How to write a plot outline for a novel (with examples)

Plotting is vital to a good story and for engaging readers. No fiction will be taken on by literary agents or editors, no matter how brilliantly written, how edgily contemporary, how weighty in literary subject matter, unless it has a story outline that grips. We’ve seen stunning literature rejected for this reason.

This is scary for authors.

Get your plot wrong, and your book has failed before you’ve even started. You must get this aspect of your novel right. Here’s how to write a gripping plot with some examples.

(Rest assured, plotting hasn’t changed since Aristotle wrote Poetics, so here are the basics. And remember to look also at our plotting template guide.)


Character is intrinsic to plot structure

Harry Potter

Character is everything, and at the core of your plot structure, your protagonist must have a clear central motivation to drive the action.

In commercial fiction, it could need to be a more obvious goal than in a literary novel. But whatever the case, it’s got to be an important enough goal for readers to care. It has to be consistent, it has to be clear, it has to be authentic to that character’s nature, and if it’s not important to them, it sure as heck won’t be to the reader.

So let’s take Harry Potter. His weightier actions in J.K. Rowling’s books stem from his need of ‘playing the hero’ (as Hermione points out, it is both strength and flaw). And it’s obvious Harry’s real heroism is his fierce advocacy for integrity and tolerance.

Harry battles a magical equivalent of xenophobic violence carried out by Voldemort outside Hogwarts, and Harry’s nature means he is compelled to fight, inasmuch as he is forced into it. (And this is important: you can’t have a passive protagonist.)

Harry himself seeks love and authentic connection with others. He grew up with intolerance and abuse under the Dursleys’ roof, before ever learning of fascism in the wizarding world or the resultant murders of James and Lily, his parents.

So that’s Harry’s core drive and it drives plot development as we know it.

There’s mirroring here, too: Voldemort (or Tom Riddle) also grew up isolated and uncared for in formative years without parents, like Harry. He, as a result, rejects love for control, is driven to oppress others. He adopts his alias, Voldemort, and recruits his Death Eaters. That drives plot, too. Harry, though, emerges as a hero. And just the right hero to defeat Voldemort.

Protagonists and antagonists must feed off each other like this, tailored by their writers to mirror each other, to hinder, harm, sicken each other until tension is so wrought, we’re on the edge of our seats.

And this is not only true for science-fiction or fantasy.

A plot outline must be driven by character to be heartfelt, to create catharis, and it’s this that makes the outcome of J.K. Rowling’s books count for Harry’s readers, for any bestselling book.

So know your protagonist (arguably also your antagonist) before you really get going with plot. You can’t have a plot inconsistent with characters and how they’d act.


Character motivation in plot outlines

Pride and PrejudiceSo if character drives plot, your hero or heroine must want something in order for any sort of story or struggle to be born.

The protagonist’s goal (which derives from that motivation) has to be determined as early as possible into the novel, and the exact definition of the goal can shift, but the basic motivation behind the goal never shifts at all. (And any otherwise decent plot structure could stop making sense if this happens.)

To take the example of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy Bennet’s hope of marrying for love is more abstract principle than defined goal.

In that era, we know Lizzy must marry but she’s in no hurry. She states only love will make her marry (where other characters clearly desire money with marriage), but she never chases it. She seeks what makes her happiest (‘I dearly love a laugh’), often witty banter (and oftener with Darcy) during the story, even whilst dismissing him as too proud throughout.

Things only click to specifics when she does, at last, fall for Darcy. Lizzy’s ‘goal’ changes from abstract to concrete, since she finds she wants to be married to Darcy specifically, but her belief in marriage for love hasn’t altered. She’s already refused Darcy once, along with her odious cousin, as her financially ‘sensible’ choices. She’s now assured of Darcy’s goodness and loves him for it, so her deeper motive (and nature) remains the same.

Lizzy gains her ‘goal’ of true love by remaining true to herself, first and foremost.

That is what it means to have a character-driven plot.


Plot development that throws us

A Song of Ice and FireEvery scene and every chapter must keep the protagonist off-balance. Things may get better or worse for him or her, but they need to be constantly changing.

Another way to think about the same thing is to ask what the dramatic purpose of each and every chapter is. Setting the scene is not a dramatic purpose. Nor is filling in backstory. Change and disequilibrium are the heart of drama, and how well your character is able to process new information, to respond to challenge, to reflect, grow and change.

