I'm obsessing about outlines while re-doing mine for 'Justice at Sea'. I'm starting to get quite a collection of possible outline formats. Any favorites of yours that I missed?
Three-Act Structure (Aristitle's Incline)
The classic linear plot has a beginning, middle, and ending. In a novel, they’re structured as three acts. If you were to draw a diagram of this plot line, it will look like a diagonal line starting at the left, building toward a climax which ends on the right. The line is divided into thirds, one third for each of the three acts. At the bottom left at the very beginning of Act One is your opening scene. Your ending scene will be at the top of the incline on the far right. In the middle of your incline is your midpoint scene, the first great turning point of your novel (or short story), or as Aristotle called it, the reversal.
A novel using this type of plot line will have six key scenes. Because of time and word constraints, a short story won’t have this many full scenes, but you can still use this diagram to outline your story. The six key scenes are:
1. Opening scene
2. Plot point one
3. Midpoint or reversal scene
4. Plot point two
6. Ending scene
Now let’s go into this in more detail.
Act One is your beginning of the story. It is the setup. Here you introduce your characters, reveal their conflicts. Act One closes with a turning point (with plot point one) and then the curtain to Act Two opens. In Act Two, obstacles intensify the conflict. Act Two will contain the reversal scene at its midpoint and will close with plot point two, another key scene that will signal the ending of Act Two and bring up the curtain for Act Three. Act Three contains the climax and ending scene.
Your opening scene is your reader’s first glimpse into your story. It’s the scene that determines whether or not your reader will buy your book or continue with the rest of the story. It introduces your characters and conflicts while also setting the tone and mood for the rest of the story.
Plot Point One
After your opening scene, your next key scene is plot point one. This is the scene that closes the first act of your story. The purpose of this scene is to finish the setting up of conflicts and characters. At the end of plot point one, the tone, time, or pace changes.
In a movie, the midpoint occurs at the midpoint, at the end of the first hour of a two-hour movie, or around page sixty in a script. In a novel or story, you will also have a midpoint. Understanding the importance of this key scene will help you to prevent a boring, floundering middle of a story—or middle-of-the-book blues.
The midpoint serves another purpose in your story. Robert J. Ray describes it as what anchors the events both leading up to the midpoint and away from it. Your midpoint should transform your character in some way. All the events leading up to it should have a logical cause and effect relationship, as should the events leading away from your midpoint. Each event linked in a causal chain will lead to a logical but also satisfying ending.
Plot Point Two
Just as plot point one closes Act One, plot point two closes Act Two and opens the curtain for Act Three. Robert J. Ray describes the function of plot point two: “Plot point two is the high point and turning point. You use it to wind the action up, twisting the strands of your story so they can be unwound in Act Three, sometimes called the denouement.”
The climax of a story is the high point of emotional intensity. It is the moment of resolution. On the Aristotle incline diagram, it’s the highest point of your story before it closes with the ending scene.
The ending scene is the final scene of your story. At this point, everything has come to a logical resolution. An ideal ending scene should have a final image that remains in the reader’s mind after he has closed the book.
Mary Shoman's Script Layout (an adaptation of the 3-Act)
[pages 1-12] SETUP: Who is the main character, what is the place, time, mood, size /scope /feeling, point of view. What's the story about? Whose story is it? What does hero want, and what's stopping hero from getting it? Do we like hero and care if he/she gets what she wants? What happens next?
 CENTRAL QUESTION POINT: What is the central question, the theme, the main issue the movie is going to answer?
 NEW OPPORTUNITY: Something that happens to steer events in a particular direction
[12-30] CHOICE OF PATH: Based on the new opportunity, the hero begins taking steps toward a general goal.
 CHANGE OF PLANS/TURNING POINT: What event throws hero a curve, forces response or reaction, sets the hero's plan/goal, defines the hero's new pathway for Act II? General goal(s) become specific.
[30-60] PROGRESS: Plans to achieve goals are working. There are conflicts but things are going pretty well. Hero is changing, circumstances are changing & stakes get higher.
 MOVING FORWARD METAPHOR: A small scene with symbolic overtones, showing the character's growth, and giving us a clue to the resolution.
