Structure Versus Outlines

by Linda Davies


You may remember from my last article the conversation I had with my supervisor about structure and the book he recommended I read - Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screen-writing by Robert McKee.

Initially my heart sank when he told me to get the book from the library. I had a complete first draft ready for editing. If I needed help understanding structure, how much more work was the draft going to need? 'I know what my story structure is,' I said to myself digging out the comprehensive chapter outline for my 75,000 word young adult novel. The novel had a beginning, middle and end. According to my outline, the beginning was approximately a sixth of the whole, the middle about four sixths and the end a sixth. That's a structure, right?

I may have thought so when I was busily writing and following my chapter plan. I wish now, however, that I had read McKee's book after I had constructed my outline but before I started writing the manuscript.

What is the difference between a story structure and an outline? When I write the question down, look at it, and see it staring back at me I cannot believe how simple a question it seems. I wonder why I hadn't asked it before in relation to my own writing.

McKee works primarily with stories for the big screen, but I saw in his work things relevant to stories told on the stage and in print. He very clearly reminds us that the western tradition of story-telling relies on a narrative structure in which the protagonists' life is changed by an event, propelling him, her or it, into a series of events containing complications and problems that test their character, quality and resolve. Those complications get progressively harder with more at stake until finally the situation is resolved.

Robert McKeeIn dramatic terms, he sees the best stories as those that use an 'infrastructure' for their story-telling that is constructed upon scenes, sequences and acts that work together to build suspense and progress the action.

It is a structure familiar to many, evolving over millennia and one that our readers intuitively recognise. As writers, if we can identify and use the technical elements deliberately and successfully, we will have a powerful story to share with our readers that engages them deeply.

Structure versus outline

What is story structure?

McKee states it "is a selection of events, from the characters' life stories, composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life" (p37). Its function is to apply more and more pressure on the characters, forcing them into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures (pp105-6).

Mark Tredinnick in The little red writing book talks about structure in terms of "thinking (wildly but well), planning (thoroughly, but not too tightly), and linking (sentences and paragraphs)" (p 11). 

Margret Geraghty on the other hand, in The Novelists' Guide, immediately homes in on "the [novel's] central thread, or purpose, which holds it together" (p222). 

There are some wonderful nuances in each of these explanations of 'story structure' that sing more loudly to me than others at particular times, and they point out different aspects of structure, but have helped me build my working definition.

A chapter-outline, on the other hand is a list telling us the critical elements of each chapter. It can be extensive, or brief. I construct my plot outline and my chapter outline in skeletal fashion before I write so I have a map, of sorts, telling me where I want to go and where I want to end up. But as I write, the story often reveals things to me that I had not anticipated in the plan. If they fit my mud-map, they stay. If they don't, I negotiate. 

The outline tells me where I want, or need, to go with my story. The structural framework tells me what job each chapter should be fulfilling; it tells me when I need to crank up the pace, introduce more tension, or reveal something new. It lets me look at my work from a helicopter view, finding where the big chunks of action occur, when things change, and how everything fits together. It also helps me focus on each chapter and ask "what is important about this scene, why it is here, and what is its job?" 

Some structural elements and their functions

To help me understand the structural elements of story I looked to McKee and others for insight and from their works have collated a glossary of terms of the 'things' I needed to look for in my manuscript. I'll run through them very quickly here so we have a shared understanding of the concepts being discussed, but if you have the time, reading the originals is worthwhile. The references are listed at the end of the article accordingly. 

Value-charged condition (or values)

The universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative or negative to positive from one moment to the next. For example: freedom/slavery; justice/injustice; self-awareness/self-deception; trust/suspicion; danger/safety. (see McKee, p 34.) 

Scene (and sequence)

A scene contains activity, in more or less continuous time and space, that starts with a particular value-charged condition and turns it to something different, showing a significant change. For example, a scene might start with a character who believes his parents are normal, everyday people. He then finds out that they are spies who have a completely secret life. The value-charged condition at stake in this scene is trust and it starts positively but ends negatively. 

