Welcome back to my series on NaNoWriMo preparation. Last time, we talked about planning out your characters before you start writing. Today, let’s look at a method for creating a basic plot outline for your novel.
Remember, this is just one possible way of outlining your novel. I think it’s a pretty good method, both for newbies and experienced writers. I’ve been using it myself more and more. But in the end, only you can figure out how you write best. Take what works, and leave what doesn’t.
In the last post, I encouraged you to come up with goals, motivations, and conflicts for your main characters, and to write that information down so you can refer to it. This time, we’re going to use that information to create a plot skeleton that gives you the basic shape of your novel.
We’re not going to plot out every single scene in your novel. Instead, we’ll just be looking at the seven key scenes that almost every story has in some form or another. Different writers have different names for these scenes, but in the end it’s all the same.
If you have a plan for these seven scenes, you’ve got a rough roadmap for your entire novel. There will still be gaps where you can explore and go in different directions. But this method gives you a few landmarks to head towards when you start writing.
I’ll list each of the seven scenes here, and then we’ll go through them in more detail. As we go through each scene, write down how you think you’re going to fit that scene into your novel. If you have no idea yet, leave it blank and come back to it later when you’ve got some of the other pieces filled in.
Here are the seven key scenes:
- Opening (Inciting Incident)
- Plot turn 1 (The Point of No Return)
- Pinch 1 (Apply Pressure)
- Midpoint (Information Obtained, Plans Made)
- Pinch 2 (The Darkest Moment)
- Plot turn 2 (The Last Piece of the Puzzle)
Opening (Inciting Incident)
Openings are hard. There’s no way around that. You’re trying to introduce characters, places, maybe a whole new world. You’re trying to hook the reader. And you’re presenting the inciting incident, that event that changes everything and propels your protagonist(s) through the story.
That event—the inciting incident—is what you want to focus on for now. That’s going to be the core of this scene. The event that changes things for your character. It could be something big. A bomb going off, or the detective getting a call to inform her that the serial killer everyone thought was dead is killing once more. It could be your character getting fired, or getting arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. If your story is a quieter one, this inciting incident might be less dramatic.
But the point is that we want to introduce the first threads of the story nice and early. This serves two purposes. It hooks the reader, making them want to continue. And it means you don’t spend the first three chapters with your character wandering around doing nothing in particular while you try to figure out how to write yourself into a story.
You could read entire writing advice books dedicated to the opening scene. But don’t get too worried about trying to make your opening perfect just yet. Until November ends, the most important thing is to get the words on paper, even if they’re not as good as they could be.
Once you’re in revisions , you’ll have plenty of time to cut out info dumps and think of cool opening sentences. But for now, just think about that single incident that changes things for your character.
Plot Turn 1 (The Point of No Return)
This scene is where things really start to get serious. Here, your protagonist’s goals, motivations, and conflicts become firmly established. The character knows what he has to do, and why he has to do it. Maybe he doesn’t know how he’s going to do it yet, but he knows he has to try.
Often, this is the point where the character has a chance to back out of her quest. She could turn around and go back home and ignore the problem. But then something shows her the consequences of giving up. She then makes the conscious choice to work towards achieving her external goal.
In Star Wars, this scene occurs after Luke Skywalker rejects Obi Wan’s offer to teach him about the Force. When he returns home, he sees that his uncle and aunt have been killed by the Empire’s stormtroopers. He now knows the consequences if he refuses the call to adventure. So he chooses to go with Obi Wan and fight the Empire.
Pinch 1 (Apply Pressure)
The pinch points are scenes where pressure is applied to the characters. New threats appear. Your hero gets her butt kicked and figures out she’s in way over her head.
This is a good time to show your character exactly what she’s got herself into. Maybe she thought achieving her goal wouldn’t be too hard. Show her how wrong she is.
In an action story, this might be the protagonist’s first direct encounter with the villain or his minions. In that case, your hero probably gets defeated and only barely escapes. In a different type of novel, this might be where the protagonist comes face-to-face with the controlling mother-in-law who will stop at nothing to break up the happy couple. Or maybe your protagonist flunks a test she thought she was going to cruise through.
Basically, we want to ratchet up the tension and show both the audience and the character that it’s not going to be easy for her to achieve her goal.
Midpoint (Information Obtained, Plans Made)
Generally, this is where the protagonist goes from being reactive to being proactive. She’s sick and tired of wandering around in the dark, clueless and running away from threats. It’s time to fight back. It’s time to actually figure out how she’s going to achieve her goal.
But your character isn’t just going to wake up one morning knowing how to achieve her goals. She needs new information. That’s the other major component of this scene. New knowledge.
He may discover an important clue that changes everything, or work out that the enemy has one weakness that maybe—just maybe—he can exploit. This new information can even be something simple, like the heroine finding out that the hero likes her as much as she likes him. It all depends on your story goal.
