John Hewitt's Blog

Writing an Action Outline

Outlines Make it Easier to Track Complex Events

An action outline is a point by point outline of the events that you intend to have happen in your story. The action outline serves as a roadmap for your plot. It demonstrates to you how your plot will be driven forward. It helps you to think about how an action taken in chapter two might result in an event in chapter ten, due to the sequence of events it causes.

The beauty of an action outline is that it allows you to look at the complexities of the different things happening in your novel. How the choice not to return a phone call early on may result in a lawsuit or a suicide attempt as the story continues. These action-based relationships are what are generally lost when you write without an outline.

Cause and Effect Drive a Plot Forward

When writing an action outline, think in terms of cause and effect. While, in everyday life, not every mistake or missed opportunity matters in a given day, in a novel these things must matter. If the choice to go to a party rather than visit a sick friend has no consequence further down the line, then it probably doesn’t belong in the novel. Life may sometimes feel random, but in the end, a story needs to feel like an evolution. An illogical event might happen early on, but as the story progresses it must have a logical impact on all the people concerned.

Some consequences may be less startling than others. A character may not suffer external consequences to an action, but may pay an emotional price that results in them making a different decision later on. The decision not to visit a sick friend on Tuesday weighs on the character until Thursday, then the character finally does go, just in time to run into someone the character didn’t want to see or find out that they missed out on something they would have wanted to be present for.

If you map out those possibilities from the beginning, you will not only understand what drives your plot forward, but it gives a shape to what you write so that everything feels logical within the framework of your story, no matter how different your world might be from reality.

Sample Action Outline

This outline shows two different chapters in a novel, demonstrating that actions from an earlier part of the novel often result in consequences later on. This is a very bare-bones outline to demonstrate the process. You might want to be far more detailed about the actions that occur.

Chapter 3

  1. Lisa comes home to find Sam’s father Roy parked in front of their house.
  2. Roy demands to see Sam. He is clearly drunk and angry.
  3. Roy grabs Lisa, holding her helpless. He threatens her life.
  4. Jeremy arrives from next door and bashes Roy on the head with a baseball bat. Knocking him out.
  5. Jeremy tells Lisa he will take care of things
  6. Jeremy shoves an unconscious Roy into the passenger seat of his own car.
  7. Jeremy takes Roy’s keys, gets in on the drivers side and drives off.

Chapter 8

  1. Lisa tells Sam that his father has been in the Hospital for several days.
  2. Sam confronts Lisa about her keeping the information from him.
  3. Sam and Lisa break up.
  4. Sam goes to Union Hospital to see his father.