Writing any piece of fiction can be daunting, especially when you are aiming for a novel with many subplots and characters. This doesn’t mean writing a short story is easier though, it’s just different. Whatever it is your goal to produce, there is a tool that can help you, and it is call the outline.
Let’s start by defining what an outline is. Basically, it is like a map of the country that is your story. It can be color coded and extremely detailed, or it can be a pencil drawn sketch. Whatever the shape of your outline might be, it is important that it helps you grasp the shape of your story.
There are many ways to outline, and you can find a wide variety of forms online, so I will not go into too great detail here but rather focus on those important points your outline should touch on and the questions it should answer.
1. Who Is Who
You should know everyone in the story. Who is the protagonist, who is the antagonist? What are their motivations, what are their flaws, what are their secrets, and what can make them hurt? Who else is in the story? Who are those people?
Make sure your characters are well defined those few questions, make sure they have their own way of talking, distinguishing features and so forth. If all men in your book are tall, handsome, and dark haired with blue eyes, and if they all talk the exact same way, it will be hard for the reader to keep track of them and more importantly, to care about them.
2. What Is Happening
This should go without saying, but you as the writer should be able to clearly state what your story is about, in no more than one sentence!
A boy who spend his whole life neglected and living in a cupboard below the stair learns that he is really a wizard.
See what I mean? Knowing what is happening in your story will help give that story a clear character that is easily recognizable. More often than not, this will also help you figure out where to start with the story.
3. The Conflict
You need one, believe me. Maybe someone really wants something they can’t have, maybe there’s a killer or a monster on the loose or the universe is in peril. There must be a conflict, and it must potentially be one the protagonist can solve.
On the other side of that, you will need your antagonist (this could even be a thing, and asteroid on course to destroy all life on Earth for instance.) They should be at least as strong if not stronger than your protagonist, and they too need to be invested in the conflict, just completely opposite to your protagonist’s investment.
4. Forward Movement/Tension Building
Here is where you can show us your characters, how they think, how they do things, but don’t be random about that. Whatever happens, it must propel the overall plot forward. Detours are only allowed if they serve to move a subplot forward, but other than that, keep it tight and turning like a top.
In this part, it is not necessary to let your protagonist and antagonist come into contact yet.
5. The Climax
In terms of action or suspense, this should be the pinnacle of both. Here is where you can really use what you know about the characters, specifically your main character: what hurts them, what are their weaknesses? Make sure to hit them with worthy obstacles, obstacles that are so much worse, situations that are so much more dire than we would have expected during the conflict phase.
This is the part of the story where the protagonist and the antagonist clash, so the stakes should be very high. While this should be the highest point for your protagonist, be sure to hurt them at this stage. If you make the experience of going through the climax too easy for your protagonist, your readers will be bored. Your antagonist too should be at their best with all their universe destroying tendencies showing.
Things are bad, very bad indeed. Despair is closely intertwined with the climax, and when I said earlier that you should hurt your protagonist, this despair is the result; the protagonist feels overwhelmed and helpless. The evil robot found the launch codes for the nuclear missiles because your protagonist failed to destroy them. The genetically modified super-squid figured out it can mind control people because fighting the protagonist made him think a million vengeful thoughts, and they popped into the minds of innocent bystanders. Who feel compelled to act on them.
The protagonist should be very much in the middle of this situation, the pressure should be high. The goal here is to force them to rise above and beyond what they themselves thought they were capable of: the protagonist realizes all that hacking as a teenager paid off, and they can hack into the evil robot’s brain and make them self destruct. The hero\s years of meditation and martial arts training rendered them impervious to the squid’s mind control, and said martial arts training gives them a fair fighting chance against the Eight-Armed Wonder.
Notice that usually the solution to overcome despair should be deep within the protagonist. Don’t make it too easy for them either! If it’s too simple, the reader will feel cheated.
Things get better. You don’t need to make the ending of your story a happy one, but one way or another, depending on what genre you are writing in, your conflict needs to be resolved. The evil robot might be turned into a vacuum cleaner by the protagonist or the Eight-Armed Wonder could be injected with a serum that makes him go back to being your average squid. Make the resolution feel real and believable in the context of your story.
Any subplots that were happening must likewise find their conclusion here, the lovers may finally kiss so to speak.
These seven points should have their firm place in your outline. It will make writing the story a lot easier, and if you don’t know when and how certain points happen, it is a clear indicator that you should invest a little more time in the planning and brainstorming stage. This will save you time later, once you do get to the writing stage.
Personally, I think figuring out all these things about the story and the characters makes writing it that much more fun, because while you plan everything, I at least tend to get very excited about the story. And if that isn’t the best mindset for writing a thing, then I don’t know what is.