How to Write a Story Outline and Tips for Teaching Them

While there are many ways to go about writing, there are two really distinct kinds of writers: those who get started without any planning, and those who think about what to write for so long that they never actually get their story started. But there’s an easy way to keep elementary and middle schoolers – the youngest, newest writers – from falling into either of these writing traps. Just teach them how to write a story outline.

Keep reading for:

  • what a story outline is and what it does for young writers
  • elements of the story outline
  • step-by-step guide for writing a story outline
  • tips for teaching students how to write one

What is a story outline?

All  stories have the same core elements and follow the same basic structure – no matter what they’re about, no matter how simple or complicated they are.

This basic structure is known as the story or (more commonly) narrative arc.

While students first learn how to identify the plot, or events that happen within a story, the narrative arc is the sequential progression of events. Think of the plot as a bunch of discrete, defined points. The narrative arc is the flowing line connecting each point to the next one.

The beauty of the narrative arc concept is that it is visual. You can map out a story by the progression of the arc.

In fact, many educators teach the elements of a story using some visual form of story mapping. The most well known visual tool for story mapping is Freytag’s Pyramid.

Freytag's Pyramid structure to use for story outline.

Story mapping is one basic form of story outline.

It gives students a narrative direction, an understanding of how their story will start and end.

Instead of thinking about the individual events and details of a story, students think: “This happens, then this, and this.” If they get stuck in writer’s block somewhere along the way, they can pull out their story map and know what is supposed to happen next.

Is the narrative arc the only thing you need for a good story outline?

Character and setting affects the story, so include them when teaching how to write a story outline.

Stories are not just actions and events. Stories have settings, characters, and character development. A really useful story outline will include setting and character outlines, as well.

A lot of writers, especially young ones, don’t take the time to think about every feature of their characters and settings. They may not find it relevant to have a detailed idea of what exactly the story’s characters are like, and where they are. Instead, they plan their story around a common idea, like “a girl” in “the city”, for example.

You need to know your characters.

Placing poorly thought out characters in a generic setting robs a story of its richness, uniqueness, and authenticity. And as many writers plow on with their story, they start to realize that they don’t really know their characters, and they don’t know what they would really do in a situation.

For example, describe Harry Potter. He has glasses, a scar, starts off young and scrawny but grows tall and strong. These facts don’t seem important when you put them in a list like this, but they impact every part of the story. His scar alone guides the story – could you even imagine a Harry Potter without this one fundamental character trait?

Related: What reading level is Harry Potter?

Character traits are more than physical descriptions, though. For example, Harry is kind, brave, and humble. His core values guide his actions, which guides the narrative arc.

You also need your setting.

Settings also guide a story. For example, a story set in Paris is going to be very different than a story set in Los Angeles. A person doesn’t go to Paris to become a famous actor. But they may go there to train under a world-renowned artist.

People in these two places also experience different problems, have different interests. and have different dreams.

Settings have the potential to change the shape of the story and the people within it. This is why you have to think about them before you even start writing.

How to Write a Story Outline

Four steps describing how to write a story outline.

Before writing their own stories, students should be able to identify the core elements of a story on their own.

Use these example reading sets to teach story elements before having students attempt to write their own stories.

And now, on to the creative part.

1. Write down the basic idea of your story.

Just one or two sentences about the idea is fine. It doesn’t have to be detailed.

For example, in Harry Potter, the basic idea is: A boy finds out he is a wizard and goes to a secret wizard school.

Super simple, right? Putting something simple like this on paper is a really low pressure way to start off a story outline.

2. Start creating the narrative. Use a story map.

Start with a general idea, just a few low-pressure sentences describing what the story is about. Don’t worry so much about names, places, interesting scenes or details, or how exactly the story will reach a resolution.

Just include:

  • who the story is about (the main characters)
  • the problem they face (the conflict)
  • how they will go about trying to solve this problem (the action)
  • how the story will end (the resolution)

An Example: The Basic Idea of Harry Potter

An orphan boy (the main character, or hero) discovers he is a wizard and goes away to wizarding school. A dark wizard tries to destroy the boy wizard, as the boy is the only wizard with the power to stop him from going through with his dark and terrible plans (the conflict). The boy and his friends team up to defeat this wizard (the action) so they can bring safety back to the boy and the entire wizarding world (the resolution).

Students should use the idea of a story map, like Freytag’s Pyramid, to create their narrative arc.

As they fill in the blanks, students will be able to see the overall shape of the story.

Ask students these questions to help them write a detailed outline of the main conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

3. Get to know your characters.

You don’t need amazing, larger than life characters to write a great story.

But you do need to create detailed, unique characters if you want to write a great story.

How do you really get an idea of who your characters are, why they’re interesting, and how they would act in different situations?

You “get to know them,” of course.

Answering these questions will help students create detailed characters who would realistically be a part of their story.

Related: Teach students how to write dialogue in a story.

4. Consider your setting(s).

Where are your characters at various points of the story? What is special about this place? How does the setting shape the characters and the story? How will you describe these to readers?

An Example: The Setting of Harry Potter, Chapter 1

The first (and one of the most memorable) settings of Harry Potter is the Dursley’s house on a dull, grey day. The setting also includes the tiny closet Harry is forced to live in.

This setting shows how cruel the Dursleys are (they make Harry sleep in a closet.) It also shows what Harry wants in the beginning of the story (to get away from his horrible family.)

Related: This is how t use figurative language to vividly describe characters and settings.

5. Put it all together.

Your narrative arc, character descriptions and development, and setting descriptions are probably a little all over the place.

Bring it all together in one place, in one sequential outline.

Replace any generic character or setting descriptions with your specific ones. Review your plot points to make sure they are something that could realistically happen to your characters in their specific setting.

If it doesn’t seem like it could happen, you have to revise. (In some genres, like fantasy, there are a lot of possibilities. But a realistic fiction story can’t have flying cars and soul stealing demons.)

Tips for Teaching Students How to Write a Story Outline

Starting and finishing interesting, unique stories is hard. But learn how to write a story outline, and the process gets much easier.

The more stories students write, the easier it gets.

The more story outlines students write, the more stories they’ll finish.

To be a good writer, students must be great readers. Practice spotting story elements, getting character and setting ideas, and creating story outlines with reading passages for all grade levels. Filter by grade-level, genre, topic, and word length.