With the absence of my computer over the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time working on my various writing projects lately. One of those projects has been working on the plot structure/outline for one of my newer novels, The Night Parade. I’ve spent the better half of the last week researching different plot structures in an attempt to make up plot structure worksheet that will work for any of the various novels I’ve been working on, and after hours of ironing things out, I think I’ve finally gotten something reasonable to work with. So, I now present to you, my plot structure worksheet—I hope it proves useful to you. I’ve pulled the information/structure of this plot outline worksheet from multiple different sources across the internet as well as from my own experiences, so there is a lot of information contained within it, but hopefully it’s not too jumbled for anyone to use.
The basic plot structure could be used in some context for most genres with some adjustment, but assumes a simple three-act story.
NOTE: Though a lot of the questions in this worksheet are specifically geared towards the protagonist/antagonist, may of them could, and should also be asked of the other minor characters in the story—this will help you build up a believable set of events throughout your story as motivations and consequences for each character will lead to further action/reactions to drive the conflict of the story forward.
Of course, thiswork sheet doesn’t cover all genres and types of plots, and it doesn’t account for every question you will need to ask yourself as you write, but it should give you a pretty good foundation to work from, and some interesting things to think about as you discover your plot.
Introductions: This is the pre-story where we introduce the main character(s) and the world in which they live. Things are relatively normal at this point and the protagonist is busy leading their everyday life. We use this time to introduce the setting for the story and to set up a snapshot of what the character was like before the story happens so that it’s clear at the end how much has changed.
- Who/What is the protagonist?
- Who/What are your characters? (It is important to know the kind of people they are and how they got to where they are in the story at this point in order to make their actions/reactions fit their character).
- What is the place/time/setting of your story?
- What is the genre?
- What is the story theme?
- What will be the opening visual that will draw the reader in?
- Prior to the opening, what internal or external forces have been at work to make your characters suffer?
- How are these internal/external forces tied to your character’s initial needs/wants/goals?
- What does each of your characters want the most right now?
- What does each of your characters need the most right now?
- What are each of your character’s current goals both for the immediate and far off future?
The Big Bang: Something happens to throw everything off balance. This event should come as a surprise to the main character that shifts the story into a new direction and makes it clear that the protagonist’s life will never be the same beyond this point. The protagonist should be forced to deal with something they normally wouldn’t have to. It is at this point that the protagonist will meet the other main characters/their future allies/enemies, and possibly, any future love interests.
- What obstacle or event will change the protagonist’s life forever?
- What is the protagonist’s ultimate goal, and what is it they desperately want/need?
- What does the protagonist have to do in order to achieve their goal/get what they want?
- Why must they do this RIGHT NOW, and what are the consequences if they don’t?
- What is the payoff if the protagonist reaches their goal?
- Does the protagonist actively demonstrate a reluctance to change the status quo, and if so, how?
- Does the protagonist’s refusal to change make the immediate trouble worse, and if so, how?
- What does the protagonist hope for?
- What does the protagonist fear?
- Who are the protagonist’s perceived allies at this point?
- Who are the protagonist’s perceived enemies at this point?
- Who are the protagonist’s possible love interests at this point?
The Call to Action: The protagonist makes an action or emotionally-based plan and takes the first steps to cope with the trouble handed to them by The Big Bang. This is a spur of the moment decision based on their previously established wants/needs. It may not be realistic, but they haven’t yet changed enough to make the decision that will ultimately spur them further into the story ahead.
- Is the call to action in conflict with what the character previously wanted, and if so, why or how?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate that they don’t really understand the problem at hand, or the severity of the problem presented to them?
- What makes the protagonist commit to the change ahead of them?
- What is the main conflict of the story (The biggest challenge that thwarts the character’s main goal)?
The Trouble Gets Worse: Something happens to thwart the protagonist’s plan or make the situation more dire. The stakes get higher and the protagonist does something they wouldn’t have done/been able to do/chosen to do at the beginning of the story.
- How does the protagonist get past this first threshold and demonstrate that a change in mindset has taken place?
- Does crossing this first threshold thwart the protagonist’s initial wants/needs/goals, and if so, how?
- How does crossing this first threshold raise the overall stakes for the protagonist?
- What spurs on the protagonist’s choice of reaction to this trouble?
- Who is the antagonist?
- How is the antagonist introduced or foreshadowed?
- If the antagonist is only foreshadowed, who is the main minion that appears, and are thy a reoccurring character central to the overall plot?
- How is the main minion foreshadowed/introduced?
