BRILLIANT! Positively BRILLIANT. Most comprehensive outline I’ve ever seen anywhere. Thank you Derek!
A few years ago I made the Plot Dot (now free on Amazon!) – my simple 8-point novel writing template, with the major dramatic twists most stories need to hit. I always wanted a more in-depth book outline and plotting cheatsheet, but there’s so many conflicting story structures out there it was hard to sort out the specifics. Last year however, I managed to put together a 24 chapter template for commercial fiction.
It’s based on a lot of other things, but I’ve looked at other beatsheets or story planning guides and haven’t found one that actually tells you what to do at each stage in your story… So I hope you like it. I made an hour long video walking you through the steps, I’ll share that down below.
You can also download the Word Template; I managed to get it down to 2 pages (so you can print front and back if you want, and so that I can call it a “one page” plot outline).
PS. Scroll down to find the download links!
I’m going to copy the whole thing down below. You can paste it into the word processor of your choice. PS. this is only the basic outline; my downloadable templates are much more refined and include some bonus writing tips.
It’s not pretty this way…. but I hope it’s useful!
Story Outline: 24 Chapter Writing Template
ACT I: ORDINARY WORLD (START WITH LACK)
Start the first chapter in the middle of the action; a big important day that the protagonist has been waiting for. Not characters sitting around and thinking about lore or history. Give them small, simple tasks to complete that show their world and the people in it. Don’t share information, share action, and be descriptive. A good protagonist is busy and has things to do.
But then, those small chores or tasks, or the preparation for this big event they’ve been waiting for, all goes terribly wrong. Whatever they were planning for, or counting on, that better future they’ve been dreaming of for years, it all falls apart. You need to make them willing to take risks by taking away all the other things they care about – because a great protagonist/hero is always unwilling at first.
1 Really Bad Day
Ordinary world, empathy, conflict. Show flaw and lack. Want, Problem, Need.
2 Something Peculiar
Something unique or strange happens, but they dismiss it.
3 Grasping at Straws
Trying to regain control of ordinary world but setbacks mount.
- INCITING INCIDENT (call to adventure)
In these first three chapters, they are taking increasingly risky actions to try to stay on their main path, despite setbacks. They haven’t given up yet, but they are anxious and nervous to fix their mistakes and seize what they wanted, despite being denied.
There will also be something new, something different, that changes things, but they are trying to ignore it for now. Show the weirdness, show the mystery. Have them wonder about it, but only a little, because they have other more important things.
People won’t sit around and think about weird things until later, when things calm down, and you shouldn’t let things calm down! The protagonist will focus on the biggest, largest problem related to their current goals, wants and needs.
There’s still no place for detailed backstory or infodumps. Stick to the simple present: they will ask questions or explore or study when they need to. Right now, they already know everything about this world, and so do the other people around them. Nobody should be accidentally oversharing world-building stuff (unless it’s tied into a world event).
Character conflict, if any, should be hidden or avoided (tension, not violence).
4 Call to Adventure
Something extraordinarily different happens, they can’t ignore. Major setback.
5 Head in Sand
The new interrupts the old and causes conflict. Reveals dissatisfaction with ordinary.
6 Pull out Rug
Trying to fix ordinary world problems while resisting the lure of the supernatural world.
ACT II: 1ST PLOT POINT (point of no return)
In these next three chapters, something much bigger happens that they can’t ignore. It changes how they think about things, the way the world works. It’s new and unexpected; it hints of differences and opportunity, or maybe some danger. It could be a “literal” invitation, like in Harry Potter.
The trick is, they don’t want it. They avoid, and refuse, and try to fix things, or brood about what they’ve already lost. They look for other, easier solutions (smart protagonist will always take the path of least resistance). But then you force them, kicking and screaming if you must, onto the new path that they absolutely don’t want.
In fantasy, this could be returning home to find their village burned and family killed.
In romance, this could be forcing your protagonist into a tight space (forced proximity) with their hot enemy; like finding out the cute asshole is their new boss.
*hint: add drama and suspense with prohibitions. Make whatever they need to do, against the rules.
writing template plot outline: inciting incident call to adventure
7 Enemies & Allies
Explore new world; meet characters, find their place and and role. Introduce all main characters.
