A new kind of plot outline

I’ve been looking for some time for a method of outlining plot that would actually help me come up with a good plot. Everything seems to be either much too specific (you MUST have these eight points!) or not specific enough (the middle is for complications, just throw some complications in there). Three-act structure seems to lead necessarily to a soggy middle, as there’s no real guidance for what to put there. Five-act structure is better, but most explanations of it don’t really tell you what exactly each act is supposed to be about.

Part of my annoyance is from the lack of specificity. Heroic literature often focuses on choices, but detective fiction’s main plot points are clues, not choices. Suspense is marked by increasing complexity throughout the book–you’re not going to be able to diagram it in a simple three- or five-point structure. Yet most of the outline formats are too inflexible to adjust to different genres.

So I came up with my own. This worked particularly well for my current project. On the first draft, the middle was very soggy . . . there was lots of running and chasing, but no real action. I realized the reason was that my “complications” were really discrete episodes which didn’t drive the plot forward much if at all. You could pull one out entirely without changing much of anything.

This method allowed me to mark which events were simply Things Happening, disconnected from any connection to other events; which were parts of small episodes but didn’t drive the plot forward; and which actually increased the tension of the book.

Here’s what you do: Write down the main events that happen in your story. When an event increases the tension, opens a new conflict, reveals something which is going to lead to new actions, indent it to the right. When an event solves a problem, ends a conflict, or reduces tension, reverse the indent (indent it to the left). Then draw a bracket between the set-ups and pay-offs. So if, in chapter 3, the detective finds a gold necklace at the scene of the crime, you’d indent that. Much later, when the detective realizes this connects to one of the prime suspects, you’d reverse the indent and draw a bracket between these two points.

I realize this is as clear as mud, so I made you an example. I chose Moana, because almost everyone has seen it. (I’ve seen it about fifty times, because I have children. And it’s still good, that’s how magical that movie is.) It isn’t an ideal example, because as you can see, it has a very simple plot structure which would work just fine in a three-act outline. But the nice thing about this outline system is that it doesn’t require your plot to be in a certain shape to use it. Instead, it allows you to see what the actual shape of your plot is.

A handwritten example of a bracket outline.

You can tell it’s a three-act structure because all the lines cluster at three points: Moana leaves the island, Moana goes ahead to Te Fiti without Maui, and Moana restores the heart. Those are her three big decisions. Everything else is complications or her arguing with her parents, grandmother, or Maui.

You can also see why the coconut pirate scene annoys me. It’s the one scene of the movie that felt out of place to me, and you can see why: it doesn’t connect with any other event in the plot. The other episodes (getting Maui from his island and getting the hook from Tamatoa) drive the plot forward a lot more because they’re essential: Moana can’t get to Te Fiti without Maui to show her the way, and Maui won’t take her unless he gets his hook.

Other than that, look how tidy it all is. Everything we learn in act one gets tied up in act three. Moana places her stone on the mountain. The people return to voyaging. If you were writing this story, and found something that never gets paid off, you’d want to either add a payoff later on or remove the setup. Likewise, if there’s a point at the end that appears out of nowhere (deus ex machina), you will want to set it up earlier in the outline.

I learned from this exercise that I really prefer plots with lots of interlocking brackets, not just one or two clusters. That’s because I like suspense and mystery, where it’s not about making clear choices to do the right thing, but about figuring out what the heck is going on anyway. Every time one mystery is solved, it should beget new mysteries.

Because of the indenting, you’ll be able to see the plot arc, sideways. The more things are set up without payoff, the higher the tension, till it steeply drops off with a few big payoffs. It’s okay that sometimes we get a little left-indented (brief low-tension point) but you should still see a bumpy arc. If you don’t, you probably have slack areas or perhaps two completely separate stories that should be put into two volumes.

You can make this outline as complex or as minimal as you want. I prefer to leave out the internal plot, though it gets included in bits because it does affect the main plot in some ways. The romance is left entirely out of my outline because it wound up not being a major part of the story. If you include those, you’ll need several sheets of paper and may find it helpful to tape them.

I enjoy thinking of stories this way because stories aren’t just lists of events. Life is like that, but a story is given a satisfying shape by the structure we impose. We love seeing things paid off: a punchline, a rhyme, a clue from chapter one that ends up being vital in chapter twenty. We’ll stick around for that payoff through all kinds of author-inflicted misery–and if they resolve it well, we won’t even be mad at them for what they put us through. Well, not very.