Conflict Ahead: Act two is all about conflict. This is the character’s physical and emotional journey where they deal with obstacles and challenges, ad actively struggle towards their goal. With each chapter in act two the stakes/tension/conflict should be raised. The character should deal with bouts of hopefulness and disappointment as each obstacle in their way at first seems merely challenging and then is made increasingly more impossible to surpass. These chapters should include unexpected turns of events and reversals of fortune—lots of surprises! Here, betrayals and changes of sides will happen, as well as a definite turn into the romance subplot of the story if it is present. There should be at least three, if not more, problems/challenges in this act for the protagonist to overcome and with each resolution of challenge, another more difficult challenge is presented.
- Problems: What might get in your character’s way? (Have at least 3)
- What will your character do to try and get past these problems?
- What will be the result of the character’s efforts?
- How will the character’s plans change because of these problems?
- How will the character change because of the outcome of these conflicts?
New Reality: The protagonist accepts (or is forced to accept) the new status quo and amasses the helpers and resources they will need to help fight in the escalating conflict ahead. They will experiment with the first changes in their character, and will learn to sacrifice or delay getting their wants.
- Who are the protagonist’s perceived allies at this point?
- Who are the protagonist’s actual allies at this point?
- Who are the protagonist’s perceived enemies at this point?
- Who are the protagonist’s actual enemies at this point?
- Who is the protagonist’s mentor?
- What is the antagonist’s overall goal?
- What is the antagonist’s plan to reach their goal, and how has it changed with each new compromise or defeat?
- What training/knowledge/experiences are needed for the protagonist to surpass the perceived challenges ahead?
- How has the protagonist had to prove themselves in order to show that they are ready for the challenges ahead?
- What must the protagonist do to win over each new ally?
- What does the protagonist do to gain each new enemy?
The First Failure: The protagonist makes a plan to deal with the conflict as they understand it, but either doesn’t have sufficient understanding of the problem, or isn’t yet willing to make a large enough permanent change/sacrifice/commitment to overcome the challenge. As a result they will make things worse and narrowly escape disaster. The protagonist may feel burdened by this first major loss and will question their ability to reach their goal. This is their first disappointment where they will question their ability to reach their goals.
- What is the protagonist’s plan to cope with the new reality and get back to their usual world?
- How do they prepare to put their plan into action?
- How does the antagonist’s plan thwart the protagonist’s plan?
- What does the protagonist do in executing their plan that makes the antagonist’s job a little easier?
- How does the antagonist take advantage of the error?
- What does the protagonist do in response to the antagonist’s move?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate heroic or admirable qualities in their response?(This is especially necessary if a mentor provides assistance!)
Burning Bridges: As the stakes get even higher, the protagonist shows that they have changed to o much to go back to the same environment/outlook/cubbyhole where they began the story. They knuckle down and continue training, amassing knowledge and allies, working towards the ordeal ahead.
- How does the previous attack and subsequent failure increase the overall stakes?
- How does the protagonist change in response to the previous attack and subsequent failure or near-miss?
- What does the protagonist now know or understand that they didn’t know/understand before?
- What is the next perceived challenge, and what does the protagonist plan to do to get past it?
- Once past the next challenge, what does the protagonist do to foreshadow acceptance of the self-sacrifice that will be necessary?
- How has the protagonist changed?
- How has the protagonist demonstrated a greater awareness of their needs/wants/goals?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate that they have not completely relinquished the desires with which they began the book?
A Second Chance: The second challenge is in sight, which will thrust the story in another unexpected direction. Though previously defeated, the protagonist rallies and again, the goal now seems reachable—though some fears/doubts may still be present. The protagonist will hatch a new plan which now takes the full reality of the situation into account. Now aware of the stakes, the protagonist accepts the real or potential sacrifices to come. They are pushed to the edge of their endurance, resolve, skills, and will struggle to prepare themselves for the upcoming confrontation. There is hope for the upcoming challenge.
- What does the protagonist do to prepare themselves?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate courage and determination?
- Does this new resolve win them any new allies or enemies?
- What does the protagonist do to demonstrate that they have accepted their participation in this struggle?
- What tools is the protagonist given in reward to help in the upcoming fight?
- How is their new resolve/knowledge tested?
- What propels the protagonist into the test?
- What hard choices does the protagonist have to make?
- How does the protagonist break the rules, cross moral lines, compromise their integrity, or otherwise set themselves up for failure?
- How does the antagonist take advantage of it?
- What does the protagonist rely on that will fail them?
- What does the protagonist do to temporary drive the antagonist away?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate that they have changed?
How does the protagonist demonstrate a greater awareness of their true needs?
- How do we know the protagonist hasn’t completely given up on their stated goals?
- Is there a sense of escalating action?
- Do any characters betray the protagonist or switch sides in the conflict?
- What spurred on this betrayal/switching of sides?
- Is this betrayal/switching of sides genuine, or part of the antagonist’s plan to defeat the protagonist?
The Second Failure: The protagonist encounters the antagonist in “the big ordeal”, engages, and fails spectacularly and unexpectedly. (Possibly due to betrayal).
