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.

11 thoughts on “Writing an Action Outline

  1. Hey Humans;
    It’s amazing how much trouble you can get into without a map. You can get lost, find yourself in a bad neighborhood, or even fall into a valcano. This is an excellent article… after such good fore-warning, I’m sure that many NaNoWriMo writers will be able to avoid the tragic deaths their novels might have met otherwise.

    P.S. If I were Sam, I’d be a smart man for having broken up with Lisa. She sounds like a double-crossing elf if I ever heard of one.

  2. Pingback: Mapping out your Novel’s Characters | PoeWar
  3. @ Key/DD

    I just figured that since the two of you share the same IP address, 74.58.35.209, you would probably be available to help each other.

  4. I’m proud to say that I do create roadmaps for my novels (one of the few things I not only say I should do but actually do). But I’ve never thought much about cause and effect; I’ll have to consider that next time I’m plotting a story. Too late for this one, though it’s probably lurking in there somewhere…

  5. @ John,

    Hey Human,
    Strange that you should say that. I have an obsession with keys– they’re made out of metal, after all. But, out of curiosity, what makes you think that we’re compatible?

  6. @ John,

    Once I tried collaborating but it never went anywhere. I’ll have to try it again someday. I read an interesting article on the topic over at Men with Pens, and it inspired me. Like you say, finding a compatible person is essential.

  7. Great, now I’m going to get tainted by association! Warning: just because a certain Daggerquill Dwarf lives in my vicinity does not mean I am a Dwarf too. I am as normal as you can expect of a writer! No need to run screaming…

  8. @ John,

    Hey Human;
    How…wait…but…human intelligence is aggravating. All I can say is–you got me, I do know Key. I must own to the shameful fact that I share my castle with a human. But, it is very important to note that while she lives high up in the turret, I live far below her in the dungeons and dingy secret passageways. I never go into the turret, she never comes down to the dungeons–it’s mutually beneficial. I get the rent, she gets the rooms, and she has no idea what I do. As for us being able to help each other with writing… I’ll have to think about that. I do have a certain loner reputation to maintain, you realize.

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