 POINT OF NO RETURN: Something happens so that hero, if pushing forward & committing, against all odds, to goal, cannot return to where he/she was in the setup. Sometimes, here the external goal has become internal/personal;pursuing it will change the hero.
[60+] POST-POINT MOMENT: A lighter moment, which typically follows the POINT OF NO RETURN. Doesn't further action, but shows how hero is
changing, then obstacles start to escalate.
[60-90] COMPLICATIONS AND HIGHER STAKES: The goal becomes even harder to achieve. It looks like it will take everything to do this, harder than thought, but hero wants it more because it's harder.
 ALL HOPE IS LOST/MAJOR SETBACK/THE BIG GLOOM/GIVING UP
POINT: The greatest setback. It appears that hero may not achievegoal, hero about to give up, but something happens that changes everything, an event that gives a chance at a goal hero didn't know he/she had.
[90 - 108] FINAL PUSH --> ONE SPECIFIC ACTION: Final intensification of the hero's pursuit of the goal, which usually becomes focused here into achieving one specific action. An event occurs that educates the hero, and
starts the resolution. Hero may be getting something more or different from what he/she set out to get, hero has learned something and is changed by it, a new complications sets in?
[108 - 114] CLIMAX: Hero is close, can see goal, final obstacle, has to give up everything in pursuit of the goal, crisis point where all is in jeopardy, final moment, all or nothing . Hero achieves or fails to achieve the goal, and outer motivation is clearly resolved, often through confrontation with a "nemesis."
[108 - 114] DENOUEMENT: What is the outcome, resolution, hero's new life?
 THE END
* I have some reservations about this outline, yet it’s one I usually use. The FINAL PUSH, MOVING FORWARD, & POST POINT MOMENT really feel artificial and constraining to me. Formulaic. Yet, when I identify these scenes in movies (the incredibly short spider-killing in the brilliant and tragic Chronicle, for instance) I find they work brilliantly.
Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey
(adapted by Christopher Vogler, among others - again for screenplays.)
(sorry about the darkness here, can't seem to lighten that up.)
Act I: Departure, Separation
Act I: Departure, Separation
Intro - The Ordinary World (the hero in his natural environ, before he’s thrust into strangeness)
The Call - The Call to Adventure (the story hook, the change) The adventure begins with the hero receiving a call to action, such as a threat to the peace of the community, or the hero simply falls into or blunders into it. The call is often announced to the hero by another character who acts as a "herald". The herald, often represented as dark or terrifying and judged evil by the world, may call the character from his world of the common day to adventure simply by the crisis of his appearance.
Refusal - The (possible) Refusal of the Call (the hero balks, fear.) In some stories, the hero initially refuses the call to adventure, or something prevents him from answering the call. When this happens, the hero may suffer somehow, and may eventually choose to answer, or may continue to decline the call.
Aid - Supernatural Aid (helps prepare the hero, readies them for the change). After the hero has accepted the call, he often encounters a protective figure (The Mentor - often elderly) who provides special tools and advice for the adventure ahead, such as an amulet or a weapon.
Crossing the Threshold - PPI (the Climax of Act I) - Crossing the First Threshold (once the hero crosses this, they are committed.) The hero must cross the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not. Often this involves facing a "threshold guardian", an entity that works to keep all within the protective confines of the world but must be encountered in order to enter the new zone of experience.
Alternately: The Belly of the Whale: The hero, rather than passing a threshold, passes into the new zone by means of rebirth. Appearing to have died by being swallowed or having their flesh scattered, the hero is transformed and becomes ready for the adventure ahead
Act II: Initiation (Pt. One)
Tests, Allies & Enemies - The Road of Trials - Once past the threshold, the hero encounters a dream landscape of ambiguous and fluid forms. The hero is challenged to survive a succession of obstacles and, in so doing, amplifies his consciousness. The hero is helped covertly by the supernatural helper or may discover a benign power supporting him in his passage.
The Approach - Approaching to the Inmost Cave - the world of secrets
The Ordeal - Midpoint (Climax of Act II, Pt. 1) Can take several different forms, When the Hero hits rock bottom and comes face to face with their greatest fear.
