How to Write a Story Outline: 9 Easy Steps for Creative Writers

how to write a story outline

Have you been staring at a blank page, struggling to figure out your story? If you have, then an effective outline may be your secret weapon for finally writing that fiction story you know you want to write!

When I first started writing, I would just wing it, trying to rely on the thoughts in my head to keep track of the plot and subplots, characters, and all the other details.

As you can imagine, it became overwhelming fast! I quickly learned to appreciate the benefits of outlining – at least on some level – to provide the roadmap that would guide each creative journey.

Article Summary: How to Write a Story Outline
  1. Purpose: Define your story’s core message.
  2. Characters: Write out character profiles with traits and motivations.
  3. Setting: Describe the time and place.
  4. Conflict: Identify the central tension in the story.
  5. Theme: Determine underlying messages.
  6. Plot: Choose a story structure (linear, three-act, etc.).
  7. Scenes: Break down your story into individual actions.
  8. Review: Refine for logical flow.

With a solid story outline, you can map out the overall plot, flesh out details, and ensure consistency before writing your first draft.

But how exactly do you write an effective story outline as an author?

Discover the essential elements required to propel your narrative ideas and learn how to write a story outline with this comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide.

Let’s look at some top tips that will transform that idea in your head into a fully formed story outline ready for the page!

infographic defining a story outline

The Importance Of Story Outlines

When you write a story outline, it’s helpful to see it as a roadmap that guides you smoothly from the opening scene to the final words, “The End.”

Without that planned route, getting lost in subplots, bogged down by irrelevant details, or stranded with a bloated story that goes in too many directions is easy.

Or, worst of all, your story goes nowhere at all.

A story outline is what you need to stay focused and move forward!

Plenty of beloved books and films started with just a basic sketch of the story, which was later developed into an entire story arc in the writing process.

Author J.K. Rowling spent five years outlining the intricate Harry Potter saga, meticulously planning out the underlying themes, and interweaving plot twists and details of the wizarding world.

She developed in-depth character biographies and plotted story arcs before publishing a single page! 

Filmmaker James Cameron conceived the initial story outline for The Terminator while dreaming of a metallic torso dragging itself along the floor. 

He mapped out a comprehensive 6-page outline, laying the foundation for the basic elements of the story and characters.

This solid outline brought the characters to life and brought a clear idea and unique sci-fi concept years before cameras rolled. 

And perhaps one of the most famous story outlines of all is the one filmmaker George Lucas initially wrote for Star Wars, entitled:

The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the “Journal of the Whills”.

The story outline was based on the hero’s journey and centered around classical heroes and character archetypes.

The outline was 14 pages long and mapped out the beginning, middle, and end while leaving plenty of room for adding complexity to the story elements in the screenplay. 

No matter the story, writers who devote time to the outlining process reap the rewards when it’s executed faithfully.

Step 1: Understand Your Story’s Purpose

know the reason you are writing a story before outlining it

Before you can construct an effective outline, you need to have a clear grasp of your story’s purpose.

Why are you driven to tell this story, and what do you hope readers will gain from it?

Is it a journey of self-discovery, a critique of society, or a statement about human nature?

Defining the major events and the central idea that unfolds through your narrative will guide your structural choices as your story progresses. 

If you want to create a story with a slow, meandering suspense, keep in mind that its narrative arc will differ from that of a breathless, action-packed fantasy epic.

Think carefully about the impression you want to leave on readers when they reach the final page. Jot down the key ideas, emotions, and lessons you want to convey.

Keep these goals in mind as you craft your outline to ensure the purpose remains clear throughout.

Don’t be afraid to dig deep and do some soul-searching. Most stories often stem from reflections on the author’s own life experiences and perspectives.

Finding your why now helps to define a good story later.

Know your motivation for telling this story inside and out. When your purpose is defined, you can begin outlining a story structure that brings your unique vision to life.

Step 2: Know Your Characters

when writing a story outline know your characters

Vibrant, multifaceted characters are essential for creating the beating heart of any engaging story. As you start writing your outline, devote significant time to developing the characters who will carry your plot forward.

Start by creating and documenting basic character profiles such as:

  • Key personality traits
  • Backstories
  • Motivations
  • Relationships
  • Physical attributes
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Special skills
  • Character flaws

Get specific with your character development ‒ go beyond generic descriptions and develop quirks and habits unique to each individual. Know what makes your characters tick.

a group of story characters

You’ll want characters who leap off the page, not flat archetypes. Think about their emotional wounds and opportunities for growth. Map out transformative arcs for characters that readers will connect with.

Also, consider relationships between characters that may deepen the drama or lighten the tone.

By knowing your main characters inside and out from the outset, you can organically integrate their development into your outline.

When you start writing, your characters will feel authentic and purposeful, not forced into the plot.

All the pieces of your entire story arc will flow more smoothly when you have command of the characters driving the story forward.

Step 3: Establish Your Setting

story outline - determine the setting

As you structure your narrative, don’t neglect the importance of when and where your story unfolds.

Not only should your setting establish context, atmosphere, and constraints for your characters, but the setting is crucial for world-building and establishing a clear sense of place.