8 Games & Trials
Struggle to belong. Frustration and doubt. Trials and challenges. Promise of premise.
9 Earning Respect
Small victory as lead proves capable. Fun and games. Begrudging acceptance.
- 1ST PINCH POINT (first battle)
In these three chapters, the protagonist needs to learn the ropes. It might be a new job, a supernatural world, a new and interesting case. They will get to new some of the new, mysterious characters who might have shown up earlier. They will be forced to learn things, and there will be new friends, foes, allies and mentors – but also, challenges, tasks and trials to keep things interesting.
This is where you can do more world-building (but not backstory yet! More on that later). They feel like they don’t belong. They don’t want to be here. They hate everybody. But… somehow they find something they are good at, that they enjoy, and the people around them begin to show signs of warming up to them, which makes them start to care about this new world/environment/team of people.
But then you hit the 1st pinch point, which is a confrontation with the forces of the protagonist. Probably not the main protagonist directly, just something that shows opposition, danger, threat, risk. Something more serious. Conflict is out there. It doesn’t have to be a fight or battle; maybe a fight or argument.
10 Forces of Evil
Stakes are raised, antagonists revealed.
11 Problem Revealed
Surprise problem or situation. Demanding answers.
12 Discovery & Ultimatum
New information, vulnerable share. In or out?
- MIDPOINT (victim to warrior)
Now that the protagonist is starting to feel at home, the first pinch point reveals the conflict. Now they can start asking real questions, and getting real answers, about the backstory, history, world-building, and everything else. But don’t make the answers easy. Every year answer should start as a mystery and a question; and it should be fought for, sought out or difficult to obtain. You need to resist giving information or easy answers. Questions should be ignored, refused, denied, and they need to push for answers because the questions really matter now – not idle curiosity, but self-preservation.
But when they finally get the answers they seek, it’s a shock: it’s more than they bargained for. The history, the antagonist, their personal role, their family secrets or truth about their parents or their core identity; something they did not expect that is deeply personal.
Then we get to the mirror stage, where they take a step back to reflect on everything. They need to figure out if they actually want to be here, if there’s a way out, if they can put themselves back together. Don’t give them all the answers though: every single Big Answer or reveal should be an event: it happens at the end of the scene, then close the curtain, before they have time to respond. Don’t dump a bunch of reveals on a page and have the characters just role with it. A shocking revelation should be like a slap – sharp and sudden, followed by silence.
13 Mirror Stage
Self-realization or a discovery. Victim to Warrior.
14 Plan of Attack
Plan of action to thwart antagonist’s forces or overcome main problem.
15 Crucial Role
Trusted with an important task.
- 2ND PINCH POINT (second battle)
After the mirror stage, the protagonist decides basically, they’re sick of being pushed around, ignored, underestimated. They care about this new world or the players. They decide they want to belong. They want to succeed or prosper in this new, unexpected and unwanted, opportunity. Instead of being reactive, they decide to stay and try harder. Even if it’s painful and challenging. Because they’ve found something they want, something worth it.
They regroup and form a plan with their allies. A plan to get rid of the threat, the competition; a plan to win and thrive. Smart protagonists don’t rush into battle, and the odds should be overwhelmingly against them (this is a REAL threat, that will take all of them together). So they don’t plan for violence. They plan something else, something subtle, a way to do good, save someone else, stop the antagonist, but they aren’t really planning on full-on fighting.
But… somehow the plan goes wrong and they are interrupted or surprised by the antagonists forces, which are even greater, more powerful, and more aware than they realized. This time (this is important!) because the protagonist was here voluntarily, and because they were trusted with an important task, this feels like a personal failure or setback. People they care about were counting on them, and they let everyone down. Maybe someone got hurt (or even died!).
Character deaths won’t feel dramatic at the beginning; they need to happen after we’ve seen these characters interact and gotten to know them. The protagonist took a big risk and failed; now they have to deal with guilt in a way they’ve never had to before.
