Plotting & Outlining Novels

Hi friends. This post originally appeared as a guest post during my release tour with The Offering but the site has since been removed. The topic recently came up so I decided to share the post again here on my blog. If you’re an upcoming writer and want to know more about how I create outlines and plots for my books, here’s my best attempt to describe my process.


Though no one ever heard of me until I published a book, my writing background is actually in screenwriting. It was not necessarily a successful endeavor but I studied the craft for years and I took away some very valuable lessons and skills that I’ve been able to apply to writing my novels. The most important thing I picked up during my screenwriting stint was plotting.

In scripts it’s all about the plot points, sometimes down to the very page number. A formula if you will. Things can be a bit more flexible in prose, but with the same principles I’ve had pretty good success with writing solid plots that remained fairly set-in even through the various rounds of revisions. So far I’ve never had to do a massive rewrite and I think I owe that largely to my screenwriting roots.

So what do the screenwriters know that we could learn from? I’d love to tell you!

I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of us have watched the movie Twilight. I’m not asking for a show of hands, don’t worry! Whether you love or hate this book and/or movie, it’s a great example because the screenplay for the film perfectly illustrates what I want to show you.

When I’m breaking down a plot, I’m looking for five plot points and those set the foundation for my outline. This concept goes right along with the three act structure. Here’s what it looks like:

·      Act 1 = the first 25% of your book/script

·      Act 2 = the middle 50% of your book/script (from 25% mark to 75% mark)

·      Act 3 = the final 25% of your book/script (from 75% mark to end)

Here’s where the plot points fit into that. (Note: Some people call plot points turning points because they change the story).

1.     “Inciting Incident” – What sets the story in motion, this is your story’s ‘hook’ and should occur within the first 10% of your story.

2.     “The Lock In/Change of Plans” – Your character becomes committed to a new course of action that sets the stage for the rest of the story. It’s a game-changer. This occurs at the end of Act 1, roughly 25% through your story.

3.     “The Point of No Return” – Also known as your midpoint. There’s no going back now – the character has fully accepted the new course for better or worse. This occurs in the middle of act two, 50% through the story.

4.     “Major Setback” – This is where everything finally comes to a head and your hero is faced with his/her final challenge. Everything has led to this final series of events. This begins at 75%.

5.     “Climax/Third Act Twist” – This is where you put your final throes, pull out all the stops, and let your characters really have it. This is where you devastate, destroy, and leave your reader on the edge of their seat, worried to death for your character. This is from 90-99% of your story.

So, now that we have that ground work, let’s apply this to the screenplay for Twilight. The script is 103 pages long, so the percentages will be pretty close to the actual the page numbers.

1.     Inciting Incident – Bella sees Edward Cullen arrive at the school cafeteria. Page 10. Bam, there’s your hook.

2.     The Lock In/Change of Plans – Edward stops the van from crushing Bella. Page 24. Now Bella knows there’s something different about Edward and becomes desperate to find out what.

3.     The Point of No Return – Bella has just figured out that Edward is a vampire and confronts him in the woods on page 50. She doesn’t care what kind of danger that puts her in, she’s into Edward and that’s that.

4.     Major Setback – Alice flips out in the middle of the baseball game because the bad vampires are coming. This occurs on page 75. On page 76, Edward admits he shouldn’t have brought Bella along, letting us know she’s in grave danger. Then James, Laurent, and Victoria step out of the woods in all their menacing, blood-sucking glory.

5.     Climax/Third Act Twist – Bella meets James at the ballet studio on page 90. And you know the rest.

As you can see with the page numbers, these plot points are almost spot-on with the formula I mentioned. This is what I love about scripts and I apply this same technique when I’m plotting novels because it’s effective and keeps my stories moving at what is hopefully a good pace. Everything that happens in between those plot points is intended to build toward the next plot point, and ultimately toward the end.

One more example? How about The Hunger Games? Larry Brooks over at did an excellent break down of the plot of Hunger Games in this post.

I suggest you read his post as it’s more in depth, but here’s the gist:

1.     Inciting Incident – Katniss volunteers in the reaping

2.     The Lock In/Change of Plans – Peeta fabricates a romantic relationship with Katniss for the sake of viewer sympathy and Katniss agrees to play along

3.     The Point of No Return – Katniss enters the arena

4.     Major Setback – After the announcement that there can be two winners, Katniss reunites with Peeta, who is seriously injured

5.     Climax/Twist – Katniss and Peeta survive the mutts, defeat Cato, and pull the berry stunt

(Mind you Mr. Brooks’s terminology is different from mine. I recommend you research a number of different sources until you find a set of information that makes sense to you).

How I apply all this information to plotting my own story

First, I start with an empty template like this and fill it in. This is the most basic form of an outline.

1 – Inciting Incident:

2 – The Lock In/Change of Plans:

3 – Point of No Return:

4 – Major Setback:

5 – Climax/Twist:

After I’ve identified those major parts of my story, I expand my outline to include each chapter of the book. I allow myself twenty chapters as a general framework. This may be different if you prefer shorter chapters.

Okay, let’s say I’m doing twenty chapters, I know my second turning point needs to happen by chapter five. Using that idea, I fill in my list of plot points. After that, I make a list of the main “thing” that happens in each of the proposed twenty chapters in between the plot points I have already plugged in.


1 – Inciting Incident (I would put the actual incident here)




5 – Lock In/Change of Plans





10 – Point of No Return





15 – Major Setback




19 – Climax

20 – Denouement/Resolution

These are my guidelines and not set in stone. It gives me a framework, which is what an outline is meant to be. Often, things change along the way as I’m writing and I rework my outline to accommodate the new ideas, but I always, always have an outline to keep me on track.

In my latest work, The Offering, I have 22 chapters and an epilogue, so obviously the plot points aren’t exactly where I originally planned them to be, particularly in the second half of the book. But I began with the above framework of twenty chapters and adapted as I went along.

On a creative note, I am always willing to go with the flow once I’m finally writing, and I very often get a better idea once I’m in the process that didn’t occur to me during plotting stages. My outline is not meant to be rigid—it’s a guide. I have to have a general idea of where I’m going in order to begin getting there. If the road changes, I go with it.

Here are some of my favorite resources:

I do quite a bit of pre-writing before I ever start. I use my own tailored version of a method called the Snowflake method. You can learn more about it here.

The Script Lab – Plot: Five Key Moments – LINK

The Script Lab – Plot: The Eight Sequences — LINK

Story Mastery Screenplay Structure – LINK

The Screenplay to Twilight – LINK (Mentioned above)

Storyfix – Hunger Games in Nine Sentences – LINK (Mentioned above)




As I said, do your research and figure out what works for you. What I do might not be your cup of tea. I hope this inspires you to think more about how to structure your outlines more purposefully. There are many aspects that go into a great novel, and an outline such as the one I’ve proposed is simply the skeleton of the story. The character arc and development, the emotion, the stakes, the consequences, and the conflict are all necessary as well, but they are built upon the outline/plot.

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