I’ve been fine-tuning and updating my Twelve-Point Outline over the years, and I thought it was time to share that again. This is one of those things that I like to share because I think it can help people figure out an outline, but, as Captain Barbosa would say: it’s more of a guideline. If this, as is, helps you, great. If you can pick what you need off of this and add it to your toolbox, also great. It’s here to help, not to preach.
TWELVE PART OUTLINE STRUCTURE
1. Establishment: Show character(s) and initial situation. Here’s where you set up not only who your main character(s) is, what they want, what they need, and the world they live in. What is “normal” for your story? Especially in a genre story, you need to make it clear what’s going on and how things work, as organically as you can present it.
2. Incitement: Incident or new information spurs protagonist. The important thing is that the something changes to change the equilibrium the protagonist has had to throw us out of the Established “normal” and gets the protagonist acting.
3. Challenge: Secondary/minor antagonists or obstacles come into play. Consequences of the character’s choices pushes them into conflict with the antagonists or the situation. That conflict pulls them further away from their initial goals.
4. Altercation: Conflict with secondary/minor antagonists/obstacles comes to a head. The protagonist gets a hard-won victory, even if it’s minor or only symbolic. Demonstrate that the protagonist has the competence and drive to merit the story being centered on them.
5. Payback: That hard-won victory may have felt good, but it isn’t without consequences. The antagonist will re-evaluate the threat the protagonist imposes on them, and react accordingly. The situation remains stable even as it turns unfavorable.
6. Regrouping: Protagonist reacts to the payback, possibly in an ineffective way. They might think the confrontation is resolved and relax. A new equilibrium is presumed. Here is where your protagonist has another victory, but the victory is not what they think. This is where they make a serious mistake, be it by underestimating the situation, or just sloppy pride. That deep character flaw you’ve woven into the protagonist should be rearing up, set up to bite them back.
7. Collapse: Protagonist loses the presumed stability and safety their situation. Everything falls apart. Whatever your protagonist thought they could count on crumbles under their feet. Hard threat/obstacle comes at them.
8. Retreat: Protagonist loses something valuable to escape threat from main antagonist/obstacle. Deal them a serious blow, make the cost of failure hurt. Force their hand.
9. Recovery: Protagonist establishes a new situation, enough to be stable and safe—a bad equilibrium, but one they can survive. Give them a chance to lick their wounds, figure out where they stand, and if they can accept that.
10. Investment: Character-driven reason brings protagonist back into the fray—they choose to not walk away. This is where you make your heroes. At this stage, a lesser character would cut their losses, admit defeat. Your protagonist can’t do that. It’s time to see this to the end.
11. Confrontation: Goes after main antagonist/obstacle for the big climax. They’ve learned something about themselves and whatever flaw was causing failure before, and they use that to succeed this time.
12. Resolution: Defeat of main antagonist/obstacle—by whatever metric “defeat” means, which can create a new base situation or re-establish stability of original one. Set the new possible course for what will happen to your protagonist now.