So your story has to move in this sense, or it dies. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is first book of a fantasy series that throws us constantly. Ned Stark’s fate at the novel’s close is our first warning of the series: we can never sit comfortably. And we’re gripped by the series’ routine shocks and twists.

Stronger (seemingly) characters are lost to the warring and power ploys of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire, even as (initially) weaker characters like Daenerys grow strong, gather support. No one knows what to expect, who may ultimately sit on the Iron Throne.

So plot to surprise us, to thrill us.

And if the protagonist is in the same position at the end of the chapter as at the start, then delete the chapter. Or story momentum will suffer.


Plot development that compels us

Talking to the DeadA thriller-like plot urgency that increases as your novel goes on will secure and keep your reader’s attention.

At the outset of a novel, the goal has to matter but by the end, it has to matter more than anything else in the world.

Modern thrillers get writing this urgency down to a fine art (though no matter genre, there’s no reason urgency should be lacking in your plot).

The Writers’ Workshop founder, Harry Bingham, is author of the DC Fiona Griffiths series of crime novels. In nearly all these books, a corpse is discovered early on. In one exception, the lack of a corpse early on dominates the text: as though there’s an urgent question there needing to be answered.

Needless to say, in each case, investigations follow. By three-quarters of the way into the novel, it’s become clear that (a) the crime involved goes far past an ordinary murder and (b) the protagonist’s own life or security is now in question. In each case, there’s a solution to the mystery and an action climax, resolving the question of how it all ends.

And, yes, it’s true that crime fiction, more than any genre after romance, has structures and conventions that need to be followed. But the basic model of that structure underlies every good novel, no matter what genre.

The ingredients are:

(a) a very early introduction to the motivating pull of the story;
(b) a sequence of adventures with the effect of constantly subverting possible answers to that core question;
(c) a marked increase in jeopardy towards the end of the novel;
(d) a proper resolution of the questions raised.

So bear in mind, if the jeopardy in your story doesn’t increase, the reader will get quickly bored.


Protagonists and plot outlines

A Song of Ice and FireMost novels have just one central protagonist. This can be the best choice for first-time writers, to help drive your plot and keep it central to that one protagonist’s journey.

If you do want multiple protagonists, it’s generally advisable you don’t go for more than three, and make sure that each one of those three stories obeys the rules above.

Often, having one protagonist best throws us into the action. There can be tension and immediacy in thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl that have two characters narrating, such as twisted pair Nick and Amy Dunne. It can work for a romance with two protagonists, i.e. sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

And a very few authors like George R.R. Martin write successfully with more protagonists (i.e. Jon, Daenerys, Tyrion, Sansa, Arya et al.). Chapters in A Game of Thrones (first book of A Song of Ice and Fire) are reserved for the Starks, apart from Daenerys and Tyrion, but in subsequent books, other characters are given chapters and a voice.

Protagonists, in this sense, serve also as antagonists to one another. Cersei Lannister, for instance, is a major villain throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. Cersei is bitter, proud, covets power. She wants many other characters dead. But Cersei gets her own chapters in A Feast for Crows. She becomes both antagonist and anti-heroine protagonist.

In short, much depends on the story you write.

But if you want a little more information on managing points of view in fiction, then go here. This is an area you really cannot afford to mess up.


Plot templates, graphs, charts, maps, etc.

Think about classical structures when plotting.

In Joseph Campbell’s famous analysis of story archetypes, also, he typically identifies the Invitation (where the hero is asked to take on the challenge), the Refusal (the hero says no), the Acceptance (something happens to change the hero’s mind), the Adventure (the hero seeks to master the challenge), the Failure (everything comes to a head and it seems like the hero has failed), then the Triumph (just when it all seems too late, the hero pulls off a magnificent triumph).

You can’t beat 2,000 years of the storytelling tradition.

You may also like our plotting template guide, or blog post on creating a plot mountain.


More advice on story plotting

Just remember that commercial fiction follows all the rules above. But so do the classics. (Just think of plots from Shakespeare’s plays.) What’s good enough for them is good enough for you. It’s smart to follow the rules, not clever to neglect them. And agents, publishers, readers all know this for a fact.

If you are really stuck, then nothing in the world beats getting direct feedback on your manuscript. And that is just what we are here to help with.

Check out our feedback service here. Or browse our selection of writing courses, mentoring options and workshops for inspiration. Or if you just want more advice, sign up for our mailing list now.


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