The 10 steps I’m using to outline my fantasy novel
“The essence of plot structure is: struggle — therefore, conflict — therefore, climax. A struggle implies two opposing forces in conflict, and it implies a climax. The climax is the central point of the story, where the conflict is resolved.” — Ayn Rand
I’m most excited about stories with a clear purpose and sequence of events. A story about which you can tell the author has clearly mapped it out before she started writing.
If you are a writer and want to achieve this, you need to outline (or plot) your story before you start writing. You don’t have to follow your outline to the letter. It might be that you discover that your character needs to head in other directions on the way. Then, by all means, adjust your plot.
The most important thing is that you know where you’re going. What state you want to leave your character (and your reader) in at the end of the story.
I wrote an article about plotting a short story before. Now I’m writing a novel and plotting a novel is more complicated as you might imagine or even know.
Before I set out on writing my novel a little over a year ago, I mapped out the story. I even mapped out the story for a six-book series. Then, I started writing the first book.
The problem was, I had no real framework for outlining my book. I just had pages and pages full of notes and one table grid with a rough sequence.
While I was traveling earlier this year, I didn’t write much. When I came back I had to really dig my way back in. It wasn’t until that moment that I thought I should research plotting properly. After all, every successful and beloved book, film or TV show usually follows a clear framework for a story. A framework that is proven to work.
Step 1, Act 1: Introduce the status quo of the main character
This is where you introduce your reader to your main character and side characters. You start off explaining the current predicament of your protagonist and what their world is like at the start of your story – before everything changes and their adventure is about to start.
It’s usually a slow start, an opening scene. Besides introducing your character, you introduce the setting of the story. Where does it take place? What’s the world like?
You can use the opening scene to introduce the reader to the theme of your story as well.
Another thing that’s often done here is to show your main character’s flaws. What is not about their situation?
Step 2, Act 1: Have an ‘inciting incident’
I mostly write fantasy and science fiction, so bear that in mind for this article. If you want to know how you can set yourself up for writing a strong fantasy story, check out this article.
Now that your reader has gotten to know your protagonist and sidekicks, you have to draw that protagonist out of their comfort zone. In most stories, here’s where you have an inciting incident, an attack or an important discovery your protagonist makes. This incident pulls the main character out of their status quo and introduces them to a possible new world. This part will help realize your main character’s goals.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this is when Harry starts interacting with the snake in the zoo and when his letter(s) start arriving at the Dursley’s.
Make this incident exciting. Tease your reader with what’s to come. Make promises as to where your story might head.
Step 3, Act 1: Setting and predicament
Here you have the job of showing your reader the ‘new world’. What’s happening there? Why is the main character pulled in? Who does he meet? Is there anyone out to get him (your antagonist). What goal does your character have?
At this point in the story, the goal is far beyond the reach of the character. There is a plentitude of trials and flaws to overcome before your protagonist can get there. What are his flaws? What does he need to overcome to be who he is destined to be? Show that your character requires personal change.
Your main character, let’s call him David (alternating between ‘main character’ and ‘protagonist’ becomes a bit of a bore), is put into a position that will be central to the story. It might be a mission, calling, prophecy – whether willing or not.
In the first Harry Potter book, we learn that Harry is a wizard famous for resisting Voldemort as a baby boy (predicament). He meets Ron (sidekick) on the train to Hogwarts, dives into the world of magical education and meets Draco (antagonist).
Step 4, Act 1: Lock in your reader
This position David has found himself in will propel him into going after his goal and walk the path that leads to that point. Does he want to realize that goal? In almost every story, the protagonist doesn’t want to at first and he refuses his calling. This is a central element in every Hero’s Journey.
However, your story doesn’t end with David saying ‘no’ to his mission. He will accept it eventually and goes on a journey of self-discovery and growth. A journey which is exciting for your reader to be a part of. Here, you lock in your reader. David has accepted the role he has to play in the new world – at least to some degree and possibly scared as hell for what’s to come.
David will face his first trials in this part of the story and is not yet skilled enough to overcome them.
Step 5, Act 2: Throw in some obstacles
So David is on his mission to change the world and himself. He might have some friends that accompany him on his journey and help him stay on the right path. A mentor may advise him just enough to keep him curious and on his feet. An antagonist is probably throwing some obstacles his way. Nice, this will make for a juicy story.
You need a Ron and Hermione, Snape and Dumbledore.
Since David can’t walk away now. To reach his destiny he must continue on his path. But, obstacles and thwarts await him. He’s confronted with his flaws and incompetence to get where he needs to go. The antagonist is becoming too strong and blocking his path.
During the Halloween feast, a troll lurks in the dungeons. Harry and Ron decide to stop the troll when they realize Hermione is going after it on her own. Harry suspects that Snape set lose the troll as a diversion to get past the three-headed dog.
Step 6, Act 2: Rising action
At this point in the story, our hero David has faced some obstacles and revisited his flaws. He’s just not good enough yet. Because of those obstacles and trials, the action of the story rises.
David might have his first wins here, he might just have a bit more confidence in himself. He starts to see that he might be able to do what he’s destined to do. He’s even more determined to continue on his path.
This is when Harry and Ron defeated the troll. Now, they seek out more information about Nicholas Flamel and the stone that’s being guarded.
Step 7, Act 2: Subplot(s) and more action
All is seemingly going well. Good for David! Some other storylines may surface with subplots that help David get to his final destination. Perhaps a relationship or a possible love story that comes into fruition. Or, if you plan on writing any follow up story, a storyline that prepares the reader for the second installment of your story.
The antagonist on their part will try to stop David from growing and continuing on his path.
If there’s no real subplot in your story, you might want to increase the action and pace of your story at this point to get to the end of act two and the turning point for David.
Step 8, Act 2: The turning point
David has jumped through hoops, has been tested and has grown. He’s finding a place in the new world and is ready to take on the highest obstacle yet in the story. Or is he?
Often the hero in the story realizes that he can’t deal with this whole new world after all. Doubt creeps in, especially about his capabilities. The antagonist might have attacked again and won. David thinks all is lost.
David must learn that he’s the only one able to stop the antagonist. His friends will help him see that he can even if David himself doesn’t believe that.
In this part, the reader gets a sense of what is to be expected for the grand finale and how David is going to do it.
Here’s where Harry, Ron, and Hermione find the last pieces of the puzzle and develop a plan to try to get to the Philosopher’s stone before Snape does.
Step 9, Act 3: Tension, twists, and turns
The reader is at the edge of her seat and can’t stop reading. This is the moment the story swings into full action.
David is ready to go to battle and takes action upon his plan. He knows it might be a stretch and even that he might not make it. He is ready to face his insecurities and inner flaw. He will make a sacrifice or reflects on everything he has done leading up to this point.
David is close to point B, close to changing. But first, there must be a battle. David faces his antagonist and fights until the end. Here’s where the shift in character happens and where David kills off the person he was before.
This is where Harry, Ron, and Hermione get past Neville and Fluffy. Then they face the difficult magical protections set by the professors to protect the stone. Harry loses Ron and Hermione on the way to the end, leaving him alone to face the actual antagonists, professor Quirrel and Voldemort.
Step 10, Act 3: The climax
The battle is over and David has won, but it came at a cost. He had to let go of who he was. He has learned his lessons. The world as he knew it at the start of the story is not his world anymore, he has accepted his place in the new world.
All subplots and storylines are tied up here, some might be left for a next installment of the story though.
Here you should make clear if David reached his external goal. Show the implications of the battle and the outcome. Revise upon the theme. Tie it all in with scenes your reader will always remember.