- Atonement with the Father - The hero reconciles the tyrant and merciful aspects of the father-like authority figure to understand himself as well as this figure.
- The Meeting with the Goddess - The ultimate trial is often represented as a marriage between the hero and a queenlike, or mother-like figure. This represents the hero's mastery of life (represented by the feminine) as well as the totality of what can be known. When the hero is female, this becomes a male figure.
- Woman as the Temptress - His awareness expanded, the hero may fixate on the disunity between truth and his subjective outlook, inherently tainted by the flesh. This is often represented with revulsion or rejection of a female figure.
- Apotheosis - The hero's ego is disintegrated in a breakthrough expansion of consciousness. Quite frequently the hero's idea of reality is changed; the hero may find an ability to do new things or to see a larger point of view, allowing the hero to sacrifice himself.
- The Ultimate Boon - The hero is now ready to obtain that which he has set out, an item or new awareness that, once he returns, will benefit the society that he has left.
Act II: Initiation (Pt. Two)
Reward (Seizing the Sword) Some kind of change that’s happened as a result of the Ordeal. Some reason it’s imperative for the Hero to return. The action that drive the character’s return to the world of normalcy and the Climax begins here.
Refusal of the Return - Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.
The Magic Flight - When the boon's acquirement (or the hero's return to the world) comes against opposition, a chase or pursuit may ensue before the hero returns.
Rescue from Without - The hero may need to be rescued by forces from the ordinary world. This may be because the hero has refused to return or because he is successfully blocked from returning with the boon. The hero loses his ego.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold - PP2 - The Road Back - The Climax of Act II (Pt. Two)
The hero returns to the world of common day and must accept it as real.
Act III: Return
Resurrection - Master of the Two Worlds - Because of the boon or due to his experience, the hero may now perceive both the divine and human worlds.
Return with the Elixir - Climax (of book & of Act III)
Freedom to Live - The hero bestows the boon to his fellow man - Denouement (a return to the beginning and life in the New World)
Each quarter of the circle in the Hero’s Journey builds to it’s own climax, and (after dividing act II into 2 parts) each quarter of the wheel represents one section on Aristotle’s Incline
* Although I’m a huge fan of Joseph Campbell, I feel that this is *not* how his material should be used. Identifying archetypes within your characters (and within culture) is useful. Building your characters around them, maybe not so much. I tend to take a look at this outline after I’ve completed a rough draft already, trying to think about themes and archetypes I hadn’t realized were in there, and deciding if I want to strengthen the themes around them, change or delete them.
The Classic 5-Act Structure (Shakespeare used this a lot)
The format of 5 acts is familiar from Shakespeare, and is grounded in the concepts of unity in Aristotle's Poetics. Scholars have analyzed the five act structure, notably Gustav Freytag who described a "pyramidal" structure, with Act 3 at the apex. Here is what to expect from the various acts:
Act 1 -- Exposition. We meet the dramatis personae, and time and place are established. We learn about the antecedents of the story. Attention is directed toward the germ of conflict and dramatic tensions.
Act 2 -- Complications. The course of action becomes more complicated, the "tying of knots" takes place. Interests clash, intrigues are spawned, events accelerate in a definite direction. Tension mounts, and momentum builds up.
Act 3 -- The Climax of Action. The development of conflict reaches its high point, the Hero stands at the crossroads, leading to victory or defeat, crashing or soaring.
Act 4 -- Falling Action. Reversals. The consequences of Act 3 play out, momentum slows, and tension is heightened by false hopes/fears. If it's a tragedy, it looks like the Hero can be saved. If not, then it looks like all may be lost.
Act 5 -- Catastrophe. The conflict is resolved, whether through a catastrophe, the downfall of the hero, or through his victory and transfiguration.
Some example plots where outlining a book or movie taught me something about how the plot was put together. (These are mostly movies, as I can go through a movie faster than a book. While analyzing movies doesn’t really help me in terms of sentence or paragraph structure, in terms of a scene-by-scene analysis, it’s extremely rewarding.