The “first battle” is a skirmish, and it’s impersonal and distant. The “second battle” is immediate, and personal. Both the antagonist and protagonist have more awareness of each other.
16 Second Battle
They execute the plan, and come in direct conflict with antagonist’s forces.
17 Surprise Failure
The plan goes horribly wrong, faulty information or assumption. Consequences.
18 Shocking Revelation
The antagonist’s full plan/true identity is revealed. Stakes are raised. Guilt and anger.
ACT III: 2ND PLOT POINT (dark night of soul)
At the end of this sequence, we get a big reveal. It’s also important to point out, my version is very different from the typical hero’s journey or other writing templates or outlines, because there are more battles and layers between them.
The first battle they lose.
Probably because of a lack of information. So not only did something go horribly wrong, and not only do they have the guilt or shame, but they are also overwhelmed by the stakes, and feel unqualified – because there is information they don’t know yet.
It goes like this:
The *new information* is a shocking reveal, that comes with difficulty. Something they didn’t know, some secret, that they only discover after the failure. Maybe by a taunting antagonist, maybe be a peer or mentor who was keeping secrets.
They are angry, upset, guilty, all the emotions at once. This battle or fight is much bigger, and much more personal, than they anticipated. Previously, they thought maybe they could win. Here, there is no way out. There is no possible resolution where they can keep what they want, keep being who they are, live happily ever after. Something huge must be sacrificed, this battle or conflict will cost everything – it will cost, specifically, the one thing they can’t bear to lose.
I wrote a breakdown of several big movies and TV shows, focusing on this part, it’s worth reading here for examples. (You could also see EACH 3-chapter segment like this: event, reaction, new goal. Or event, response, reveal.
19 Giving Up
Lead loses confidence; the forces are too great. What they want is unattainable.
20 Pep Talk
Encouragement from ally. Vulnerable share, inclusion. What’s at stake; choice.
21 Seizing the Sword
Deliberate choice to continue, even if slim chance of success.
- FINAL BATTLE (triumph-knowledge)
After the big twist, we have the dark night of the soul, where the protagonist basically gives up. An ally helps out, possibly by sharing new information, or just telling them why this matters or why they’re special. They see more of the world worth saving; they decide to try again even if it will cost everything, destroy them, even if they can’t survive this conflict and also keep what they want. They need to decide to give up what they wanted for the greater good; or risk EVERYTHING on the slim chance of success.
For romance it would go like this: avoidance of new feelings, realization of their feelings (mirror stage), rush to confess their feelings but misunderstanding – seeing him with another woman for example. Dark night of the soul, feeling alone and betrayed. But then going to confess their love again, dramatically, publicly, even when they think there is no hope, when they think their love has found someone else or is getting married or leaving.
They need to go into battle (face their demons, do the thing they are afraid of) even if they think they might lose; they should have no real plan for victory – or rather – they do have a plan, but the plan must go wrong or fail. That’s critical, or the ending would be flat and boring.
Things have to get much worse until victory really seems impossible.
Also, this fight is personal, between the protagonist and antagonist. It can’t ever be easy, which is why in any movie or TV show, the final battle comes down to fists. All those big magic powerful weapons or abilities are useless. They lose their vehicles, their guns, their knives, and resort to a wrestling match, face to face, straining muscle against straining muscle (or it would all be over too easily and without cost).It’s silly, but it needs to happen this way to extend the final battle scene and make it more gripping and immediate.
22 Ultimate Defeat
Triumph of Villain. All hope is lost. Confront fatal flaw.
23 Unexpected Victory
Secret weapon or ability, deep resolve, new understanding, unlikely ally. Remove glass shard. Sacrifice.
24 Bittersweet Reflection
Temporary victory. Innocents saved. How far they’ve come.
- REBIRTH (return to ordinary word)
Final battle scenes are tricky, but they shouldn’t be easy. There are stages. Here’s a post about writing final battle scenes, with two detailed videos.
In short, they LOSE at first, or almost lose. The hero is captured. They’ve lost, it’s over. The antagonist gloats. This is still due to lack of information or self-awareness, or because the hero has one vulnerability that’s been exploited, or it was all a trap.
