Posted: 2011-08-16

15 Steps to a Dramatic Plot

by Ken Randall

Following is a 15-step process to creating the outline for a dramatic story. Grab a notepad and begin filling in the details for each step. I've kept the steps very general so you're free to let your imagination run wild. These steps are only a general overview of the overall writing process. Feel free to alter or rearrange any steps listed below to suit the needs of your story. It's a good place to start though, especially for beginners. It helps you set up a story based on a central conflict which is far more compelling than a story without one. Once the outline is done, all you've got to do is keep your butt in the chair and fill in all the details. If you need to change your story halfway through, go ahead. Just remember the overall guidelines. An outline is just a map. You have to make the journey.

* Below is an example story outline, using this method.

15 Steps to a Dramatic Plot

1. Decide on a theme you wish to convey, something that holds emotional importance to you.

2. Think up a powerful initial story image that demonstrates the theme in an unresolved state. Think up a powerful climactic story image that conveys that theme in its resolved state.

3. Decide what the main character wants more than anything else in the world, something he's willing to fight for to the death if necessary, a certain object or outcome. It should somehow relate to the overall theme. Build the main character around this central motivation. Also build any supporting characters for the main character here, keeping in mind how they might help or hinder MC in his goals.

4. Decide why the main character wants this main goal. This should be a deeper motivation than merely 'because he's the good guy'. There should be a real and emotional reason for wanting this outcome. The deeper the motivation, the more intensely the reader will be connected to the story. Remember the point here is the why, not the goal itself.

5. Decide why he doesn't already have this goal achieved. What's stopping him? What key is missing? This should be something internal and subtle, something that prevents the main character from achieving outright victory on the first attempt at solving the problem. The more subtle the better. The MC may or may not even be aware of this hindrance himself. If he does know about it, then he doesn't know how to stop it (yet). This might also tie in with the main theme, if this internal problem demonstrates the main theme in action.

6. Decide what the exact opposite outcome is to the main story goal. If the goal has no opposite, pick an alternate outcome that would still oppose the main goal outcome. This situation may already be in effect at the beginning of the story, or it may be something the opposition character is trying to bring about.

7. Decide why somebody in the story world would want that opposite outcome, or want to maintain it. Remember that this step establishes only the motivation, not the character in question.

8a. Create the character who has the motivation from step 7 and decide why this opposing character wants that opposing motive badly enough to fight to the death for it. This should be a deeper motivation than merely 'because he's the bad guy'. There should be a real and emotional reason for wanting this opposing outcome. The deeper the motivation, the more intensely the reader will be connected to the story. Build this character around the motivation. Also build any supporting characters for the main opposition character here, keeping in mind how they might help or hinder OC in his goals.

8b. It may be that there is no opposition character. Perhaps bad luck is the only opposition. Or perhaps the main character is opposing himself in some way. If this is the case, fill in the following steps with bad luck or self-defeat in place of any references to the opposition character. In the best stories, the main character is opposed by a combination of bad luck, self-defeat, and human opposition.

9. Without mentioning the main goal, outline a scene that demonstrates why the main character wants/needs the main goal to happen. By the end of the scene, it should be established that something is missing from their life that they badly want or something badly needs to be changed. Usually the opening scene in a story establishes the 'status quo' or the normal everyday life of the character, and then something happens to trigger a deeper motivation that this situation absolutely must change.

10. Outline a follow-up scene that introduces a possible solution MC might take toward fulfilling the main story goal. By the end of the scene it should be established that this proposed solution has a cost to it, but that the prize is worth the risk. The main character may or may not be aware of these costs, but his motivation drives him forward anyway. The reader should be made aware of the costs regardless.

11. Create a follow-up scene where the character begins his proposed solution, taking whatever action is required to bring it to pass. Establish the cost being paid, whatever it may be. If this is the 'final showdown', use the central climactic image outlined in step 2. Steps 10 and 11 may take place in the same scene, depending how impulsive or desperate the character is.

12a. The main character may have accomplished his goal at this point. If he has won, skip to step 15.

12b. Outline how the opposition character (or bad luck or self-defeat) reacts to the main character's first attempt at solving the problem. The main character should have also created costs for the opposition character as well as for himself, forcing the opposition character to react. Out of this reaction, the opposition character must also plan and implement a counter-action in sequential scenes.

13. Outline a scene that shows the main character's emotional response to the opposition's retaliation. Establish what the opposition character's response has cost him, and how it effects him emotionally.

14. Return to step 10 and repeat, showing the initiating character creating an alternate strategy to achieving his goal. At some point the new strategy may involve doing nothing or giving up. This should incur costs as well that get the main character back in action. Repeat as many times as is required to establish that the main character has fundamentally changed as a result of his failed attempts. Whatever was originally stopping him from achieving the goal (as outlined in step 5) should now have been removed, changed, or overcome. His final attempt should demonstrate that he has finally 'seen the light' or 'found the key' he was missing. Once he has seen the light or found the key, return to step 10 for the final showdown.

15. The character has prevailed. The opposition has been defeated. Establish the total cost of all attempts and demonstrate that the final outcome was worth the cost. The overall theme from step 1 should be resolved here, without stating directly what it was.

Example Outline:

1. The overall theme is that honesty is the best policy. Liars and cheaters have not really won anything, even if they get the goal before the good guys.

2. The initial story image is the 'bad guy' stealing the ball from the 'good guy' on the basketball court and scoring the winning basket that should have been his. The climactic image is the 'bad guy' stealing the ball again, but tripping up badly. The good guy takes the ball back and scores the game-winning basket.