- How does the antagonist’s plan manipulate the battle to throw more obstacles into the protagonist’s plan?
- What shows the protagonist’s rededication to the ordeal?
- What twist sheds light on a previously misunderstood situation (or otherwise makes the reason for the protagonist’s continual failure clear?)
- What shortens the timeline or propels them into the battle before they are truly ready?
- How does the antagonist take advantage of this?
- How does the protagonist lose allies?
- How is the protagonist injured?
- How does the protagonist display heroism and selflessness they didn’t know they had?
- What does the protagonist do to temporarily drive the antagonist away?
- How have the stakes changed/increased?
Abandon All Hope: The protagonist is knocked down, wrung out, and is soon to be beyond recovery. They can’t imagine surviving this much pain or loss. What previously seemed like their darkest moment now seems minor in comparison. The protagonist is ready to give up, but they now fully understand the ultimate stakes of the obstacle keeping them from their true goal, and they now understand exactly how difficult their journey towards that goal is. The closest the protagonist will ever come to losing their love interest(s) is at the middle to end of this act.
- What steps has the protagonist taken towards further understanding or achieving their true need?
- What new revelations start to make them believe they can’t ultimately win?
- What new understanding helps the protagonist understand the consequences of losing?
- What does the protagonist realize they are losing that they cannot bear to lose?
- What demonstrates their renewed dedication to defeating the antagonist?
- Why do they do it?
Does the protagonist give up on the characters who previously betrayed them, or do they try to win them back, and if so, how?
- Does the protagonist temporarily or permanently lose a love interest, and if so, how/why?
- If temporary, how is the situation resolved? (This resolution may come during act three).
Resolution – Planning Ahead: The third act shows how the character is able to succeed or become a better person. The major loose ends of the story are tied up (though not necessarily all of them). Here we see evidence of the changes in the character that have occurred throughout the story, and the character will make their final rally towards reaching their goal.
- Possible Ending 1: What will happen if my character gets what they want/reaches their goal?
- Possible Ending 2: What will happen if my character doesn’t get what they want/doesn’t reach their goal?
There’s No Going Back: Finally understand the full consequences of losing, the protagonist decides they cannot live with those consequences. There is no choice but to fight on, no matter the cost. They find a new plan, a new weapon, or a new twist that will arise relating to something they’ve already done that will allow them another, probably futile crack at resolving the major obstacle. The protagonist and their team may be resigned to the sacrifice ahead.
- What does the protagonist do that will throw away their chance at happiness in favor of pursuing their stated desire and simultaneously fulfilling the task they have accepted?
- How does the protagonist demonstrate that they understand the magnitude of their loss, but also believe that they have no other choice?
- Who else understands or pushes the protagonist into making that sacrifice?
- Does that individual want the same outcome the protagonist and their allies have been fighting toward, or do they have an alternate agenda?
- If the loss of a love interest is resolved here, how is it resolved?
The Final Showdown: The protagonist rejoins the struggle and attacks the antagonist head on in a gamble for all or nothing. They fight and only one of them will emerge victorious. The other may, possibly, live to fight another day, but their goal has been thwarted for the foreseeable future.
- En route to the battle, does the protagonist demonstrate any character development that will improve or hinder their ability to fight the antagonist?
- How has the protagonist changed since the beginning of the book?
- How does the final battle tie back to something that the protagonist feared or hated in ACT ONE?
- How do the location and the battle circle back towards the initial conflict?
- How has the antagonist changed (if at all)?
- What has the protagonist failed to consider in their battle preparations?
- How does the antagonist capitalize on this?
- What surprising revelations or twists emerge during the final battle?
- Does the protagonist or antagonist lose anything vital to their current or past happiness, and if so, is that loss permanent?
- If temporary, how does the protagonist or antagonist regain what they’ve lost, and is it during the hero’s return, or in a sequel?
The Hero’s Return: The vision of the new world order, either positive or negative that suggests how things will fare for the protagonist and antagonist after the battle. For any love interests of the protagonist/antagonist, this is where the final decision/outcome is made for the future of their relationship in the foreseeable future.
- How does the protagonist reunite with their allies?
- How do they respond
- How does the protagonist reunite with those they left behind at the very beginning of the book?
How do they react to the changes in the protagonist?
- Is there more conflict to come? (a sequel).
- Is there ultimately potential for a happy ending?
- Did the protagonist get what they wanted?
- Did the protagonist get what they needed?
- Is the overall goal accomplished?
- If not, what suggests a small hope that it can still be accomplished?
- What has the protagonist learned?
- What has the protagonist lost or regained at the end of the book?
- If the protagonist won the final challenge, what did they lose along the journey to this conclusion, and how did they deal with that loss?
- Has the protagonist/antagonist come to grips with the status of their love interest(s) during this final sequence, and if so, how?
- What is the closing visual that will stick in the reader’s mind?