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Plotting a Story: 8 Tips for Writing your First Plot Outline

Updated on November 4, 2013

Are you a creative writer—or an aspiring one—but struggling with your plot? Maybe you’re halfway through an amazing short story but suddenly hit the writer’s block wall. Or maybe you just thought of the best premise ever for the world’s next best-selling novel, but you’ve never dealt with something this big before and aren’t sure where to begin. Never fear! Here are some handy (and tested) tips to help you craft that perfect plot you’re looking for.

1. Write the ending first.

You don’t have to actually write the ending if you don’t want to, but sometimes that helps. If nothing else, write what’s going to happen at the end of your story or novel, and maybe the very last sentence. This might seem a little backwards, but it helps immensely when it comes to crafting the rest of your plot. Think of your story as a marathon: the beginning and the middle are important, but if you don’t have a clue where the finish line is, you’re never going to finish the race. Knowing the end of your story will help you stay on track when you’re writing. Remind yourself: if whatever you’re writing doesn’t in some way help steer your characters towards your ending, you’re headed in the wrong direction.

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2. Write the beginning.

Okay, so you now know where your main character (or characters) end up. Now you need to know where everything starts. For a lot of people, this is a little easier, because the beginning of a story is often the first thing that pops into our heads. If you aren’t sure where your story starts, look to your ending. Why did your characters end up there? What motivated them to do everything they did that got them there? Think on those questions for a while to help you come up with your opening scene.

3. Outline the major turning points in your plot.

A good plot doesn’t just have a beginning, middle, and end. It usually has a beginning, an end, and lots of both small and very big events that fill in the middle. The really big events are your major turning points. Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, this could be everything from a battle with a dragon to a messy breakup to some sort of emotional epiphany for your protagonist. Now that you know where your story begins and ends, you can fill in some of the important events that get your protagonist(s) from point A to point Z. Focus on the biggest, most important turning points in the story, and leave the smaller events or details for later.

4. Make a timeline.

I find that actually drawing a timeline for my story helps a lot. It gives you a visual for how many plot holes you need to fill, how much time elapses between events, where each of your characters is at a given moment, etc. Decide how much total time your story is going to take up: a week? A month? A year? More? Draw a timeline that separates your story into time slots that you find helpful. You may choose to separate it into months, weeks, or anything else that works for you. Depending on your own thought process and the structure of your story, you may find different types of timelines helpful. Check out some of the options below (remember, these aren’t the only options; you can make whatever kind of timeline you want):

If you're a traditionalist (or really liked history in school) a linear timeline might be for you. You can also make it vertical instead of horizontal, if that's easier.
If you're a traditionalist (or really liked history in school) a linear timeline might be for you. You can also make it vertical instead of horizontal, if that's easier.
If your story includes a journey, drawing a map to use as your timeline might be helpful. Create an event to coincide with each place your characters stop along the way.
If your story includes a journey, drawing a map to use as your timeline might be helpful. Create an event to coincide with each place your characters stop along the way.
If your plot starts and ends in roughly the same place (like a holiday, event, etc.), try a circular timeline.
If your plot starts and ends in roughly the same place (like a holiday, event, etc.), try a circular timeline.

5. Fill in your leftover plot holes.

Take a look at your timeline and the events you’ve outlined. What needs to happen between each event in order for everything to make sense? For example, your story may begin with a big family dinner, and your next major event might be a funeral for one of the characters in your first scene. Obviously, at least a few things have to happen between those events. Work on filling in the blanks between each of your major events, taking them one at a time to make things simpler. If you get stuck, that’s okay. Take a break and do some brainstorming, work on a different scene, or try working backwards instead of forwards to see if that helps you with your ideas.

6. Don’t forget your minor characters.

In your first timeline or outline you may have great details when it comes to the movements of your protagonist. But what about their best friend who shows up every once in a while to help out? Or the villain of the story? Add them to the timeline to help you figure out where everyone needs to be during each major event, and to make sure that the movements of each character makes sense for your story.

7. Read through your plot.

Now that you’ve got at least a brief outline of your entire story, read through it to check for anything contradictory or confusing. You can also use this time to check whether your plot is interesting enough, if you use the same idea more than once, or if you’ve forgotten to include something that’s important.

8. Take a break.

Outlining a story—big or small—is exhausting. Take a few days away from your story before you come back to work on it again. After you have some time away from it you’ll be able to look at it again with a fresh eye and see mistakes you may have missed before.

Congratulations! You’ve just outlined your first plot. All that’s left to do now is write.

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