As fantasy author DK Drake, my mission is to bring you entertaining, engaging, wholesome adventures too packed with action to leave room for eye-rolling sappiness or mind-numbing fluff.
As a creative writing coach, my mission is to help authors find their voice, craft captivating stories, and finish book after book.
How do you build a captivating plot outline? How do you make sure that your story, whatever the genre, is cohesive, and that every scene builds on the next to create a great story? Well, you plot your book according to the Save the Cat! process.
I recently finished reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. In it, she shares the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, which she also refers to as your structure cheat sheet. I like structure. I like experimenting with ways to improve my storytelling skills. And I like that it’s divided into the standard three acts, and subdivided into 15 sub-steps from there.
So I gave it a go and outlined my story according to her beat sheet. I enjoyed the process, and it took me less than three hours to complete. I also found that thinking through my outline in this way enriched my story, so thank you Jessica Brody for writing this book. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it. I don’t know Jessica and am not getting any kind of kickback for promoting her book. I just think you’d benefit from reading it.
Plot Outline Step 1: Opening Image
How does your story start? What is your hero doing at the beginning of your story? This is the “before” snapshot, the regular, ordinary stuff your hero does before dealing with whatever problems he’s about to face that will lead to his transformation.
Plot Outline Step 2: Theme Stated.
About 5% of the way into your story, one of your characters (not your hero) should hint at the theme of your story. What must your hero learn or discover? Who will drop this hint? How? When? Where? Write a sentence or two answering those questions.
Plot Outline Step 3: The Setup.
This encompasses roughly the first 10% of your story where you show what your hero’s life looks like before the all the action that’s about to take place in Act II. What is life like for your hero? How do you introduce the supporting characters—the good guys and the bad? What happens to reveal your hero’s main goal? Why is your hero reluctant to change? What will happen if your hero doesn’t change?
Plot Outline Step 4: The Catalyst.
This is your story’s first turning point, which is some sort of life-changing event that launches your hero into some new world or new way of thinking. This step has to be big enough to move your character forward into unfamiliar territory while also preventing him from returning to that ordinary, status quo life.
Plot Outline Step 5: Debate.
But your hero doesn’t move forward without a Debate. This is where your hero debates what he should do next. Should he go? Should he not? What answers does he have for both of those questions. If your hero charges forward into Act II with no hesitation, the story doesn’t work as well. Keep in mind that conflict makes for interesting reading. Let your hero be conflicted about change and doing something he’s not comfortable with.
Plot Outline Step 6: Break Into 2.
This should happen around the 20% mark of your story, and it’s the scene where your hero makes a decision. He stops debating and decides to move forward. He knows he can’t go back and accepts the call to enter the upside world of Act II.
Plot Outline Step 6: B Story.
Your character will meet a new character or characters to help your hero learn the theme or purpose of your story. This could be a love interest, a villain, a mentor, a family member, or a friend.
Plot Outline Step 8: Fun and Games.
Here you simply need to jot down ideas for what happens to your hero in the new unfamiliar world. Is he succeeding? Struggling? A little bit of both? This is where you get to deliver on the promise of your plot premise, that summary of your story that enticed your reader to pick up your book in the first place.
Plot Outline Step 9: Midpoint.
The Fun and Games leads to either a false victory (if your hero has been succeeding on his quest) or a false defeat (if your hero has been struggling). In other words, what happens in the middle of your story to raise the stakes and push your hero toward real change?
Plot Outline Step 10: Bad Guys Close In.
The next part of your story is summarized in step 10, Bad Guys Close In. If your hero experienced a false victory in step 9, life should get worse and worse for your hero for the next 25% of your story. If he experienced a false defeat, life should seemingly get progressively better. Whatever the case, your hero’s flaws are catching up to him.
Or her. I am all for a strong female hero, and the novella I’m currently writing does have a female lead. She’s cool. She has her problems, but she’s cool. I’m just using “he” in my example cause I’m also imagining the hero in my Dragon Stalker Series as I explain these steps. You imagine your own hero, whether it be a guy or gal.
Plot Outline Step 11: All is Lost.
This is the lowest part of your story and comes at around the 75% mark. What happens to your hero that pushes him to rock bottom?
Plot Outline Step 12: Dark Night of the Soul.
Your hero takes some time to think through everything’s that’s happened so far. He should be worse off than he was at the beginning of the story. It’s his darkest hour and the moment right before he figures out the solution to his problem and learns his life lesson.
Plot Outline Step 13: Break Into 3.
This is the second major turning point of your story. This is the aha! moment where your hero realizes how to fix his problems. Now he has to take action and fix them in step 14, the Finale or climax. I love the Jessica Brody’s description of this step:
“The hero proves they have truly learned the theme and enacts the plan they came up with in the Break Into 3. Bad guys are destroyed, flaws are conquered, lovers are reunited. Not only is the hero’s world saves, but it’s a better place than it was before.”
Plot Outline Step 15: Finale.
But the resolution isn’t complete. You still have to finish your story with step 15, the Final Image. This is basically a mirror to the opening image and provides an “after” snapshot of who your hero is now that he has gone through his entire transformation.
Whew. There you have it. 15 steps that provide solid structure for your three Act story.
Want more details? Buy a copy of Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. The subtitle is The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. She may be right about that.