3. The main character is in love with the head cheerleader. More than anything he wants to impress her enough to make her his girlfriend.

4. He's loved her since he first saw her. She was being yelled at by the bad guy and it broke his heart to see her cry.

5. He doesn't have her already because he's friends with the bad guy, who's the girl's boyfriend. Also because he's afraid of the bad guy deep down inside, both physically and socially.

6. The opposite outcome is that the bad guy retains her as his girlfriend and eventually convinces her to give up her virginity to him which is the reason for the fights.

7. The bad guy doesn't really love the girl, but she's the hottest girl in school and he wants to be the first to bed her. He has to keep her by his side and under his thumb to accomplish this.

8. He's the most popular guy in school, and he wants to keep it that way by bedding the hottest girl. He's a jealous, possessive, territorial douche bag type. Deep down, he's really insecure, and if you took away his athletic skills, his looks, and his money, he'd be nothing but an angry little jerk. Everything he's got going for him is some external attribute that he never really earned. Inside he's a little weasel.

9. The opening scene is a basketball game. Good guy gets passed the ball and makes his way up the court, but bad guy snatches the ball away from him and makes the game-winning basket. Good guy is bitter as his team celebrates. He looks over and sees the girl kissing and hugging the bad guy. But later she comes to him and tells him that should have been his basket and bad guy was just being a jerk. This convinces good guy that he actually has a chance with her, and he decides once and for all that he's gonna go for it.

10. First attempt: good guy decides to spread rumours to all other hot chicks that bad guy secretly likes them and wants to get with them. He figures if bad guy cheats, the girl is all his. He makes a plan including a list of the top three hotties, besides the main girl.

11. Good guy goes around to each girl and spreads the rumour, subtly and secretly, encouraging them to make their move.

12. The plan backfires. The girls make moves on him one by one, but it only serves to boost his ego even more, making him even more of a jerk. And when the main girl finds out he's become more popular, she gets even more attached to him. Bad guy assures her that she's the only girl he wants. It's not true, but he's after her virginity, so he tells her what she wants to hear. He even rebuffs one of the girls right in front of her, just to make sure she thinks he cares.

13. Good guy is embittered about his failure. Not only has his plan failed, but now the girl is even more attached to the jerk.

10. Second attempt: Good guy decides to start writing girl secret admirer notes, telling her how beautiful she is, and how she deserves so much more. He plans out three notes and leaves them in places where he knows she'll find them.

11. He sneaks around leaving the notes, one in her locker, one in her book bag, and one in her mailbox at home.

12. The bad guy finds one of the letters. He's alerted to the notion that he has a rival, but he doesn't know who. He takes credit for the notes, saying he just wanted to surprise her. He begins to watch her more closely, trying to figure out who sent the notes.

13. Good guy is now scared he might get caught and maybe even beaten up. And now, once again he thinks all he's done is drive the two of them closer together. He's angry at himself and wondering if he really is being a snake for trying to break them up.

10. Third attempt: Good guy tries to just forget about her. Maybe he can find happiness with someone else and just let her be. He plans to just avoid both of them and lose himself in the game, practising, and his school work.

11. He tries his best to stay focused on his practice, but one day he overhears the girl crying in the stairwell, talking to a friend on her cell phone about how he almost raped her the night before. She doesn't know what to do about it because she still loves him, but he won't stop pressuring her for sex. The guy waits for her to hang-up and finally confronts her directly, telling her she shouldn't put up with that and that she should break up with him immediately. He's too afraid to tell her it was him who wrote those notes though.

12. The bad guy finds out it was him when the girl confronts him about the near-rape the night before. He manages to sooth her anger with false promises. But then he goes and threatens good guy with a violent beating if he ever talks to her again. Good guy chickens out one last time and doesn't stand up to him.

13. Good guy is despondent now. He knows he must get her away from the guy before she is raped for real some day, but he's too afraid to stand up to bad guy. He feels like a coward and a snake.

10. Final attempt: One day in the locker room, good guy overhears bad guy and buddy talking about how he's gonna slip her a date-rape drug at the party on Friday and finally have his way with her. He decides he must warn the girl, no matter what it costs him.

11. He tracks her down and tries to warn her, but each time he does, bad guy is right there with her, and she refuses to talk to good guy. Finally, the night of the party, good guy sneaks in and has to beat up three of bad guy's buddies who are standing watch at the bottom of the stairs. He knocks them all out and goes up to stop the girl from getting raped.

12. Good guy bursts into the room just as the bad guy is stripping the clothes from her unconscious body. She's trying to struggle but is too out of it. He confronts bad guy and a fight breaks out. Good guy gets beaten down but refuses to quit. He gets up once, twice, and a third time before finally knocking bad guy out and throwing him down the stairs. He carries the girl out and takes her to his house where he watches over her until she wakes up.

13. Good guy is worried she'll be mad at him for fighting her boyfriend. He's worried that no matter what happens, she won't like him anyway and never will. He feels sore and tired and maybe that it was all for nothing. But he knows that if he had done nothing, he couldn't live with himself.

15. Victory: She finally wakes up as the sun is coming up and she demands to know what happened. He tells her. Then he goes a step further and tells her everything, his feelings, his three attempts at winning her and how he saved her and watched over her all night long because he loves her. She finally realizes who she should be with and kisses his wounds better. Then she goes all the way with him and lets him take her virginity. On the court the next day during the final game of the season, the play is rough and mean between them. At the last minute, bad guy steals the ball but trips up badly and crashes into the bleachers. Good guy recovers the ball and scores the game-winning basket. The crowd goes wild. Girl has told the whole school the truth and they all cheer good guy's victory.