Outlining Fiction

Throw away the English teacher’s outline (ETO) and try a shorter outline that is more appropriate to fiction.

Outline Structure

Jon Franklin, in his book, Writing for storyWriting for Story, proposes a different type of outline. Though he’s talking about non-fiction, he’s writing stories and his outline works well for fiction because he’s using scenes to develop his story. Franklin suggests that one reason the ETO is wrong for fiction is that it begins with the main point. Fiction, though, should build to climaxes and the fiction outline should reflect this.


Fiction Outlines:


Franklin throws in a few other things though that makes his outline even better for fiction. The outline is always paired statements of conflict and resolution, with a series of complications in between.

Complication 1
Complication 2
Complication 3

Outline Content

That’s the structure. But what goes in it? Three word statements.
The first word is the character (or situation) who is taking the main action of the scene. The second word is an action verb. The third word is the person (or thing desired) receiving the action, the direct object.

Conflict: Joe desires money
Resolution: Joe receives money

Some ways the three words go wrong:

  • Not including the main character: Depression hits the U.S.
  • Not using an action verb: Joe is broke.
  • Not matching up the conflict and resolution: Joe desires money/Joe gets a nice job.

Franklin says that the best outlines actually feel a bit fuzzy, because they are focused on the inner conflict.

Conflict: Joe desires respect
Complication: Boss fires Joe
Complication: Joe studies accounting
Complication: Joe attempts job
Resolution: Son respects Joe

This works because the compression of the outline statements forces the writer to focus; also, because it uses active verbs, it’s easy to translate into scenes. And finally, it builds to the climax scene where the son respects his father, even when it’s still uncertain if the job will work out.

Of course, read Franklin for a more detailed and extensive explanation, including a way to interlock conflict/resolutions across a longer story. I use this outlining technique for first drafts, revisions, to check up on how focused a story is, etc.

2 responses to “Outlining Fiction”

  1. Well, my outline is VERY fuzzy, so it must be brilliant! :) And it is very focused on internal conflict…but it needs more external conflict. I just haven’t figured out how to add it yet.

  2. […] Outlining. This is the fourth book in an easy-reader series, so I know the general pattern that the book will follow over its ten chapters. Chapter one will introduce the story problem and chapter ten will wrap it up. That leaves eight chapters and each has a specific function in this short format. Chapter 2 introduces the subplot, chapter 4 intensifies it and chapter 6 resolves it. That leaves chapters 1, 3, 5, 7-10 for the wrap-up. Chapters 9 and 10 are the climax scene, split into two, with a cliff hanger at the end of chapter 9. In other words, I can slot actions into the functions of each chapter and make it work. Knowing each chapter’s function makes it easier–but not automatic. I’ll still need to shift things around and make allowances for this individual story. […]