How To Plot, Outline, & Finish Your Story

Do you often start stories, but rarely finish them? Do you find yourself starting off strong with great ideas, fun characters, but ultimately find yourself losing interest as you have no idea where you should go next? Want to change that and start finishing your stories once and for all? Here's how to do it!

Know that you can't wait for your muse to come to you. Muses are fickle, and assuming that you can't or shouldn't work on your story until you're feeling particularly inspired or "in the right mood" is a fatal mistake. People who actually finish their books don't wait for their muses to come to them. They just buckle down and start working. Get ready to do this a lot, because you'll have to.

Figure out who you're writing for. Are you writing for yourself? Your friends? For a broad audience? Are you writing for young children? Teens? Adults? Any other specific demographic? Are you writing for people who enjoy a particular work or genre? Are you writing for people who are looking for a specific theme? Once you know who you're writing for, it'll be easier to determine what kind of content you should and shouldn't include. Write down who you're aiming your story at.

Determine your story's themes and goals. Make a list of what all you intend to do with your story. You can write down as many items as you want, and you should have at least a few. Here's an example of what such a list might look like:

Look for any conflicts or mismatches in what you've written down so far. Check and make sure your target audience(s) and goals match up. For example, if you find that your target audience includes middle schoolers but one of your goals is to tell a slow burner of a story that uses sorcery as allegory for corporate intrigue, you have a problem. Likewise, you have a problem if your target audience includes adults but you plan to add jokes that most adults would find cringeworthy. And make sure your goals don't conflict with each other: for example, a goal of writing a dark and gritty political commentary probably won't mesh well with a goal of writing lighthearted family-friendly romp.

Figure out how you want it to end. Decide how you want your story to conclude, and write it down. Playing off the above examples of story goals, a good ending could be "The protagonists succeed, though a manipulative friend's betrayal leaves things on a bittersweet note. Still, this does not diminish the sense of having done something worthwhile. Life goes on, a little better and brighter than before."

Identify any research you need to do. For example, if you want to write period fiction, you'll need to research the time period in question. If you want to write a story involving evolution or genetic engineering, you'll want to research that. If you want to write about anything involving a major socio-political shift of some kind, you might want to look into sociology and a few examples of how real-life socio-political shifts played out. Write down a list of the topics you'll need to research. Spend at least a day looking into various resources and/or example cases on a simple topic; spend several days (if not more) on a complicated one. This might seem daunting at first, but trust me - you'll be glad you did it later!

Identify any development you need to do. Will your story involve any fantasy or science elements that will affect your characters in some way? Will it involve any fictional cultures, species, organizations, governments, or businesses? Write down what all you'll need to develop, then spend awhile figuring out the details of how each element does and does not work so that they'll serve your story's goals and won't end up undermining them in some way. Write it all down in an easy-to-reference format. (You might also take a look at Phlebotinum-Development Questions, Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This, and Where & How Writers Need To Do The Math.)

Start figuring out your main characters, if you don't already know who they are. Decide who your protagonists and antagonists are and what each of them want. Write down any critical information about them you need to keep track of.

Start working out your main locations, if you haven't done this already. Spend a bit of time developing and writing down what you need to know about the place or places your story happens in. This can include worlds, countries, towns, and individual buildings. You don't need to have everything detailed down to the last fork and the last blade of grass, but it's good to have a fairly solid idea of what the place or places your story takes place in are like. Again, write this stuff down.

Hash out a plot in a bullet list. Now that you've got a general sense of who your story is about, what you want to do with it, and how you need it to end, write out a bullet list of events that will take your characters all the way from the beginning to the end. You can use sublists to make note of any specific details or dialog you think any event will need to include.

Scan your list for places you could improve the story. Is the plot you just outlined maybe a little too simple and straightforward? Does it lack any real complications or setbacks for the protagonists? Or is it maybe too complicated, with many chunks that could be deleted without losing anything of value? Are there any contrivances you could replace with something more reasonable? Is there space to give your planned payoffs the buildup they need? Is the climax of your story genuinely climactic, or is it actually kind of a dud? Does it include everything you wanted to show or make happen? If not, is that okay, or is there anywhere you can add that stuff in without slowing the rest of the story down too much? Are there any dead end scenes that don't establish anything new or move the story forward?

Start writing your story. Once you've got your outline down, begin writing your story. Whenever you aren't sure where you should go next, go look at where you are in your outline and work out a way to write your story toward the next point on the list.

Note down anything you make up along the way. As you write your story, you'll probably find yourself creating new characters, items, places, locations, lore, etc. You'll also end up creating more details for what you already created. Write down what you come up with so you don't lose track and have to go digging through your story to find it again later.

Update the outline as needed. Somewhere along the way you might think of something else you want to add in or detail later on. Just add it into your outline so you'll remember it later.

When you get stuck, write about what you need to make happen next. Simply writing out bullet list or a short paragraph about what you need to make happen next is often enough to get yourself unstuck. If you aren't entirely sure what you should make happen next, write out a list of potential ideas, no matter how bad or silly they might seem at first.

Take a break if you need to, but always come back. Go ahead and take a break for a few minutes, hours, or days, but always come back to your story. Try to write something when you get back, even if it's short and unimpressive. (You can edit it later!)

If possible, make your breaks productive. While you're taking a break from actually writing your story, you might work on developing your setting's lore, your characters' personalities or histories, or details about locations in the region. You might not need these details right now, but they might save you work later on. You can also scroll back over what you've written so far and look for anything to edit.

Also, you might be interested in:

"Help! I Need Ideas For My Story/Setting/Character!" - How To Get Ideas For Yourself!
"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!
"How Can/Should I Do This Thing With My Story/Setting/Character?" - How Figure It Out For Yourself!

Plot & Story Development Questions
What To Do When You Have A Character, But No Plot
On Plot Structure & Plotting
Highly Frustrating & Disappointing Things Writers Do To Plots

On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast
On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense
Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It

How To Break Your Creative Blocks
Reasons Your Story Might Be Stuck - And How To Fix It
Universal Creative Tips For Everything & Everyone

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