Here's the first part of The Plot Outline Exercise, or download the Word document from my website: (top of the left-hand column). Remember, the goal is to make notes on trouble spots. You can add thoughts on how you might fix problems, but don't get distracted by rewriting at this point.

Analyze Your Plot Outline for Conflict:

* Put a check mark by the line if there is conflict in that chapter. For chapters where there is no conflict: can you cut them, interweave them with other chapters, or add new conflict? The conflict can be physical danger, emotional stress, or both, so long as the main character (MC) is facing a challenge.

* Where do we learn what the main conflict is? Could it be sooner? Is there some form of conflict at the beginning, even if it is not the main conflict? Does it at least relate to the main conflict? The inciting incident — the problem that gets the story going — should happen as soon as possible, but not until the moment is ripe. The reader must have enough understanding of the character and situation to make the incident meaningful. Too soon, and the reader is confused. Too late, and the reader gets bored first.

* Where do we learn the stakes? What are they? Do you have positive stakes (what the MC will get if he succeeds), negative stakes (what the MC will suffer if he fails), or best of all, both? Could the penalty for failure be worse? Your MC should not be able to walk away without penalty.

* What is the MC’s flaw? Do you use this throughout the story to add complications and make challenges more difficult? Should the character make a bad decision or lose hope at one or more points?

* Is the main conflict resolved at the climax, and is the climax at the end of the book?

* Do you end fairly quickly after the climax, while wrapping up any loose ends and leaving the reader satisfied? You don’t need to end immediately after the climax, as many readers like to bask in a happy ending, but don’t ramble on for dozens of pages after the dramatic ending, and don’t end in the middle of nothing happening. You should end with something dramatic, meaningful, and appropriate to the story, whether exciting, funny, touching, or sad.

* What’s the timeframe? Can you tighten it? Can you add a “ticking clock,” where the MC has limited time to succeed?

* Does anything need to be cut, added, or moved? If you have a minimum or maximum length, work on that here.

Analyze Your Plot Outline for Tension:

* Does each scene fulfill the synopsis goal? Does it advance plot, reveal character, or ideally both?

* Does each scene have a goal, such as a shorter term goal that helps lead to the final goal? Can you make the stakes higher for any scenes?

* Mark plot twists. Do you have several surprises/reversals? If not, can you add some?

* Is the antagonist actively thwarting the hero throughout the book? If you don’t have a human antagonist, could you make the book stronger by adding one or more, even if they’re minor characters? Or could one of the other secondary characters take on an antagonistic role — perhaps a parent interfering with a child’s plan, or a difficult teacher, coworker, or boss? Even a friend can cause trouble, if that friend has different needs or goals from your MC.

* Does your MC attempt to make progress toward his/her primary goal in every chapter, or are some chapters only subplot? If you have chapters that are purely subplot, can you weave them into other chapters with plot, or add plot progression within those chapters?

* Does the tension vary but ultimately rise over time, with the situation worsening? Can you increase the complications so that at each step more is at stake and there’s greater risk or a better reward? If the tension stays the same, the story will feel flat, even if the tension stays high. This is a common cause of sagging middles. You want ups and downs with an overall sense of increasing trouble.

* How many emotions do you have in each chapter/scene? Can you add ups and downs? You want strong emotion, but you also want variety. For example, your MC could feel happy anticipation, then anxiety that things aren’t going as planned, followed by a shock, which causes humiliation, then anger, then despair. That’s much more dramatic than just having a character angry for a whole scene.

* Do the MC’s emotions escalate over time? As the tension rises, the emotions should get stronger as well.

* Are the most important and dramatic events written out in moment-by-moment detail, so we feel like we are in the scene? Save summary for less dramatic sections where you want to convey information quickly.