A few weeks ago, I did a Twitter interview with Wordsmith Studio. It was loads of fun, and I fielded lots of questions about all I’ve learned as an author. For those of you who don’t know me, I write the middle-grade (ages eight-to-twelve) spy adventure trilogy Double Vision for HarperCollins Children’s. One popular question came up: how much do you outline, and what does your outline look like? So, I was invited to share what works for me in guest post for the Wordsmith Studio blog.
I’ll start by confessing that I really hate outlining. But when you’re working with other people (editors, or an agent), you kind of have to show what you’re planning to do. Plus, if you don’t outline, you risk ending up with a giant heap of unusable writing, which makes editing a nightmare. Not outlining is like getting in the car for a road trip without bringing a map. You might end up in Kentucky when you were trying to go to California…
Quick note before we start: This method applies to any novel: MG, YA, romance, literary novel, whatever you’re working on. If you want to see how this framework works on the page, you can read one of my novels, or any of your favorites.
So, how do you outline when you’re more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer, a.k.a. a Pantser, like me?
Here’s what I do.
The first step is to start with character, conflict, setting, and genre. I won’t go into those elements here, but hopefully, you’ll have that stuff sorted out already. Add a list of other major characters, like your antagonist, sidekick, and so on. Stick to brief descriptions, so you can refer to them as you write.
The second step, and the focus of this post, is to create a list of plot points (the stops on your road trip). The idea is that you have a destination for each portion of your novel, but that you have plenty of room to be creative (take detours) as you write that first draft.
The easiest way to make sure you get the pacing right is to split your novel into four sections (three acts, with the second broken into two parts), and then further into eight plot points.
This is the opening of your novel, where you introduce your character, conflict, setting, etc. By the end of this act, you’ll have reached plot point one.
Plot point 1: The Point of No Return
Your protagonist has accepted the challenge of your conflict. Turning back is not an option. Think of the Narnia kids going into the wardrobe, or the PI taking the case. In a literary novel, your protagonist can’t go back to the way things used to be—just make sure it’s for a very compelling reason.
Act II, Part 1
This is the where the story builds. The detective gathers clues, the romantic lead gains a friend, maybe gets a make-over… If you have subplots, they’ll get more complicated. Act II, Part 1 should have two plot points to work with.
Plot point 2: Protagonist Fails
Your detective thinks he solved the case, but no—it was too easy. Your warrior thought he knew how to kung-fu his way out of a fight, but he gets his butt kicked. This can be a physical set-back, or if you’re writing a literary novel, a character set-back. Whatever goes wrong here, your character will master it by Act III.
Plot Point 3: Revelation/Complication
This plot point will depend on what you’re writing. For me as a thriller writer, it’s where my pool of clues and suspects grow. There’s a big clue in this plot point, something that will prove to reveal the bad guy in the end. For romance writers, your character’s confidence will build. For all other genres, think of this plot point as a place where your character seems to be on the right track. Your readers are rooting for him/her; give them something to root for.
Act II, Part 2
In the third part of your manuscript, things are really ramping up. The stakes are rising, and by the end, the subplots should be reaching their conclusions. But first, you have to turn everything upside down.
Plot Point 4: Midpoint/Reversal
Not every manuscript has this point, but it can be a big tension builder. The mid-point is where the protagonist’s journey is turned on its ear—this can be in the form of a reversal of the plot, or a pivot. In a mystery, your detective may discover that the suspect is not a man, but a woman, or that a trusted confidant is a traitor. In a romance, your protagonist may have a fling with her best (dude) friend, making her confused about her quest for the man of her dreams. In a literary novel, this might be the part where your protagonist does something she never thought possible. You get the idea: the mid-point is where you shake things up. Use it as a chance to raise your stakes. Remember Plot Point 3, where everything seemed to be on track? This is where you derail the train.
Plot Point 5: Another Revelation/Complication
Things are heating up! The quest needs a new direction after that mid-point/reversal, and your character is really determined now to get what he/she wants. To get to this plot point, he might lose a few allies (nobody likes an obsessive person), and he’ll get more pushback from your antagonist. This is the part where your stakes get even higher.
Plot Point 6: Darkest Before Dawn
By the time you get to the end of Act II, your protagonist has been beat up—whether it’s literally or figuratively. What was your character’s worst fear when they began their journey? That’s what this plot point should be. It’s the darkest point in your novel, where all seems lost, and there looks to be no way out. In a mystery/thriller, your detective has been thrown off the case. In a romance, your protagonist loses the guy she really loves because she did something stupid.
Note: If you have subplots, they should be resolved by the end of Act II.
This is the last (and most exciting) part of the novel. It’s where the drama is at its peak.
Plot Point 7: Storming the Castle (Part 1)
This part is the most fun, I think. Your hero gets one more shot at getting the bad guy, or getting her love interest! To build tension, have her partially succeed, or almost succeed by this plot point. In the Double Vision books, I use this double plot point method in Act III, where Linc (my protagonist) appears to solve the case the first time, but we find his job isn’t quite done… Have some fun with this part, and really kick the stakes and drama into high gear. You’ve come this far, and so has your reader. They deserve some fireworks…
Plot Point 8: Storming the Castle (Part 2)
This is the part where your hero does the impossible. In a thriller, he takes down the mastermind. In a literary novel, you can have your protagonist do something that was unimaginable in Act I. By the end, make sure you wrap up any loose ends—and if you’re writing a mystery, make sure the plot is airtight, and that you sprinkled your clues throughout the manuscript.
That’s it, folks!
The bottom line is that plotting doesn’t have to constrict your creativity. With a simple framework, you can make sure you don’t create an uneditable (I just made that a word) manuscript, while still leaving plenty of room for a few detours. This is a simple scriptwriting plotting method; I didn’t invent it, nor can I take creative claim. You can find a more detailed (and variable) method in any scriptwriting plotting workbook. And I recommend that you watch a few of your favorite movies—I guarantee you’ll be able to spot most of these plot points in just about every one.
Quick tip: When you start editing, split your manuscript into eight sections, one for each plot point. Ideally, each section should build like a mini-arc toward your plot point.
Let me know if you read my novels and can spot these plot points!
F.T. Bradley is the author of Double Vision (Harper Children’s), a MG mystery trilogy featuring Linc Baker. She’s originally from the Netherlands, and now lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with her husband and two daughters. F.T. still likes to travel, like Double Vision’s main character Linc, whenever she can.