How to Write an Outline to a Short Story

Translating a great story idea onto paper can be overwhelming and intimidating. An outline can provide a sense of control, helping a writer maintain structure while guiding a story along. The outline process, which involves making two crucial decisions before determining a story's plot, allows a writer to explore the best way for the story to unfold.

Begin by freely exploring the characters and plot in your story, ignoring structure and constraints. Once you feel you have a direction, proceed to your outline.

Write down the steps in your outline. They should be as follows: Conflict; plot development one; plot development two; plot development three (epiphany); resolution; and conclusion. This outline is concerned mainly with plot--character development, motifs, and setting will all come later or emerge as you write your story.

Write your story's conflict at the top of your outline. To be able to move your characters along, you need to know what they're up against. Ask yourself which conflict category your story falls into: Man versus man? Man versus himself? Or man versus the environment? Once you get a specific idea, you'll be able to move forward.

Figure out the resolution. This step involves skipping to the end of your outline, but once you work out the story's resolution, it'll be easier to fill in the plot. Does your character make a decision? Accept his or her shortcomings? Or is it something more dramatic?

Write the plot. Now that you have the story's conflict and resolution mapped out, you must figure out how you'll introduce this conflict to the reader and how your character arrives at the resolution. Many short stories have two or three plot developments, followed by an epiphany, which is where insight is revealed to the reader or the main character, leading the story directly to the resolution.

Determine the story's conclusion. This is the last step on your outline, after the resolution. How does your resolution affect your character? What has changed? These questions will guide you to the story's conclusion.


Feel free to rework your outline at any stage of the writing process. The outline is meant to help you, not constrain you.