Create a Plot Outline Easily with What If? and Why?

Writing a plot outline needn'’t be difficult. In fact, it can be fun. When you begin plotting your story it helps to ask questions, and the two most important questions to consider are What if? and Why?

What if a young boy suddenly has a cruel stepfather? (As in Dickens’ David Copperfield) Following that “what if?” you might ask yourself “why?” Why does he have a stepfather and not a father? Why did his mother marry miserable Murdstone? Why does David dislike Murdstone?

What if?

Questions will get you writing, all those "what if?" questions become the key points in your plot outline, while the answers to your “why?” questions make up your sub points. When you’'ve jotted down as many answers to the question “why?” as you can, always return to “what if?

  1. What if David disliked his new stepfather so much that he bit the man’s arm, hard?

  2. What if his stepfather sent David to a boarding school with an equally nasty headmaster?

  3. What if this headmaster made David wear a sign on his back that said, Take Care of Him, He Bites?

When I wrote my first novel, Burning Ground, I asked myself a lot of what if? questions because that was about all I knew about plotting:

  1. What if a young girl falls in love with her best friend?

  2. What if she comes from a religious family that couldn'’t possibly accept a same-sex relationship?

  3. What if despite the religion, the mother was having an affair?

  4. What if the man with whom she was having an affair was actually the father of both the girl and her brother?

  5. What if the man they thought of as their father knew that his children were both fathered by the other man?

  6. What if the girl’s first sexual experience was not with the best friend she longs for, but with a boy who would criticize her lack of inhibition?

  7. What if the husband the couple for whom she babysits seduces her?

  8. What if he is a masochist?


The wonderful, enjoyable aspect of creating a plot outline like this is that it is pure play. At this stage, when you only want an outline for writing a novel, you can ask any question and imagine anything. With time, you will throw out the ideas that don’t stand up well to the “why?” question, and you will keep only the ideas for which you can provide answers, but for now, anything goes.

"What if?" provides you with the ideas for scenes. “Why?” provides the motivation behind each action, and solid motivation makes characters authentic and believable.

Our own lives are made up of motivating factors, whether we think about those motivations or not. We’re motivated to move to another province because we have family, friends, or a better job somewhere else. Or maybe our motivation is to put a greater distance between family and us. We’re motivated to eat because we’re hungry, or maybe because we’re lonely or feeling stressed. Characters, like humans, need to have reasons for doing what they do, and those reasons should be clear to readers.

Asking “why?” in your plot outline will allow you to write scenes that illustrate the reasons for character action. By showing, not telling, you will expand your story in a logical, interesting, cause and effect pattern. You’ll find, with this sort of plot outline, that the necessary complications come easily. You’re also more likely to plan scenes that are different from each other, but you may have to think longer about the twists your story needs.

If you can create a “what if” statement that turns the plot in a new direction at a key point—good. If you get stumped and none of your scenes feels “big” enough to be a major turning point, don’t worry about it. That’s a problem you can solve later, after you have a lot of scenes written. All you’re after at this point is a plot outline that gets you excited and keeps you writing.

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