If you are arriving at this blog post and have yet to come up with an idea for a story and/or given thought to your main characters, I suggest you go back to one of the blog posts below:
Thriller Outlining Series, PT1: Basic Thriller Fundamentals
Thriller Outlining Series, PT2: Two Ways to Conceptualize Story Ideas
Thriller Outlining Series, PT3: Developing Your Story Idea
Thriller Outlining Series, PT4: Character Creation and Motivations
Before we begin, if you’re not familiar with story structure, I recommend you learn a little bit before moving on to this post. Luckily for you, I’ve created a couple of different options to get you up to speed quickly, and both are free.
Read our Thriller Story Structure Complete Series Blog Posts
Enroll (it’s FREE) In Fiction Formula’s School and take the one hour course titled Thriller Story Structure 101.
Assuming you’re comfortable with story structure from this point on, let’s continue to build out our outline.
If you’ve followed Fiction Formula for any amount of time, you would be well aware that we recommend Larry Brooks teachings on story structure. We like Brooks style because his structure leads little room for error and it’s beginner friendly. Consider it a fill-in-the-blank system that answers the days’ old question, what should I do now?
What we’re going to do now is provide that answer by following a series of steps that, taken together, form that structure.
It mainly shows you what to write, and where to put it within your story.
As Brooks teaches story structure, he begins with the four major parts of a story; think of them as a basic roadmap or blueprint. For outlining purposes, these 4 major parts of the structure are precisely what we need as authors to expand on a story idea. Once we have those four major parts completed, we can develop further using the elements that connect, the 4 major parts. We’ll do that later in the series. For now, let’s quickly look at the 4 major parts and how we’ll use them to expand out an outline.
Those four parts are:
Setup – The setup of what’s to come and the gripping opening
Response – The villain’s plot gets underway and the hero, completely disoriented, fights a defensive battle.
Attack – The symbolic death and rebirth. The hero goes on the offensive.
Resolution – The hero and villain battle it out with the villain almost winning, but the hero comes out on top at the end. The remainder of the story is dedicated to the resolution of the main characters and their storylines.
In the next several sections of this post, we’ll expand on our story by answering questions related to each part of the structure. Once completed, you’ll have the shell of a complete story from beginning to end.
Let’s get to it!
The purpose of the setup is exactly as it sounds: it “sets up” everything that is to follow the story.
In terms of size, the set up typically comprises the first 20 to 25% of your story.
3 elements need to be included in the set-up.
Think of the elements as a general piece of information that helps tie the story together. They’re information that, if left unsaid, would be doing your account an injustice.
Those three elements are: (in no particular order)
- Introduction of the hero
- Establishing the stakes
- Relevant hero backstory
Introducing the hero
Set up includes introducing the hero to the reader.
At the beginning of most stories, the hero starts off with what I would describe as their “normal,” or default world. Then, something happens, and they are pulled into the story.
At this point of the story, the hero is not sure what they’ve been pulled into, but they know it’s something that’s going to shake up their ordinary world.
If you’re writing detective fiction or a variation of detective fiction, introducing the hero might be a scene where your hero is at the department HQ and receives a call of a murder.
It can be as simple as that. Introduce your hero in their ordinary world by answering the following question:
- How will you introduce the hero in their normal life?
Establishing the Stakes
Set up also includes establishing the stakes for what happens to the hero after part 1.
By the time the reader finishes reading the beginning of your story, three things should be clear:
Readers should know what’s at stake for the hero. They should understand what it’s going to cost the hero personally, mentally, physically if the hero doesn’t stop the antagonistic forces.
Readers should know what will be lost if the hero doesn’t act.
Readers should care what’s going to happen to the hero. They should begin to empathize with the hero’s situation, and wonder, or worry about, what happens next.
Making the readers care is essential; if they want to know what happens next, they will keep reading! So, establish your stakes by answering the following questions:
- What is the immediate, head-turning disturbance that hooks a reader in the first chapter?
- What catalyst shook up the lead character’s status quo, starting the novel’s progression of change?
For readers to care about what happens next to the hero, they need to know why they should bother. To do that, you as a writer need to provide some of the hero’s backstory, so readers can become invested in your hero. The reader doesn’t need to know everything at this point.
However, the more the reader empathizes with the hero in part one, the better. To begin to cause empathy for your hero, answer the following questions:
- What significant ways did the villain inflict damage on the hero (physically, professionally, or psychologically?) List at least three specific ideas.
- What specific event was the first doorway of no return, irrevocably altering the status quo?
