Outline a plot

Short stories concentrate on the plot more than other aspects. A plot that keeps things moving and reveals character motivations will always be interesting. To achieve a good plot, you’ll want to create an outline at some point.

Creating a solid structure is important to making your story compelling. With the right structure, readers will continue to be engaged as they watch the main character progress towards their goal.

There are people who do not create an outline at the beginning. Instead, they get an idea for a story and immediately start writing. Because they’re writing “by the seat of their pants,” they are referred to as “pantsers.” There are a few people who are successful with this approach. Likely the most famous is Stephen King and his horror books (which are assuredly not recommended). However, Stephen King wrote for many, many years using this approach with many, many, many rejections of his work. Even if you start your story by simply writing, at some point you’ll hit a strange place and will need to incorporate an outline. It’s recommended for your first stories that you begin to outline as soon as possible.

You can, of course, write down notes and ideas and pieces of your story immediately without starting an outline. Almost every writer starts with the creativity and fun part, throwing lots of ideas around to get an idea of how their story will work. Certainly, don’t kill your enthusiasm and creativity by immediately starting an outline. Be prepared to create an outline once you’ve experimented enough to know the basics of your story progression. Once you’ve written enough to get a general idea of the story outline and how things will move, it’s time to create an outline. Having an ending isn’t required, but at least know the milestones to get the story to the ending section.

The best outline is the traditional start, middle and end. Be aware that your actual story may not begin at the very beginning. You usually want the beginning of the story to be immediately interesting so it’s possible you’ll end up discarding the background and such. It still makes sense to write the introductory pieces first and if needed, you can always discard them or move them to backstory or otherwise weave in the pieces elsewhere.

The three-act structure is the most common form of outline. It’s worked for centuries and centuries and is good for your first story. The three act structure follows the basic pattern:

First Act: Introduction to characters, motivations, setting, and so forth. The main character’s biggest desire and largest fears are introduced here, as well as the antagonist. The first act builds to an Inciting Incident, something that forces the main character to take action. James Scott Bell calls this the first point of no return, something that happens that the character must confront.

Second Act: The rising conflict as the main character fights harder and harder to overcome more challenges. The Second Act exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the main character. This section is the heart of the story and what makes it interesting. The Second Act concludes with a second point of no return, a last challenge where the main character will either conquer or be conquered.

Third Act: Climax and resolution occurs during the Third Act. Give enough detail that the reader is engaged in the final fight, then spend a bit of time at the resolution. Don’t end the story too abruptly but describe the results. The bad guys are defeated or the mountain is climbed or the couple embrace or the town is saved, or the main character is crushed.

While the above description sounds complex and difficult, the story doesn’t have to become lengthy. Your outline itself may only be a point or two for each section. (In fact, your whole first draft of your story may only include a few sentences or paragraphs for each act. Keep this first story short!)

Using this structure, gives a good foundation that makes the main character willfully chase his or her desire, overcome obstacles, and end with a solid climax and resolution.

Once you’ve written the outline, you can fill in each area more easily since you can concentrate on individual pieces rather than an entire story all at once. The outline gives you an idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and where the next action occurs.

For a first story, don’t spend much time on the outline. The outline gives you a few guideposts to help get started writing. You don’t want to spend so much time figuring out the details that you lose the excitement and fun of why you started writing the story.