Over the course of writing five novels, reading countless books on writing, and taking notes on some of my favorite stories, I’ve distilled it all into a very rough plot framework.
I find working from a framework extremely useful. I’m not ever wholly wedded to this exact structure, but it’s so helpful for brainstorming what “should” be happening, to weave disparate plot threads together, and to make sure the overall plot is on track.
And I’m sharing it with you!
This is a four act structure based on a 50 chapter book. A book doesn’t have to be exactly 50 chapters of course, but I like using that for the purposes of the framework because it’s easier to benchmark to a round number.
Also, I refer to “protagonist” in the singular, but the same structure applies with multiple protagonists. I’d highly recommend trying to weave the storylines together in such a way that the characters are either involved in the same climaxes or they happen around the same point in the novel.
Chapters 1-3: The starting place. This where we see the protagonist in their “usual” environment before something happens to know them ajar. Note that these shouldn’t just be empty scenes with no purpose. If the plot doesn’t really get going until Chapter 4, give the protagonist a mini-quest so we can learn about them by seeing them go after something they want.
Chapter 4: Protagonist knocked off kilter. Also called the “inciting incident.” This is something that happens that prompts the main character to want something big, whether it’s a disaster, an opportunity, or a challenge. It inspires the protagonist to go on a quest (literal or figurative).
Chapters 5-10: Buildup/escape routes closed. Once the protagonist is knocked off kilter, the buildup often entails the protagonist trying to solve things the easy way, only to become blocked by obstacles. This is a time to deepen the stakes and show the contours of the obstacles standing in the protagonist’s way.
Chapter 11: First act climax. This is often a point of no return. The easy escape routes have been eliminated, and the only remaining path is a difficult one.
Chapters 12-13: There’s no turning back. The seriousness of the first act climax sinks in. The protagonist is in deep now.
Chapters 14-24: Things are getting exciting but dangerous. In Save The Cat, this stretch is referred to as “the promise of the premise,” which I like. This is a time for the protagonist to explore new territory (literal or figurative), to begin learning skills, and grow as a person. But things are also getting more dangerous and intense.
Chapter 25: Second act climax. The second act climax often feels like a high water mark before things start to get very difficult for the protagonist. Triumph is in sight, but it’s a false dawn. This can often take the form of a climax that looks like a victory at first blush but is actually revealed to be a defeat, or the seeds for decline are otherwise sown by what happens in the climax.
Chapter 26: Start of the decline. The efforts and new skills the protagonist learned may have worked to this point, but now they’re going to have to dig deep.
Chapters 27-33: A mix of false hope and things getting serious. The villain gains strength, cracks in the protagonist’s team emerge, and every glimmer of hope is quickly dashed. The protagonist’s gains to this point are rolled back.
Chapter 34: False climax. This is often a moment when the protagonist may lose their mentor/protector (think: Darth Vader killing Obi Wan) and they have to go the rest of the way on their own. Things are getting bad.
Chapters 35-38: Nadir. The protagonist is alone, damaged, or otherwise weak. All hope feels lost.
Chapter 39: Third act climax. Often the lowest point for the protagonist, where they are very nearly defeated.
Chapter 40: Protagonist turns the corner. The protagonist summons something within for one last push. They might make a key realization, dig deep mentally, or gain a talisman that will help them turn the corner.
Chapters 41-45: Building toward the climax. The protagonist starts dispatching obstacles leading to a final confrontation with the villain.
Chapters 46-48: The climax. The protagonist has to summon the skills/powers they’ve learned, the teachings of their mentor, and the determination they summoned in their nadir, in order to overcome the ultimate villain.
Chapter 49: Denouement. The implications of the climax sink in and remaining plot threads are resolved.
Chapter 50: Finale. We have a sense of where the protagonist will head from here.
So how do you use this framework? First, check out this overall post on how to outline:
And then download this spreadsheet, which has the plot framework baked in:
To download it and start using it, go through the File menu within the doc:
What do you think of this approach? Do you have any plot frameworks you like to draw upon?
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Art: The Course of Empire – Consummation by Thomas Cole
JOHN T. SHEA says
Thanks, Nathan. But I showed this to my characters and they laughed at it and refused to cooperate! I reminded them they’re FICTIONAL and created by ME, and I even threatened to kill them all with a huge meteorite in Act 2, but they said they’d hire Bruce Willis to deflect it. Then they declared that I don’t actually exist and I’m really just a figment of THEIR imaginations!
I think I’ll be old-fashioned and I’ll try a flood. Forty days and nights of rain should do it…
I can see that using a framework like this could take years/months off having a finished manuscript; plus, give it a tight, professional feel and structure. Have already downloaded the spreadsheet–invaluable ideas. Thanks, Nathan.