Part two response is the part of the story where the hero responds to the call of action from the set-up.
In Star Wars Episode IV, the set-up of the movie finds young Skywalker helping his Aunt and Uncle on their rustic moisture farm.
They’re buying droids, fixing up their home, etc. It’s the set-up phase where you’re learning more about Luke and his normal life before the call to action.
He then stumbles across R2D2’s video of Princess Leah asking for help from Obi-Won. He suspects Obi-Wan is Ben Kenobi but is rebuked by his uncle.
Near the end of the setup, Luke Skywalker finds his aunt and uncle dead. They’ve been killed by the Empire.
The setup part of the story is over as Luke now has to respond to the killing of his aunt and uncle, whom he knows, were killed by the Empire, and suspects it has something to do with Leah’s video.
Part II response is strictly about the hero’s response to the antagonistic forces. It comes in at the 25% mark of your story until the 50% mark of your story.
At this point in the story, the hero doesn’t know what to do, where to go, or who to speak with, but that doesn’t mean your hero doesn’t have a goal. Response will help define that goal and to do that, answer these questions for the reader early in part 2:
- What is the heroes primary objective? Make it tangible.
- How does the reader know the hero has committed to this objective?
- With the primary objective in mind, write down the 5 biggest steps toward the solution of your heroes primary objective.
Although response is mostly about the hero getting his footing and trying to figure out what happened in Set-up, it’s also time for the villain to make himself known. To do this, answer the following question:
- How will the villain show their power (pinch point) in part 2 response?
At this point, the hero may not even know who the villain is. The hero just knows there is an opposing force that is causing trouble and is trying to deal with it by gathering clues and information.
At the end of part II everything changes.
What they thought was real is not, and what plans they had, need to change.
This is the midpoint of your story, and it happens at the halfway mark. Define this period in the story:
- What event will force your hero to stop reacting to the villain and start acting?
As you probably guessed by the name of this part, it’s time for the hero to get moving, and start being more proactive.
Up to this point, our hero was catapulted into a new situation in Part one and stumbled around trying to regain his or her footing and some control in Part two.
Now, here in part three, the hero begins to strike back against the villain.
In part three the hero has had enough of being unsure of himself or herself and starts making moves he or she wouldn’t have earlier in the story. The hero has more experience and confidence, is becoming courageous and is applying critical thinking to get ahead of the antagonistic forces. But, the villain has the first move, and that is the symbolic death of the hero. The symbolic death of the hero is the second pinch point in your story. We’ll get into more detail about the plot point building blocks later in this series, but for now, answer the following question:
- What significant ways did the villain inflict damage on the hero (physically, professionally, or psychologically?) List at least three specific ideas. This is the same question as earlier in part 1, but this time the villain is focused on causing damage specifically to the hero.
As the part is defined, the hero has a symbolic death and rebirth. Near the end of part 3, after your hero has been dealt a blow from the villain, describe the rebirth (second plot point) by answering this question:
- How will the hero seem to achieve victory at the end of part 3?
Here we are in the fourth and final part of the four major sections of story structure.
If you remember nothing else in this entire section, remember this:
No new information can enter the story here, and the hero is the primary focus to the end of the story.
The hero in whom the readers are invested must be willing to die at the end of the story to deliver the maximum punch for the reader. Thus, in part 4, the villain almost wins. This would be the final blow to the hero before the climax.
Of course, if your hero does die, you want him to have solved the majority of the conflict at hand before he does.
Near the end, the hero plays the most significant role in defeating the villain.
The story closes by concluding any open character stories, and the hero is at their new normal.
To help brainstorm part 4, answer the following questions:
- What new defeat will be dealt to the hero, bringing him to a new personal low?
- How will the hero respond to this defeat?
- How will the hero resurrect their determination to defeating the villain?
- What happens during the climax?
- What happens to the hero during the climax?
- What happens to the villain during the climax?
- How does the ending include sacrifice or moral act?
- Is the climax the last sensical step of the novel’s progression?
- Describe the heroes new normal.
- Describe how the last paragraph in the novel leaves the reader with a “wow” feeling.
If you’ve completed everything to this point in the series, congratulations! You’ve done more than most writer’s. What you’ve accomplished is mostly a basic outline for a thriller novel. It’s complete and although light on information, you could certainly use it from this point on to write a story.
In the next post in this series, we’re going to take the outline you have to this point and expand even deeper into the building blocks of structure. You’ve done some of the hard work already by answering the questions in this post, but there is still more to do, but guess what? The hard work is already done!