I recommend doing this a lot. I get a lot out of it, both as a writer and a movie-watcher. Who knew how freakin inspiriational Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn was? Who knew that Pulp Fiction is a morality tale? This guy.
Wrath of Kahn
One of my favorite movies of all time. If you’re not a Star Trek fan, you may want to skip to the next example, but one of the highlights of this movie was its appeal to a widestream audience. It turns out, this script has a marvelously richer subtext than I expected. One thing that surprised me is how the action scenes – though exciting – are rarely pivotal scenes in terms of plot or character arc. Most of the key plot turning points in this movie are characters making decisions, revealed largely through dialog. Most of the cool phaser and ship-to-ship scenes are simply represented in the incline as that line slanting upwards - rising action.
The SETUP: Includes Saavik’s disasterous Kobayashi Maru, Kirk’s dissatisfaction with his retirement combined with his reluctance to admit he has a problem. He has loyal friends around him, but won’t accept their help. Kahn’s escape, with specifics about why he hates Kirk and how committed he is to his revenge. Also touches on Kirk’s unique Kobayashi Maru solution. All in the first 12 minutes. How does Kirk deal with getting old?
The PUSH into ACT I: Kahn escapes and steals the Reliant. He’s after revenge on Kirk. The connection to Chekov & Carol Marcus makes this personal. Kirk must take command.
Choices: Kirk must take command. The driving decision that Coleman talks about. This conversation, when Kirk comes up to Spock during Spock’s meditation, is so important and personal that it reverberates throughout the whole movie. This is the Plot Point I that Robert Wray talks about, the scene that drives the story from Act I to Act II.
KIRK: I told Starfleet Command all we had was a boatload of children but we're the only ship in the quadrant. Spock: these cadets of yours - how good are they? Will they respond under real pressure?
SPOCK: Like all living things, each according to his gifts. Of course, the ship is yours.
KIRK: No. That won't be necessary. Just get me to Regula One.
SPOCK: As a teacher on a training mission, I am content to command the Enterprise. If we are to go on actual duty, it is clear that the senior officer on board must assume command.
KIRK: It may be nothing. Garbled communications. You take the ship.
SPOCK: Jim... you proceed from a false assumption. I'm a Vulcan. I have no ego to bruise.
(Kirk smiles in bemused wonderment.)
KIRK: You're about to remind me that logic alone dictates your actions?
SPOCK: I would not remind you of that which you know so well. (pause) If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a Starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.
KIRK I would not presume to debate you.
SPOCK That is wise. In any case, were I to invoke logic, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
KIRK Or the one.
(Spock inclines his head.)
SPOCK You are my commanding officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.
A lot of the phrases here reverberate throughout the entire movie. Kirk must divert the Enterprise, but tries to do it without taking command. Spock urges him to take command, telling him that Kirk never should have given up command in the first place. He also reminds him of their friendship. This hints towards Spock’s own Kobayashi Maru and sacrifice at the end. This is a turning point for both characters as well as changing the direction of events.
You almost can’t imagine the end of the movie unfolding in any other way than it does after this conversation. This is also one of the many places where the major theme of rebirth comes out. This is focused primarily on Kirk’s rebirth, but Spock’s final fate, the Genesis device, the new planet all echo this. You can feel this importance in the movie. Forget about ships blowing up, this personal connection is what anchors the story.
A lot of exciting action here. The intro of Genesis details, the mind control worms, Kahn’s attack and Kirk and Spock’s ingenious and explosive response. None of these are turning points, only a continuous rising action, ratcheting up the tension.
MIDPOINT: (or the point of No Return) - Kirk commits himself in a personal way, beaming down into the Genesis cave. Things become more personal, and things start to go very bad. More complications.
Kahn does a lot of damage here, stealing Genesis, marooning Kirk and vaporizing a few people on the way. It’s not just dangerous, but a further personal connection for Kirk. His old flame is there, and he learns about his son.
PLOT POINT TWO: (the Kick-off into ACT III)
We highlight Kick’s rogue tactics and winning streak with his final solution to the Kobayashi Maru. “I don’t like to lose.” Highlighted by his surprising success when Spock is ready to beam them up, as agreed “by the book”.