There’s a huge tension – and an inner and outer conflict – where all the allies are fighting and losing, but waiting for the protagonist to complete their task. Everyone is counting on them. There’s a lengthened, physical resistance, peak conflict, figuratively or literal, a gritting of teeth and straining and pressure.
Often they need to “break a rule” or do the one thing they’ve sworn they would never do, something reckless and dangerous, but they win *because* the hero has nothing left to lose and is willing to risk everything. In the middle of this tension, this long, heavy pause, there might be a “flashback” scene where the protagonist sees all his allies, suffering, or reflects back on all the good times in the world worth saving; what this means to him/her. It could be an accidental boon or reward from an ally (received because of previous good behavior, kindness, friendship, something deserved).
Backstory character reveal! A hero often has a tragic backstory, related to why this challenge is specifically impossible for them and can’t be defeated without personal, internal healing and change; facing their demons. The best time for a full character flashback reveal is in the middle of the final battle scene or close to it. Previously it can be hinted at, in flashes, but never fully fleshed out. We learn the truth here to show JUST how impossible and difficult this thing is, for them, and why it will mean a complete break/healing from all the ways they’ve avoided their problems or memories before.
If you have a large cast ensemble, each character’s backstory is given near their own personal moment of truth/challenge (each one must do the thing that is difficult for them, in a way it may not be difficult for others. Whatever their limitations or disabilities, their challenge should match – and they should do it anyway).
For romance: they’ve confessed their feelings and there is silence. The love-interest might even say something mean or cutting… after a long, long pause, where it seems like a rejection, they clarify and turn it into something nice.
For action: the protagonist or close ally/love interest might have sacrificed themselves. There’s a long tense pause as everyone thinks they are gone. Bittersweet, sad victory. Hold out that tension for as long as possible… build the pressure. This is the point of the book! This moment!
Then relieve the pressure. It snaps. They win. Victory, celebration. All the people watching in public horror and sadness, suddenly cheer and laugh and smile. Catharsis.
25 Death of Self
From ambition to service. Death of former self. Acknowledgment ceremony.
Optional: Hints of future challenges or antagonist lives.
The ending or resolution, is usually some kind of reunion or coming home party or event. It could be a wedding or gathering. Everyone who survived is given some peace and a happy ending of sorts. Everyone congratulates the hero (and here you can finally have those wrapping up conversations where somebody fills in any details or plot points about how everything went down – that would have been boring or overkill to include earlier, and ruined the suspense and surprise).
Dramatic story turning points
One of the most interesting and unique parts of the writing template are the red lines for the “A” story and the “B” story – that deal with the types of conflict and drama your protagonist might be facing at each major turning point.
These are the 8 points in the Plot Dot so get familiar with them first, they are the spokes that hold everything together.
Every scene needs drama and conflict – there’s a scene checklist below – but the story will deepen and evolve depending on which external or internal threats and conflicts are the most pressing at any given time.
1-Page Novel Plotting Outline Template
The sound is a little off on this one I think… I have another version on YouTube.
“When I put my story ideas into other outlines they seem to leave me still feeling lost, and confused with what should happen in certain chapters. But this one? I was able to connect the dots from beginning to the complete end. I had to study it for a week straight before I finally was able to really understand how to use this story structure completely.”
Word count & chapter lengths
I tend to write chapters with two scenes and one chapter break in between them. A scene is one continuous moment of action, like you’d see in a tv show or movie; a break is when the screen goes black (or the curtain falls) and then they setup again for the next scene, which starts a new action sequence in a different place or time.
This outline is for 24 chapters, and I try to make my scenes about 1000 words. So that’s nearly 50,000 words, which is a decent length for a first rough draft. Don’t overwrite it, get things in the right place first. Once I start editing – which is a 3 step process – I’ll add another 25K in detail (descriptions, dialogue, transitions, other stuff). So my cleaner drafts are around 75k, which is a good length for most commercial fiction. I tend to write long, so a lot of my books, telling a *full* story, are closer to 90K.
But sometimes I actually just *end* the story closer to a cliffhanger, somewhere in the middle, without all the resolution. (Telling the first half of a story is a skill to learn; telling the second half is a separate skill. Don’t try to learn everything all at once).
