Complications

· Climax

· Conclusion

Introduce your main character(s) in the beginning and add your conflict(s) by the end of the first chapter. Once your reader knows who is going to go suffer, you begin writing a long series of complications in your characters’ lives. Your climax should solve all your conflict(s)—unless you’re planning to do a sequel. In the conclusion, tie up any loose ends and try to leave your reader smiling.

When I started writing novels in 1997, I was exceptionally linear. I started at the beginning and plodded along throwing tangents left and right. Laid out left to right, my plot outlines looked like a series of straight lines where the characters intersected with “barbs” like arrow feathers shooting up and down. My outlines looked as if I was diagramming a sentence—only I was trying to diagram a novel. Eventually the lines came together and fused, the tangents took a nap, and I had an outline.

Over the years and with my editor’s advice, I have developed a formula I will call “ABCDE”:

· Action

· Backstory

· Complicate

· Deliver/Destroy

· Effect

The action chapter should be short and grip the reader’s eyes. This may be the only chapter people browsing in a bookstore ever read, so it must grab their attention and pull them into the second chapter. I often write this chapter last. Once I have the reader’s attention (hopefully), I give just enough backstory and background information on my main characters to keep the story moving. I often add to this section as I write the novel. I then complicate my characters’ lives with as much mischief as I can before I either deliver or destroy them in “the big moment.” I write romantic comedy, so often I destroy and then deliver my characters to leave a lasting effect on the reader—the “Ah, wasn’t that sweet?” moment.

Circular outlines

Perhaps the most famous of all circular outlines is Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey”:

Campbell developed a 17-stage process, which essentially boils down to:

· Departure/Separation

· Initiation

· Return

Numerous myths, the Odyssey, and the Star Wars movies follow these stages to some degree. I used a significant part of this outline for Original Love and Every Dog, two of my most “adventurous” novels.

I once saw an outline for an “action romance” that was a series of concentric circles much like a tornado—or for fans of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s conception of the circles of hell. The outer and higher rings contained backstory story and their first meeting. As the rings descended to the center, there was more action, dialogue, suspense, and contact until the climax at the very center. The actual novel started out leisurely (the outer rings) and sped up gradually to a thrilling and satisfying climax in the innermost ring.

I saw another romance outline that used semicircles like skipping stones on a pond. The first “skips” had large gaps to fill with backstory, general character development, and casual encounters. As the “skips” shortened, the plot raced until the smooth ending that tied up the entire “circle” of the novel, leaving a small splash and few ripples.

The "threads" outline

In A Good Man, I used “threads” as an outlining technique. Odd chapters are her “threads,” and even chapters are his “threads.” I used this method until around chapter 20 when the “threads” intertwined for the first time. Then they shot off and connected for the rest of the novel like skipping stones. This method allowed me to knock out my backstory quickly and get to the good stuff. It’s a simple process which is similar to creating parallel universes:

1. Outline thread A only and take it as far as you can.

2. Outline thread B only and take it as far as you can.

3. Where thread A crosses paths with thread B, begin to “sew” or “stitch” them together.

If, for example, you’re writing good vs. evil, plan out each thread until good and evil collide. Several crime authors I’ve read start out with the evil thread to get my attention then weave the good thread in and out (or vice versa). It’s like creating a tapestry. The novel is the finished tapestry, and all these threads eventually create the whole. Here’s a quick (and ridiculous) example:

· Thread 1: Killer murders a clown at a county fair.

· Thread 2: Hung-over detective called to the scene.

· Thread 3: Killer gets a haircut and moves on to another county fair.

· Thread 4: Detective learns about the suspect clown while eating funnel cakes.

· Thread 5: Killer, angry that next county fair only has a flea circus, has severe angst.

· Thread 6: Detective remembers his fear of clowns, seeks solace with his hot neighbor.

· Thread 7: Killer goes to McDonald’s, sees Ronald ...

Eventually, these threads will lead to:

· Thread 58: Detective chases killer, but killer escapes ironically in a clown car.

· Thread 59: Detective seeks solace with hot neighbor who provides an important clue.

· Thread 60: Killer heads to Washington, DC, the United States’ biggest circus ...

One scene leads to another and so on throughout the novel. One thread ties into another thread until you have that tapestry.

Deviate from your outline to grow as a writer

I am convinced that deviations from an outline, those spontaneous tangents we take, are necessary for our growth as writers.

An outline contains the “bullet” or general drift and subject of the novel. As you’re writing, you deflect that bullet in different, new, and hopefully better directions than you originally intended based on what you are writing at the moment. In other words, the novel you are writing takes on a life of its own away from your outline, and that’s a good thing. I am not saying not to outline and simply go with the flow. An outline is a necessary writer’s tool, but sometimes even the finest tools need recalibration.


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    • multiculturalsoul profile imageAUTHOR

      JJ Murray 

      6 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      Thank you. Although I'm in a formulaic genre (romance), it always helps to see another way to build a better mousetrap--or novel. Hmm. Romance outlines are actually like mousetraps sometimes ...

    • carlossalinas profile image


      6 years ago from San Antonio, T.X.

      This is great, thanks! I got some nice ideas that may help me develop my plot a little more. GREAT hub!


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