Mapping Out the Journey: How to Draft Your Outline

June 25, 2017


"The more work you put in on your outline and getting the skeleton of your story right, the easier the process is later." - Drew Goddard, director and screenplay writer of The Martian



When I first started writing, I fell into the trap of writing only when I had inspiration, which led me down the path of random scenes that have no real story. For a long time, I believed that real writers, professionals, write from infinite faucet of inspiration. I was young and naive and thought the only thing I needed to write a bestselling novel was my own brilliant imagination.


I still believe the imagination is a key part of writing a story. But after nine years of working on one specific story and relying only on inspiration to motivate me, I have discovered that inspiration would only get me so far.

Writing takes dedication. 

While I plan on writing a post on making a writing routine, I believe that we need to start at the very beginning: the outline. 


Is it just me or is there something very daunting about an outline? Maybe it's because I was (and sometimes still am) a procrastinator when writing papers in school, and writing an outline just meant more work. With this image plastered in my skull, I dreaded making an outline until I started college. 


But I couldn't survive college without writing one! Without an outline, my readers were lost in every paper I wrote. So I began forcing myself to write an outline at the beginning of every paper and noticed a major improvement in my writing and my grades.

What does this have to do with my story?

I struggle with developing the entire plot of the story at the very beginning of my writing process. Because I have in past been running off of the steam from those beautiful moments of inspiration, I only had thoughts, scribbles, scenes that were never connected. 


I really want to finish my book, and after I realized how helpful outlines were to my papers, I decide that it was time for me to map out the journey of my story. But I didn't know where to begin...


After asking around, I was introduced to two great plot structures that seemed to help me plan out my story: 


Three-Act Plot Structure


 The 17 Stages of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth



These plot structures seem to be similar in one way or another, but I found there were bits and pieces of each that I could apply to my story or inspire scenes that gave my story and the characters direction. 


The first one I tried was the Three-Act Plot Structure. This structure is typical of a screenplay or theatrical play. You start with Act 1, which introduces the main character(s), the world they live in, and the problems they are facing or about to face. It seems common sense at first, but according to Janice Hardy, the writer and founder of the blog Fiction University, the Act 1 is usually about 25% of the novel and does more than just telling the reader what they need to know. It invites the reader into the world before the inciting action. After the inciting action, Act 2 begins. This act is the biggest part of the story and involves the main character(s) attempting to resolve the problem. The characters develop here, making mistakes and learning from them. Something happens where the characters think they are winning then the characters meet a awful disaster which places them at the lowest point, where all seems lost. Once this disaster takes place, the final act begins. Act 3 includes the plan, the final showdown, and the "tying of loose ends". 


This structure helped me exponentially. It prompted questions of what would make my characters fall, how my characters would fall, and what it would take to get them back on top. I learned from this structure the importance of conflict, and so began the first step towards a fully fleshed out skeleton.

Yet, my outline was still just some bullet points and scribbles. 


The 17 Stages of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth was introduced to me this summer in my Critical Theory class. Campbell's Monomyth is classic storytelling: "The Hero's Journey." You know it from Star Wars, The Hobbit, and even Frozen. The hero is called into an adventure that draws him or her out of the zone of comfort. The character finds him or her facing multiple trials, recieving the assistance of magical beings or objects, and being forced to return back to their original world forever changed. Stories with this structure can vary, but when you break them apart, you can see what seems invisible while you are reading or watching.

Take a look at this graphic of the Monomyth:


Photo Credit: RSOAP 


This graphic was really helpful in determining which stage filled in which act. The 17 stages helped me fill out the gaps in my first outline. Orson Welles once said, "The absence of limitations is the enemy of art." By restricting myself with these specific plot points, I was able to direct my story towards a conclusion, which always seemed ambiguous and intangible before. My story, my artist expression, felt more free knowing that I had some boundaries. I had a purpose, and that gave me more motivation than any moment of inspiration could have.

But how do I stay original when using an unoriginal plot structure?

Now these structures do not mean that you can't stray from the path. BE ORIGINAL! Pick and choose which part of the structure you want to use. These are not rules. In the words of Captain Barbosa, they are most like guidelines. Guard rails to help your bowling ball achieve that strike! They are just some prompts to get you going, and with that, you are ready to start writing.



Have a different process for structuring your outline? Or have a question about either of these structures? Share it with us the comments! It is through our discussions with fellow writers that our writing can truly grow.

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