Decide when your story occurs, whether present day, a thousand years ago or in an imagined future.

Consider the time period and how its technology, values, and events may shape your plot points. Determine a geographic location that may fuel or conflict with your characters’ objectives.

In Jeanne DuPrau’s The City Of Ember, the resident’s beliefs, customs, and rituals are shaped by the underground city in which they live. When the main character finds a mysterious map, a plot unfolds to uncover the origins and purpose of the city and the promise of a way out.

Just as characters require development, devoting your time to researching and mapping details will make the setting feel realistic.

Outline vivid sensory descriptions to hold the reader’s attention. A richly drawn setting can take on a life of its own and become its own character in the story.

By establishing an immersive setting from the start, you can naturally weave in the progression of story details in terms of when and where they occur.

Settings forced into scenes as an afterthought never work as well.

Step 4: Identify the Conflict

think about the conflict in a story in your outline

At the heart of any good story sits a conflict that sets events in motion. As you structure your outline, make notes of any core conflicts that are driving your narrative forward. These are essential elements that will cause problems and tensions for your characters.

Let’s take a look at how to use conflicts effectively:

story structure - conflict
  • The conflict may be external, internal, or both. Perhaps it is an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. It may be a character’s internal struggle with morality. Or it could stem from relationships damaged by betrayal.
  • Ensure your outline has a distinct conflict woven through each plot point and character arc. Whatever the scenario, consistency is important to keep readers engaged.
  • Make the conflict clear to understand, even if nuanced. It’s never a good idea to leave your readers guessing what central tension or problem needs resolution. 
  • Build the stakes and urgency surrounding the conflict. Outline how tensions escalate to a climactic peak.
  • Map out any side conflicts. These are often minor hurdles that characters need to resolve before the central conflict is confronted.

With a firm grasp on your central conflict, you can craft an outline that propels readers through an engaging arc of obstacles, rising action, and ultimate resolution.

Step 5: Identify The Story’s Themes

outline the themes of your story

In addition to the plot, compelling stories are built around exploring one or more poignant themes. Themes are the underlying messages and big ideas that connect your narrative and give it meaning.

As you structure your outline, define the key themes you aim to convey throughout the arc of your story.

Is it a story about unconditional love, overcoming adversity, or modern alienation?

Extracting the themes early provides a lens to shape your outline through.

Effective themes shouldn’t feel bolted on at the end but instead amplified across characters, settings, and events.

what is the theme of a story

Integrating themes organically through drama, symbolism, motifs, and dialogue helps bind the story’s purpose.

Well-executed themes that resonate will always leave a lasting impression on readers long after the final page. They reflect truths about human nature and the world we live in.

Knowing your themes intimately will create an invisible but powerful anchor for your story. 

Your reader may not be able to see it, but they’ll undoubtedly be able to feel it.

A compelling story hinges on the power of its core conflict and its character’s journey to finding a meaningful and satisfying resolution.

Step 6: Structure Your Plot

story outline - determine the story and plot structure

One of the most critical decisions when outlining is choosing the proper plot structure for your story. The right story structure can save you hours fixing plot holes!

rising falling action in a story

Here is a brief overview of common plot structures to consider and some of the pros and cons of using them:

Linear narrative: The story events tend to unfold chronologically from start to finish. They are straightforward and easy to follow. Linear narratives are usually less suspenseful and have limited complexity.

Three-act structure: This plot is typically divided into three main parts – beginning, middle, and end. It is a classic, simple, tried and tested formula with a satisfying build-up and resolution. However, it can sometimes feel formulaic if it’s not used with originality.

Five-act structure: This is similar in many ways to the three-act structure, but it splits the story into five main sections. It provides more room for complex storytelling and multiple climaxes within the plot, but it may be harder for your reader to remain engaged.

The frame narrative: The story within a story. A main narrator usually shares the tale, which allows for multiple perspectives. This structure can be highly creative and engaging but can distance and distract readers from the core themes of the story.

Nonlinear: This is where story events are often revealed out of chronological order. This builds mystery and suspense, leading up to a strong reveal, but it can create a confusing timeline for readers to follow if not mapped out correctly.

Consider your story goals, themes, and characters carefully when selecting a plot structure for your outline. The right structure provides coherence while giving you the space to write the most interesting story possible.

Step 7: Break Down the Story Into Scenes

outline your story scenes

With your overarching plot structure mapped, the next step is breaking your story down into individual scenes to outline.

Scenes are the building blocks that make up the larger narrative.

When outlining major scenes, you’ll want to capture the action and purpose of each one as it relates to the overall story progression. Here are some key details to include in your scene outline:

  • Where/when is the scene set?
  • Which characters are involved?
  • What are the key events and plot developments?
  • How does the scene move the story forward?

Most writers prefer to create an outline template which helps to organize the big picture of your story. A template can typically contain elements like:

  • Scene number: 2
  • Setting: Road to the mythical city
  • Characters: The Protagonist & A wise old traveler
  • Description: The protagonist journeys toward the city and learns of an important mystical prophecy
  • Purpose: Reveals background info or character development

Fleshing out scenes with outline templates gives you a bird’s eye view to examine the story structure at a glance, ensuring your outline makes sense and has a logical progression from beginning to end.