Probably, I need to be more organised and methodical in creating a story world, but I like to draw everything from the inside and not from the outside. This way, I am as entertained as the reader. However, this tends to make the writing process more drawn out as ideas keep coming over many years as the story and main character evolves, and the story creation becomes a never-ending one.
One process I enjoy utilizing at the beginning, that has probably been employed by other writers over the years, is starting with a distant view of the story world for the reader to get an overall picture of the place I want him or her to enter–and will draw them in. I sometimes start with a description of the first scene from a bird’s eye view and then a small figure appears in the distance. In stories for either children and adults, I try to make these scenes as atmospheric and colourful (as appropriate) as possible. As I bring the reader closer, I describe this figure and the impression he or she might make on the viewer when seen for the first time: the gender, age, body size and how this character carries himself or herself, and any indication of attitude, strengths or weaknesses included in this person’s actions and mannerisms. Then as I, the narrator, draw closer, I gradually began to ease the reader into the mind and thoughts of the character, revealing a possbible main focus at the time and a hint of story themes and future developments.
And then decisions are made by the character as to what they’ll do next. New characters might appear or the character might set off on a short journey arriving at a new location which might impact them throughout the story and draw them back repeatedly.
The above is all first chapter stuff, but if I have a prologue then it will show aspects of the story that can’t be shown in the main part of the novel as it is outside the main character’s range of experience and knowledge.
I like this! I have a question. You wrote: “Also, I refer to “protagonist” in the singular, but the same structure applies with multiple protagonists. I’d highly recommend trying to weave the storylines together in such a way that the characters are either involved in the same climaxes or they happen around the same point in the novel.” My question: Do you make a separate worksheet for each protagonist and then “weave” them together? I am working with two storylines.
Nathan Bransford says
I have one worksheet for everyone, which helps me weave everything together. You can see it here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1G8iby93QWm_yAzx4LjuGMxlnEkDnltxk7JSjcxhHF1E/edit#gid=693323035
Marilynn Byerly says
A very useful outline! The first 3 chapters “Starting Place” is common in young adult, juveniles, and some mysteries, but not so common in most other genre and subgenres. Most others start with the inciting incident. A suggestion I give is that a newer writer pick out a book similar to what they want to write, preferably by a recent and younger author, and dissect it while taking notes. If they want to compare it to your outline to really get a sense of what you are really talking about, that’s a great idea, too.
Nathan Bransford says
Even in children’s novels it’s sometimes helpful to get straight into things. It sort of depends on whether the inciting incident itself needs setup in order to make sense/resonate. But if you’re able to just get straight into it it’s fine to dispense with that setup entirely.
Lauren B says
Thanks, Nathan! I’m always fascinated by how other plotters tackle structure. In another post I’d love it if you’d break this down even further. Do you tend to have a consistent number of scenes or a consistent word count for each chapter?
I’m only on my second novel-length WIP, but I’ve noticed I tend to hover around three scenes/2500 words/10 pages per chapter, so I end up with a bit fewer than 50 chapters. But I’ve also read plenty of books that tend toward single scene/shorter chapters, or others that are more like 20 pages per chapter.
Nathan Bransford says
I personally don’t break it down more specifically than by the chapter level. I don’t have a set rule when it comes to chapter page counts, but I do try to be cognizant that the length of chapters kind of establish a rhythm so I try to keep them roughly consistent. (And will occasionally have one that’s longer or shorter for effect).
I am very happy for the copy of your spreadsheet for us to use! It is very helpful! I just had a few burning questions. First one is how do you make chapters long enough? I see most novels having around 10 pages each chapter and I get intimidated by how much needs to be written for a single chapter. My second question is how do you make chapters interesting? Some of my chapters are just characters introducing themselves and nothing else comes to mind. As well as traveling chapters with nothing much but walking through a forest or something. If you can give examples for these questions too that will be awesome! Thank you for your time and advice for writing!
Nathan Bransford says
Chapter lengths vary and there’s no rule for that. Generally you want the chapters to be roughly the same length, but you can have some that are longer and shorter as needed.
Here’s how to organize a chapter to make sure it’s interesting: https://nathanbransford.com/blog/2019/05/how-to-organize-a-chapter
Thanks Nathan! Sorry to bother you again but I have one last question, I made a few copies of your spreadsheet for my book outlines and I just need to know if I need to credit you because after all it was originally your spreadsheet. I have the title as “Leafalora’s Copy of Nathan Bransford’s novel outline spreadsheet” to credit you. Thanks again for your time.