Formulaic Writing: Outlining Fiction

You have now understood that an effective method for writing fiction is to think in terms of beginning, middle, and end. Fiction often begins with a character introduction. The middle section will explore the character dilemma exposing the character flaws. The ending will describe a resolution of relationships and the central character’s dilemma.

Your outline of your fiction product can be expanded as you clarify three concerns. First, consider the product package. Next, consider the story arc, execution and ending. Finally, expand to outline a journey for your characters.

A primary consideration in writing fiction is a consideration of the package. You can either write your fiction story in a narrative novel form (including short story formats), graphic novel, or in a script form. I have worked with authors who state, “I think of my writing in movie form like I’m watching a movie in my head.” I am convinced that all authors see their characters in 3 dimensions, but that does not indicate which package is right for your project.

In choosing a product package, consider what strengths you bring to the table. For a narrative novel, after story, the main skill is to engage the reader’s imagination through poignant articulation of emotions, thought processes, and environments. Some refer to this as drawing a picture with words. For graphic novels, you literally draw the picture of your vision and leave more of the dialogue and description to the imagination of the reader. Art skills are of paramount importance in this package. For scripts, staging directions are of major importance. Staging includes directions to camera operators, actors, extras, and post-production like special effects. Script writers must have comfort in visualizing and directing the story.


Credited by Aram Zucker-Schraff to Kalkion
“Story arc” refers to the progression of character development over time. Characters are not always aware that they are learning, evolving, or transforming in the beginning of the story arc. As the story progresses, they often gain insight into their development.

Aram Zucker-Scharff has an illustrative graphic

in a blog post from 2011. The graphic illustrates the point that story arcs modulate the story line between order and chaos as a bell-like curve. Order begins the curve. The action moves to the middle with much more chaos. Order returns by the end of the story. Zucker-Scharff indicates the opportunity for the main character story line and sub-plots or other character lines to co-exist under the umbrella of the central story arc.

What is special about Zucker-Scharff’s graphic is that he also includes my concept of execution and ending. Execution is the fact that problem or conflict is central to good storytelling. The beginning and into the middle sets the stage for the problem. The middle ends with the problem revisited as a way of setting the stage for the resolution of the story at the ending.

Wild Honey by Taunya S. Wright

A great way to organize the main character story arc is through the use of “journeys.” The Hero’s Journey is well known, reportedly applicable to many epic works like Star Wars or Homer’s Iliad. I have developed three additional journey sketches for use in Buddy, Drama, and Tragedy story arcs. The useful notion about journeys is that they offer a standard set of the story arc in 3 acts.

Hero’s Journey: Call, Training, and Triumph
The Call is a request or inclination of the hero to get involved in a quest. It is important to identify what the quest is motivated by. Often love works, but duty, honor, or even greed can suffice. The training is often depicted away from the original setting of the story. My favorite cliché presentation of this is the “work out” montage in movies. Books offer much more of the internal struggle, but a musical montage is fun. Triumph occurs when the main character, hero or heroes vanquish the foe or successfully complete the quest. Often the central character flaw of the main character is exposed to everyone and resolved. Another device is to complete the original quest, but without satisfaction of the characters because they realize that an alternate quest is more satisfying.

Buddy Journey: Meeting, Betrayal, Collaboration
The Meeting is rather pedestrian by the standards of the rest of the story. Yet, some story arcs take the meeting to a new level with its occurrence as the result of a battle or otherwise harrowing experience. I love the buddy cop story depicted in movies with the assignment of a rookie to a reluctant veteran officer. The Betrayal describes a situation in which the potential friendship fails. Keep in mind that the betrayal does not have to be between the two friends. The police captain can betray, the fellow cops, the board of directors, or the citizens are options as well. The Collaboration is that glorious sequence in which the two (or more) buddies get together to wreak havoc on the antagonist. Often, this act includes a weaponry reveal.

Drama Journey: Promise, Break-up, Make-up
The Promise can be spoken or unspoken as a pact believed in by the main character. The task is to provide the reader with as much certainty about the belief (or tenuousness of belief) as the character possesses. The Break-up describes the sequence in which the characters violate the pact that was shared in the beginning. Make-up describes the sequence of re-establishing the pact or joining together in a new pact.

Tragedy Journey: Prophecy, Struggle, Death
Prophecy begins any great tragedy. Prophecy foreshadows the ending. It can be presented through witches, but is just as effectively communicated through common culture or morays. For example, Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed because of the culture of difference understood among the family Capulet and the family Montague. The only question that remains is HOW the characters will attempt to forestall their impending demise. The Struggle is the attempt of the characters to work against their destinies. The ending of every tragedy is Death to the main characters. That is what makes it a tragedy. Creative death is often more than just how they die. It is the reasoning behind the death and the resolution it brings.

Fiction writing, as will all writing, requires a great deal of creativity in order to be engaging. Yet, form and outline can provide a scaffolding for even the most ambitious story arcs. Consider the possibilities of outlining the story arc across multiple books or layering multiple arcs within a main story arc developing multiple characters. The result can be seen in popular shows like Heroes (2006-2010). The story is compelling, even in the landscape of multiple “main” characters.


[Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is MAWMedia Group President. An individual and institutional consultant, Wright has over 16 years and dozens of consulting contracts completed. For educators, associations, and organizations, Dr. Wright offers curriculum, online strategy, and capital development consultations. Contact Dr. Wright here!]