Alright, so we know that a compelling protagonist is a necessary medium through which to tell a story. Readers need someone to root for; someone to go on the journey of the novel with that they actually care about. So, now that we’ve got that protagonist, we need to outline the main plot of the story they find themselves in the middle of. A novel-length project is a big undertaking, so how can we make sure everything makes sense? A plot outline is an invaluable resource in ensuring two things: a) there’s actually something happening in your book, and b) the plot follows a logical, engaging flow.
A main plot outline isn’t meant to detail every event of the novel. The main plot outline is meant to detail the three act structure of the main plot. The main plot is the big, over-arching story; the story that takes the entire length of the novel to tell. The main plot is the big, catastrophic, life-changing adventure that your protagonist goes on. So, without further ado, let’s discover what a main plot outline might look like.
(There is a fillable version of all of this at the bottom of the post, so keep reading!)
We can’t establish the pace of the main plot until we know what the main plot is. My story ideas usually start with plot; I know the premise of the book before I know my protagonist. That’s not the case for everyone, though. I know several writers who know their protagonist long before they know what story that protagonist is going to adventure through. So, what do you do if you’ve got your protagonist but you don’t know what’s going to happen to them?
As few years back, I attended a writing workshop facilitated by Kelley Armstrong. She explored how to develop ideas and shared this simple tip: grab a newspaper, read some headlines, and ask “What if?” Let’s explore what this might look like:
“FBI’s ‘Most-Wanted Fugitives’ Named.” What if…
- Your protagonist’s name is on that list?
- Your protagonist’s significant other, or family member, is on that list?
- The protagonist has seen someone from this list around lately, lurking?
- The protagonist is supernatural, and the most famous creatures among supernaturals are the only ones on this list?
By asking “What if?” we’re taking something basic and giving it an extra twist; an exciting, sometimes fantastical, twist. This headline has gone from “Modern-day serial killers that the FBI is looking for” to “My protagonist is in the middle of this somehow, and now has something to fight for.”
Act I (Inciting Incident, Setup)
You’ve got a premise for your main plot. Now we need a plot outline to ensure that premise is engaging and encourages your protagonist to grow. What gets the story going? What is the singular scene or event that starts the plot of the novel? This is called an “inciting incident” and is generally used as Act I.
What’s happening in Chapter One (and the chapters that follow) that sets your main character on their journey? Some examples of inciting incidents:
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Rosie’s son, Claude, wants to wear a dress and play with dolls. This is easy to accept when Claude is a child, not yet of school age, but then it’s time to go to school and both teachers and the Principal think Claude has to make a choice: will he be Claude, or will he be what he knows he is: Poppy?
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Primrose Everdeen is called as the female tribute for the Hunger Games, which sets Katniss Everdeen on her journey to save her sister (and, eventually, all the districts).
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Junior/Arnold has spent his whole life on the reservation, but he wonders what might be out there for him; specifically, what might be twenty-two miles off the reservation. Out there, just down the road, is a school that can offer Junior/Arnold so much more than the reservation can, but it’s almost entirely full of white teenagers. Should Junior/Arnold risk alienating himself from his friends on the reservation to pursue a possibly brighter future?
As you can see from these examples, Act I is meant to set the stage for the rest of the book. What’s at stake? What does your protagonist want more than anything?
Act II (Confrontation, Conflict, Midpoint)
Alright, your main character has a mission. It’d be pretty boring if they achieved their goal the first time they tried, right? So, what comes between your protagonist and their ultimate goal? What conflict arises that complicates the path your protagonist takes to achieve their goal? Let’s explore the next act through the three books mentioned above:
This Is How It Always Is
Claude decides that he is, in fact, Poppy. For a while, Poppy lives harmoniously as a girl; no one questions Poppy’s gender. However, all good things must come to an end, and the secret gets out: Poppy is, biologically, a boy. Poppy is humiliated by this revelation and her best friend will no longer speak to her.
The Hunger Games
Katniss finds herself in the middle of the Hunger Games instead of Primrose, but this isn’t a simple exchange. Katniss must fight to stay alive in an arena full of twenty-three other tributes who are out to kill her.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Junior/Arnold decides to attend the white high school, Reardan, twenty-two miles from the reservation. A myriad of conflicts and complications arise: Junior/Arnold doesn’t always have a ride to school, so sometimes he has to hitchhike or walk; he is the only Indian at the high school, so he sticks out like a sore thumb and is prone to bullying; and his choice to attend Reardan has alienated his best friend, Rowdy.
With something standing in the way of your protagonist achieving their goal, readers have something to root for. If Poppy just remained Poppy and never faced ridicule, that would make for a fairly uneventful story. Katniss going to the Hunger Games and outlasting all other tributes by hiding out would be boring. If Junior/Arnold went to Reardan and everyone was accepting and overjoyed by that choice, readers wouldn’t have to invest in Junior/Arnold’s wellbeing.
Conflict brings a story to life.
Act III (Climax, Resolution, Ending)
Your main character is on a mission, they’ve encountered a conflict in pursuing that mission, and now we need to come full circle to some kind of resolution. The part where this gets tricky is if you’ve got ideas for a sequel(s). How do you resolute the story if there’s potentially more to come?
J.K. Rowling does a fantastic job of this in the Harry Potter series. While there is a much bigger plot that does not get resolved in the first book (Voldemort wishes to be the greatest wizard of all time and will kill to achieve this goal), book one’s conflict does come to a resolution (Voldemort’s current plan to achieve his ultimate goal is thwarted), and still leaves room for sequels.
Let’s take a look at the resolution for our three example books.
This Is How It Always Is (No Sequel)
Poppy and Rosie go to Thailand for a while, where Rosie is doing some volunteer work as a doctor. Poppy spends time teaching Thai children English, and gets a difficult look at what childhood is like for children whose families are impoverished. Here, no one cares whether Poppy is a girl or a boy; they care who Poppy is as a person. This lends Poppy some much-needed perspective on gender identity, self-identity, and moving forward.
The Hunger Games (Sequels)
Katniss and Peeta are allowed to team up and manage to fight their way to victory in the Hunger Games. They get to go home to District Twelve. Primrose is safe, Katniss is safe, and for now, the Hunger Games is behind them.
The Hunger Games leaves room for sequels because the only thing that’s been resolved in this first book is that Katniss has survived the Hunger Games and kept her sister alive. In the process of this, she has angered the President of Panem, leaving room for this war to rage.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (No Sequel)
Junior/Arnold joins the basketball team, which allows him the opportunity to show the other students at Reardan that he isn’t different in a negative way; differences can be good. Junior/Arnold earns himself some friends (some of whom he even shared his deepest, darkest secret: that he’s poor). As part of the team, Junior/Arnold must play against the team on his own reservation. Reardan wins the game and things are starting to look up for Junior/Arnold at Reardan, but not on the reservation. Then his sister dies. The reservation rallies around him, and Junior/Arnold is feeling a little more optimistic about the future.
Header photo courtesy of Toa Heftiba.