Step 8: Review and Adjust Your Outline

get feedback on your story outline

Completing the first draft of your outline is an important milestone, but this is just the beginning of the outlining process. Revising and perfecting your outline is crucial before proceeding to the writing stage.

After finishing an initial outline, it’s often a good idea to rest and step away for a day or two.

This allows you to approach the outline again with fresh eyes so that you can spot any gaps or inconsistencies in the narrative flow.

As you review, check that plot developments and character arcs have a natural feel and unfold logically from start to finish.

Make sure each scene transitions smoothly. Do you need a cliffhanger or a hook to propel the overarching story forward?

Author Suzanne Collins uses these techniques perfectly at the end of almost every chapter in her Hunger Games trilogy.

Look for any sections that contain plot holes or seem bloated, draggy, or unnecessary, and trim them down. Your reader will thank you for keeping the pacing of your story focused.

Don’t be afraid to rework, move around or cut any elements that aren’t working. The outlining process is meant to be fluid.

Adjust chapter order, develop subplots, modify settings ‒ whatever needs to be done to tighten up the story. Many writers use storytelling tools like revision cards or sticky notes to lay out an outline visually. 

Refine each element until you feel confident you have a detailed outline. The revision process will pay off immensely when you begin drafting the actual writing, knowing your outline fully aligns with your vision.

Step 9: Begin Writing with Confidence

after the outline is done start writing

You now have a solid story outline as your trusty guide as you move into the writing process.

With your overall plot, main characters, and key scenes mapped out, you can now dive into the first draft with direction instead of facing the task of filling in a blank page.

Your story outline should provide you with a framework to fall back on when you get stuck on a chapter. You already have the story flow, beginning, middle, and ending in mind, so you can focus on expanding scenes by adding the details.

That said, your outline doesn’t have to be set in stone. The writing process is constantly fluid, and you may find that some outlined ideas don’t translate as well into full scenes.

Be open to following new paths that arise organically as you start writing. Your outline is there to help you create forward momentum and keep your efforts aligned with your original vision.

Keep your outline handy as you write that first draft. Refer back to it to refresh your memory on major plot points or review character growth.

Trust your outline, but let your imagination flow freely so you can continue to perfect your writing style and practice developing your unique voice as a writer.

Flip back to your outline anytime you need stability.

And most importantly, tell a great story, enjoy the journey and the destination.

Happy writing!

Common Questions

How do you write an outline for beginners?

For writers just beginning, keep your first outline simple. Focus on capturing the core story arc – the beginning, middle, and end. Write a one-paragraph summary of each major plot point. Define the protagonist, antagonist, and central conflict. Outline only key scenes that drive the action forward. Resist over-planning early on and save details for the draft!

What is a basic plot outline?

A basic plot outline gives a quick glimpse of the entire story, capturing the story’s flow from start to finish. It simplifies the major beats and helps you understand each character’s role within the story. Use it as a handy tool to better grasp and map out your storyline! A typical plot outline may look something like this:

Beginning – Introduce the protagonist, the world, and the central conflict.
Inciting incident – An event that disrupts the protagonist’s world.
Rising action – The conflict unfolds, and the stakes increase.
Climax – The protagonist faces conflict head-on.
Falling action – The conflict is resolved, and any loose ends are tied.
Resolution – Closure for the protagonist.

What is a plot outline example?

The Pixar film Coco provides a solid example of a plot outline that uses a strong narrative arc:

Beginning – Aspiring musician Miguel dreams of being a star.
Inciting incident – Miguel finds a photo linking him to a famous singer.
Rising action – Miguel enters the Land of the Dead, searching for the singer.
Climax – Miguel plays music to lift the curse on his family.
Falling action – Miguel returns to the Land of the Living.

Final Thoughts on How to Write a Story Outline

Learning how to write a story outline helps you maintain a clear idea of where your writing is headed. Here are the key takeaways on the benefits of using your own outlines:

  • Get to know your story’s purpose and themes inside out.
  • Develop dynamic characters and vivid settings.
  • Identify the central conflict driving all the important events forward.
  • Choose a plot structure that fits your vision and organize the key moments into individual scenes.
  • Create a detailed outline of your story’s subplots.
  • Your outline provides a framework to guide your writing, not restrict it.
  • Let character arcs and ideas flow organically from the outline.
  • Revise and adjust as needed to avoid plot holes and view your outline as a living document, open to changes as you write.
  • Follow your detailed outline, and the characters will come to life. Scenes will continuously make sense as you head toward a good story and a satisfying resolution.

So embrace the outline process as an empowering first step, not a chore. Let your imagination run wild within the possibilities your outline allows.

Then watch in wonder as the story writes itself according to your master plan!

If you’re ready to start creating your own story outline, my beat sheet template, based on Blake Snyder’s famous Save The Cat Beat Sheet framework is a step-by-step guide that takes you through an easy-to-follow process from start to finish!

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