More rising action here, and wonderfully well-done. Another space battle, and the decision to enter the Motara Nebula, and the tactics and battle that follows. Only this time the Genesis Wave raises the stakes. Before putting this on paper, I’d always thought of this as the climax, but it’s not.
Hollywood (which usually takes a firmly conservative view on plotting) really likes an ‘All Hope is Lost’ twist here, to be retwisted for the surprise ending. I think the burning need to this to always happen can be overdone, but it works nicely here. Kahn tries to pull victory out of defeat – ala Ahab – by triggering the Genesis Effect. “I need warp speed in two minutes or we’re all dead.” Which pushes us to Spock’s major moment.
The CLIMAX: Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, and Kirk. (Not just physically, but spiritually.) Kirk grows here, finally learning the meaning of sacrifice. Note the tagbacks to the conversation in Plot Point One.
The DENOUEMENT: Kirk’s rebirth. And Spock’s Death/Rebirth. (Spock’s torpedo tube arc is shockingly similar to the Genesis device delivery in Marcus’ previous info dump.) Many references to rebirth, not the least of which is the birth of a planet underneath them. This is a story of death and rebirth for both characters.
This echos what I'd like to do with my own plots. I wanted each key scene to reverberate with my main characters in a profound and emotional way. So, when constructing my plots and key scenes, I wanted to make sure to notice and highlight the scenes of deep personal interest, to make sure that my plot focused heavily on the character’s change and growth. This usually means pain and conflict.
One of my favorite movies, particularly because of its oddball sequence of events, the purpose of which becomes more clear as you analyze it. Also interesting that this innovative plot falls nicely (still) into the 3-act model. This outline needs a lot of work – my notes, not Tarantino’s script. But even this rough start highlighted the underlying themes connecting all these narratives.
0-5 Frame w/ Honeybunny and Pumpkin
6-21 SETUP: Vincent Vega & Jules - Arguing about Wallace throwing guy over Mia
9 What's right, and what's wrong?
21-26 Vincent Vega & Marcellus's Wife
27-31 Vincent buying drugs
54 TURNING POINT: Just when you think your big worry is Vincent having sex Mia, Mia snorts the heroin
54-1.03 Vincent finds her OD-ed, takes her to Lance's they give her the shot, save her
1:03-1:08 Butch gets the watch
1:09 Butch's Fight, escape, Wallace's Hit
1:10-1:15 Butch's taxi ride
Jules and Vincent in the Diner while it’s getting robbed.
141-148 CLIMAX: Jules making the decision to walk away from a life of crime, starting with not slaughtering the violent and incompetent Honeybunny & Pumpkin when they try and rob him and the rest of the diner. He lets them walk, with all the money, but tries to shock enough to socket home the moral lessons he’s just learned.
The Big Sleep
The most interesting bit about this one was my first attempt, using the book and then the original screenplay. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. I didn’t find any real consistent threads, other than the constant themes Marlowe (Stained Knight alone in the darkness. The constant seediness of the city as representative of man’s nature.) Eventually, I came to the conclusion that as far as the Sternwood mystery, there just *wasn’t* any structure to the story, that Chandler had deliberately avoided any narrative thread here. (Google the story about Chandler and the Chauffer as back-up to this claim.) For Chandler, with such a strong ‘slumming angel’ voice, riveting wordcraft and engaging themes, he could pull this off.
But when Hollywood set about making the movie (involving such writers as William Faulkner and Leigh Bracket) the wandering plot caused some problems. They ended up re-cutting the film for a more linear plot and dropping in more scenes with Bogart & Bacall to support a romantic story arc. This is what I’ve outlined below. Did they subvert the original work a bit? Did they put a romantic story in a noir suit and undermine the genre a little bit? Sure. But they also made a better movie. Without the benefit of Chandler’s prose, which couldn’t translate directly to the screen, this was a good move.
1-14 SETUP: Intro: Carmen's flakiness, Gen. Sternwood's backstory, Vivian's wild ways & Marlowe's straight talking. The Problem: one blackmail scam today, and the previous one. Also, where's Shawn Reagen?
