An army never goes into battle without a strategy. Similarly, it's a good idea to start a new story with a plan for facing the challenges it presents. Outlining your story gives you an idea of how to design each scene of action and reveals a general overview of its central elements before you begin writing. You can follow five steps of character, setting and plot outlining to make a battle plan for your next story.
Characters drive the action in a story forward. As you start planning your story, consider what kind of central character, or protagonist, will play the lead role in the plot. A good protagonist usually works toward an objective throughout the story and meets numerous obstacles that block his goal. Therefore, you'll also need an antagonist, the character whose motivation is to keep the main character from getting what he wants. The Purdue Online Writing Lab suggests brainstorming details of your characters' appearances, personalities and lives in order to bring them to life when you begin writing.
James Joyce's story "The Dead" wouldn't be the same if it were set on a warm summer evening instead of a cold, snowy night. Similarly, Flannery O'Connor's choice of the south's Gothic landscape enhances the depravity of her characters. As you consider what each of your characters wants and what they are willing to do to get it, consider what location and season your story is best suited for. You can also consider the mood you want to establish, as setting is often crucial to developing a story's emotional atmosphere.
As you begin outlining your plot, your first step is to plan out the exposition, the beginning stage of a story that introduces readers to the main characters, reveals their goals and sets the plot's tone. The exposition should give readers a look at the central character's current state of living before the conflict begins, as well as hint toward the antagonist's presence. For example, O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" opens with a family getting ready to travel to Georgia while reading an article about a serial killer, the Misfit, who is on the loose in their direction.
While it might seem strange to think about the end of your story when you're planning the beginning, the creative writing advice website The Write Turn states that planning your opening and conclusion consecutively makes developing the rising action a lot easier. Because a story's main character usually changes as a result of the story's events, knowing the beginning can also help you shape an ending that reveals this change. For example, the grandmother in O'Connor's story is superficial and self-absorbed at the beginning, but the ending finds her in a dangerous confrontation with the Misfit that changes her attitude.
With both the beginning and the ending of your story in mind, you can finally plan what will happen in the middle. In a story's rising action, the events create a domino effect where one plot point sets the stage for the next. To plan this, you can try brainstorming a list of things the antagonist could do to complicate the central character's quest for his goal and how he might respond. You can also come up with the climax, or high point of the action, and work backward to plan how the two characters will reach this event.