Download this story writing template!
- MS Word novel outlining template
- Download the printable PDF
- Google Docs outlining template
- Novel writing template for Scrivener
- Novel writing template for Open Office
- Plottr templates (NEW!)
If you need help with the whole writing process, here’s a huge post:
Best book writing software
Personally I still use microsoft word, but if you’re looking for something a little more powerful, there are some good alternatives. There’s also some new AI software which can be great for brainstorming story ideas, doing research (name generation, even suggesting plot outlines – and then for editing and revising. Writing is hard enough already; use any tool that helps in any way, even if it just relieves the burden on your brainpower, which is an exhaustive resource that you need to protect.
If you want to play with something new and fun:
- promptoria (writing prompts generator)
- ghostthewriter (summon a spirit to do your bidding)
Drama: story reveals & plot twists
One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is having backstory infodumps at the beginning. Conflict and suspense are caused by the lack of information, which means you need to be raising questions without giving answers.
I made a handy chart for when to reveal crucial information; it’s a response to the questions the characters are seeking. Basically, never give info for free – it has to be asked for first (noticed the lack) and resisted (difficult to find) before the reveal will be meaningful.
You keep what’s important private and hidden until it is forced out of you. I made a clever little graphic for when you should be revealing what type of information, depending on what type of questions your protagonist is asking.
In the beginning, they’ll be asking
- “What is going on?” then,
- “Who is doing this” or “Who am I?” and finally
- “Why is all this happening” or
- “why am I willing to sacrifice everything for this…”– you don’t get to the big reveals or why’s or critical, full backstory flashback until very late in the book, often in the middle of the final battle scene (that’s a whole thing on its own but I have a video about that too).
Fiction scene checklist & common writing mistakes
Plotting is important, but even when you have the right stuff in the right place, it doesn’t mean your story will be any good. The fastest and easiest way to resolve that is to use this scene checklist, which includes the 3 types of conflict you should include.
And then check these out:
- 25 Self-Editing Tips for Indie Authors (and 8 amateur writing mistakes)
- The 6 signs of weak writing (how to tell if your book sucks)
You might not need them until later during edits and revisions – get the first draft out before you polish. But, well, it’s much easier to avoid common signs of weak and amateur writing than it is to fix it or replace it later.
NEW: as part of my Bestseller Blueprint course I made a new video tutorial walking through the 24-chapter novel outline above. I’ve also been adding new videos to my YouTube channel (up to 3 million views!) so you can watch at your leisure. This is advanced writing craft: click the image below, then subscribe to the channel so you don’t miss updates.
“I’ve been listening to this non-stop. Dude has done his research on story structure.”
“I’m an author and have been studying story structure, narrative arc, and plot points for years….this is a REALLY good template. I can tell you’ve digested and synthesized more vague outlines and converted them into a more comprehensive map of the types of scenes that must happen in between the typical plot points.”
“Thank you so much for creating this story outline. I have been looking for a plot structure like this for a long time! It helped me to complete a a story blueprint that I’m so happy with. You don’t understand what this means to me.”
“Man this right here helped me a ton. It cut out most of all the nonsense that the other outlines be giving.”
Do I need a writer’s template?
If you’re new to book writing, you may feel overwhelmed with everything. Creativity is a fickle beast, and all great writers have struggled with procrastination and productivity. There are basically two types of writers: plotters and pantsers.
These correlate directly to the two types of creativity: intuitive and logical. Pantsing (writing from the seat of your pants) is more magical. It feels amazing to have ideas just come up from nowhere, as your brain fills in gaps or generates scenes and characters. Sometimes you can just write it all down and it works.
A lot of famous, experienced authors are pantsers to some degree. But for most new writers, pantsing will end up will end up with a big, messy manuscript full of stuff but not really a book. All commercial fiction, even literary or speculative, has rules. There’s a way to construct a book so that it works, and it’s entertaining enough to keep readers turning pages.