20-29 CHOICE OF PATH: Finds indelicate Carmen, argues about Regan w/Bacall (27:07), fences with police, * Decides that he's helping the Sternwoods (he likes the old man) more than just for the job.
24 - 27 Argues w/ Vivian
28 - 30 Bernie Olds & the Packard w Owen Taylor (for Carmen)
31 - 39 Vivian in Marlowe's office (his confession that he's beginning to like another of the Sternwood) & more blackmail (Carmen's picture)
29 TURNING POINT: Marlowe admits to his fondness for Vivian
29-45 Progress, Complications, Marlowe finds Carmen (naked/compromised) at Geiger's, and Geiger's body, Eddie Mars shows up.
46-57 & rising action Brody's apartment w/Vivian, Marlowe continues to work in the Sternwood's interests, but in his own way, at cross purposes w / Vivian
57-58 Carroll Shoots Brody, Marlowe chases Carroll, takes him to Geiger's calls police.
59 Vivian at the bar, tries to sugar him off the case, comes on to Marlowe, but the offer is tainted, because she's doing it for Mars. Marlowe calls her out: "We'll take up the question of you and me when that's done."
65-70 Up at Eddie Mars' place, with Vivian's ruse (the holdup), Again, they admit affection for each other, and again she lies and he calls her out
71 The suggestive lines: "Marlowe, I'm ready." Vivian: "So am I."
75-77 POINT of NO RETURN: Ride in the car with Vivian, calls her out again, the kiss, and another confession of love
77-80 Carmen waiting for Marlowe in his apartment, admits she didn't like Sean Regan, and Marlowe throws her out.
80-81 Bernie Ols, then the diner - Vivian calls and says they found Sean Regan, that she's going out to him
82-94 Guys work over Marlowe, intro Harry Jones (w/Agnes) who has a deal. Canino gets to and kills Harry Jones
94 Marlowe fakes a flat tire, and gets captured by Canino
96 ALL HOPE IS LOST: Prisoner - in the house with Vivian and Mrs. Mars - Canino is calling for orders, and will be coming back to kill Marlowe
97-105 FINAL PUSH: Vivian finally choses Marlowe over Eddie Mars & Carmen, kisses him, and releases him. He shoots down Canino
105-113 CLIMAX: Marlowe gets there first, frames and walks Eddie Mars into the line of fire, Vivian vows to send Carmen to therapy
DENOUEMENT: Assumption is that the two of them will live happily ever after, but is unshown
Am I using all these examples to say that you should pick a formula and adhere to it? Absolutely not. I’m a fan of the Shoman layout, and tend to build my plots – at the beginning – off this model. There are lots of examples of good and innovative stories that adhere to this model.
But there are lots of great examples that *don’t*, or that use this model, but subtly subverted. A lot of television shows tend to have really front-loaded versions of this model, to deal with limited time. I’ve seen a number of movies with faux endings so that the audience feels an ending, and then, bam, gets hit with the surprise ending. (Sixth Sense.) There’s lots of ways to use this.
I find, at the very least, that this model makes an excellent placeholder for my beginning outlines until the shape or needs of my story twist it. But *knowing* my plot’s structure, and building it deliberately, rather than just writing my way through at near-random, has helped me enormously. I think it’s the lack of structure that brings a lot of starting novels and novelists to a car-accident style halt about a third to halfway in.
I should add that none of my outlines are *ever* right or complete. Not even at the end of the book. And my outline doesn’t keep me from losing track of bits of story, sadly. At least, not much. (Knowing that being lost most of the time is a huge part of my process might be the single most important lesson that I’ve learned about how I do this.) I pick at it constantly during the writing process, mostly when I’m stuck. When I know fully and completely how the next scene goes, I don’t need the outline. Also, when I have a complete rough draft, the outline’s been replaced. I don’t need it anymore.
I’m picking through the old outline for Shadows Over London, as I build the sequel, and I’m amazed out how much stuff is in here that didn’t make it into the novel. Fodder for book two!