A sequence is a series of scenes that builds tension, culminating in an event of greater impact on the characters involved. 


An Act contains a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values, more powerful in impact than any previous sequence or scene before it. 

The difference between a basic scene, a scene that culminates a sequence and a scene that climaxes an act is the degree of change, or the degree of impact that change has, on the character. 

The acts build the largest structure of all - the overall story. When you look at your main characters' situation at the beginning of the text and compare it to that found at the end, you should be able to detect the "great sweep of change" that has completely and irreversibly altered their lives. (see McKee, p41) 

Story Event

A story event is one that creates meaningful change in the protagonist's life through conflict.(see McKee, p34)

Inciting Incident

An inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life. In the beginning, the protagonist is living a life essentially in balance. An event occurs that completely up-ends and irretrievably alters that balance, propelling the character into action.

Turning Points

Any scene, regardless of length or location, is unified around desire, action, conflict and change. In each scene a character pursues a desire, choosing (under pressure) to take one action or another. As a result, some conflict will occur with its subsequent reaction. Sometimes that reaction is not expected and the effect is to "crack open" a gap between what the character expected to happen and what did happen, turning the value-charged condition from positive to negative, or negative to positive. We need to show what is at stake in the character's life, so when our readers see the characters changing and growing, they want to live through the changes with them. Creating powerful, emotional turning points can therefore create surprise; increased curiosity; insight and new direction.

(see McKee, pp 223-245; McAlister Tipsheet # 153) 

Text and sub-text

Text is the top-layer of what happens in the story - what our characters see and hear, say and do. Sub-text is what happens underneath; it is the life under the surface. Thoughts and feelings (both known and unknown by the character) hidden by the surface behaviours. The contrast between the sensory, surface world of sight and sound, activity and talk, and the inner world of conscious and unconscious thought and desire, action and reaction is fascinating. McKee urges writers to "veil the truth with a living mask" to create three-dimensional works. (see McKee p253) 


To plot means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story, and when confronted by a dozen branching possibilities choose the correct path. Plot is the writer's choice of events and their design in time. 

How does this all this fit into the Self-editing Framework: structure?

So how do we bring all this together? There are two levels of analysis we need to carry out on our manuscript. We want to expose the overall story arc - finding where the big chunks of action occur, when things change, and how everything fits together. We want to identify each scene, how they fit into sequences, how those sequences build into the acts, and how the acts crank up the tension to the final story climax. 

We also need to focus on each chapter and ask "what is important about this scene, why it is here, and what is its job?" 

The structural sub-set of the Self-editing Framework poses questions about the structural elements explored above. I now apply it on two texts - the outline, and the manuscript itself (i.e., the story text). The first gives me the helicopter view, a way to detect the story arc amongst its constituent jigsaw puzzle pieces. The second allows me to bring the focus in on individual scenes so I can work out what is important about each one, what are the goals, and why it should be kept. 

I have found out, therefore, that it is not a case of structures versus outlines, but rather, a case of structures and outlines working interdependently. The structure is the vehicle by which our story progresses. The outline is a quick-reference tool to help us plan what is happening and when, and how to stay on track. 

The next article will look at how to apply the self-editing framework to a manuscript and what its outcomes can tell you. 

Here are two quotes that work together beautifully in relation to our topic today. 

"In some literary circles 'plot' has become a dirty word ... [but] plot is an accurate term that names the internally consistent, inter-related pattern of events that move through time to shape and design a story."  

Robert McKee, p 43

 "A great many plot problems ... can be resolved with a single strategy. Know what the chase is, and cut to it."

Newman and Mittelmark, p 2


Until next time,



Geraghty, Margret The Novelist's Guide: Powerful techniques for creating character, dialogue and plot. London: Piatkus, 1995.

McAlister, Marg Tipsheet # 153; Writing for Success Tipsheets (Last accessed  at  the Writing4SuccessClub site, June, 2009. 

McKee, Robert  Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. New York: Regan Books, 1997.

Newman, Sandra And Mittelmark, Howard   How not to write a novel: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

Tredinnick, Mark The little red writing book. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006. 

© Lynda Davies 


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