Many authors find plot outlines or plotting structures to be restrictive: it’s very hard to unleash that special kind of magic when you’re trying to stick to your plot points. It’s also less fun. For this reason, some authors stick to pantsing until they fail long enough to seek alternatives. If you’ve been struggling with a book idea for months or years, without really figuring out how to fix it all, you might need structure.
Or, maybe you’re a plotter (like me!). I found that I can be a lot more productive when I know where I’m going. You can either start with my simple 9 point Plot Dot to hit the main big points, that generate momentum and energy for your story like an engine. Or you can use the 24 chapter plot outline template to fill in the weak, saggy middle.
Here’s where it gets weird: Even though I’m a plotter, I recognize that my best, most effortless writing comes in the flow of the scene. I need to step away from my outline (my big word manuscript document) and do writing sprints on my iphone with minimal distractions, to get in the scene and picture things happening. Even if I know what needs to happen, I haven’t sorted out the details. Things flow and evolve in surprising ways, and scenes unfold the way they need to. This isn’t all in your control. You need to allow yourself space and freedom to be creative, even with a plan.
This is right brain/left brain stuff, and we all will have our strengths and preferences. It’s a tricky thing to balance. This is also, the drafting brain and the editing brain. There’s a time to be creative and pump out words; and there’s a time to fix, polish and make them better. You can’t do both at the same time. Writing books is a continuous juggling act between both brains.
I wrote a whole post about the creative war between writers and editors, and as an author, this means you’re basically at war with yourself. It isn’t easy, and it takes time. But it’s so much easier to skip the years of flustering around, and have the structure and system to get the work done. You need to write a first draft, and for me at least, all the really good writing comes very late in the editing stages. After I have a draft and I know how the story works, then I can make it good, but not before.
So this writer’s template can save you a lot of time and angst, but only if you use it.
Isn’t this hero’s journey stuff just for fantasy?
This plotting template works for all kinds of genres. I don’t have an example handy but I put a bunch in my book. Just keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be literal. All stories worth telling are about an impossible journey – something too difficult for the protagonist to currently handle. They are forced to change or grow; this story is worth telling, it’s remarkable, because it forces the protagonist to have an identity crisis and rethink who they are, what they want, and what they believe in. It tests them more than anything else ever has. The entire story is the build up to that moment of change or final conflict, which triggers the transformation. I have resources about how to handle that key scene, the final battle (figurative or literal). But it can work just as well for children’s books, or romance novels, or even literary masterpieces.
Stories have structure, there’s a way to tell a story for maximum dramatic effect. You can add this structure in later, after you have a draft, to make it more powerful, but I prefer to start with an outline and fill in the gaps as I go.
There will also be scenes that resist: often the scenes in between where nothing is really happening, feel slow and boring, without purpose. But these often become my most powerful scenes, because those are the spaces where characters can bond and you show the world worth saving. They are the sweet and touching scenes that play a huge role later, at the decisive, critical moment, when the hero or heroine decides whether this battle is worth fighting, whether they care enough to continue. The bigger the danger or obstable, the more motivation you need for your protagonist to act anyway, even though it may destroy them – to take a risk bigger than they are comfortable with, to leave it all on the line. The stakes must be dire (and the challenge must not be easy); and the story needs to slowly justify their stubborn, absolute commitment to something greater than themselves (love, peace, fulfillment, identity, whatever).
Advanced creative writing tips
This writing template is a good start but it isn’t everything; you also need to create suspense and conflict in your book to keep readers turning pages. I wrote a book with advance writing tips, sharing everything I know about writing books that sell (I’ve sold about 50,000 so far).
But it’s a bit tedious and heavy. If you’re ready to dig deeper and enjoy a historical, magically-based theme to help develop your writing, check out BookCraft.
I also made a big list of the best books on writing for authors. These helped me a ton.
If you want something cleaner and faster, I also put together a video course called “the Bestseller Blueprint.” It’s on sale for just $37 (usually $197). And I’m giving away two bonus courses, with some more advanced tips for writing fiction and nonfiction books.
If you’re looking for more direct feedback and a deep developmental critique of your writing, there are a few more spots left to work one-on-one with me. Happy writing!
PS. Looking for nonfiction book outline templates? (click here)
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.