Your protagonist has some valuable new information, but that definitely doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from here on out. No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
That’s why this is also a good place to crank up the stakes. Increase the conflict, and increase the protagonist’s motivation. Maybe the bad guys kidnap someone important to the protagonist. Maybe there’s now an added time pressure. (We’ve just learned that there’s a bomb, and it’s going to explode in less than three hours!) Maybe our heroine just found out the hero likes her, but she also found out that he’s about to marry another woman.
Granted, this is a lot of stuff to cram into one scene. In your novel, the “midpoint scene” may actually be spread out over two or three scenes.
Also, bear in mind that this scene doesn’t have to come exactly halfway through the novel. It’s fairly common for this to happen a little earlier. Not a problem.
Pinch 2 (The Darkest Moment)
You thought things were bad before? You have no idea, pal.
This scene is where it all goes horribly wrong. For a moment there, it looked like your protagonist’s plan might just work. He was doing everything right. He learned from his earlier mistakes. Victory was within his grasp.
And then all hell broke loose.
In action and adventure stories, this is often the scene where someone important is killed by the enemy. A lot of the time, the victim is the mentor character (Gandalf falling in Moria, Obi Wan being cut down by Darth Vader). But it could just as easily be a friend or an ally who falls here.
Of course, death isn’t necessary in every story. Instead, maybe your protagonist does something that drives his friends and allies away. Or maybe his friends become trapped and cannot help. Maybe the hero and heroine have a fight so bad it looks like they’ll never recover from it. Perhaps your protagonist stands on the edge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.
Even if an actual death does not occur here, it’s common for the theme of death to cast its shadow over the scene. This might be the death of a relationship, or the death of hope.
Primarily, this scene is about despair. For a few moments, both your audience and your protagonist should believe there’s no way she can recover from this.
Don’t pull your punches here. This scene should hurt. It hurts your characters, it hurts you, and if you’ve done things right, it’ll hurt your reader as well. That pain is essential for making the climax even more powerful.
Plot Turn 2 (The Last Piece of the Puzzle)
Your character went through the worst thing imaginable. His friends have left him. He’s bruised and bloodied (either physically or metaphorically). But he’s still alive. And it’s not over yet.
In this scene, your protagonist receives the last piece of the puzzle. She finds one final clue that reveals the murderer’s identity. He realises there never was any magic potion, the magic was inside him all along. He finds out there is hope after all. He begins to believe in the Force. And now he knows what he needs to do to achieve his goal.
This might be a point where your protagonist’s internal goal finally changes. He learns to respect himself, or he learns the value of friendship, or the value of true love, or whatever.
You’ve put your character in a hole. Now it’s time to get him out of it.
Climaxes can be tricky, but you don’t necessarily need to work out every detail of them when you’re just creating your outline.
This is where the story goal (usually your protagonist’s external goal) is achieved. With the help of the information he learned in Plot Turn 2, our protagonist confronts his antagonist. But it’s a tough fight. For a moment, it might look like our hero will be defeated at the final hurdle.
But then, using his cunning, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and perhaps the help of his friends and allies, the hero snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. The bad guy is finally confronted and defeated. Or after a tense gunfight, the murderer is captured. Or the heroine crashes the hero’s wedding, confesses her love, and they finally kiss.
Victory in the climax usually comes when the hero proves that he has learned lessons over the course of his journey (and especially in Plot Turn 2). These lessons can be both external (finding out about the Death Star’s convenient exhaust vent) and moral lessons (learning to trust the Force).
Tragic endings are also possible, of course. The protagonist might fail to achieve his external goal. He snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, so to speak. Alternatively, he may have a pyrrhic victory. He achieves his goal, but the cost is so great you almost wonder if it’s a victory at all.
That’s all, folks.
And there you have it. The seven key scenes. If you’re planning to outline your novel before you start NaNoWriMo, these scenes are a great place to start. If you have other scenes in mind, slot them in wherever they fit.
Think about other books and movies in your genre and see if you can figure out which scene is the Midpoint, and which is the Darkest Moment, and so on. Different types of stories use these scenes in different ways, but most modern plots follow this basic structure.
For your novel, write down what you think will happen for each of the seven scenes. I do this on my writing program, but if you’re more of a tactile person it might help to write out your scene outlines on note cards or pieces of paper so you can see where everything fits. Once you’ve got these seven scenes pretty well nailed down, you’ll start seeing what needs to happen to get your characters from one key scene to another.
As always, remember that all we’re doing here is creating a guideline. You are not bound to follow this outline slavishly once you start writing. But having a skeleton to work with can make it much easier to figure out what to do when you’re twenty or thirty thousand words deep into the novel and wondering where the hell to go from here.
And that’s about all the pre-NaNoWriMo wisdom I have for you folks. Once November starts, I’ll have a few more posts about how to manage your time and how to keep going when the writing gets tough.
But until then, start thinking about your characters and plot. It might not all click right away. But keep at it, and soon enough you’ll be outlining with the best of them.