But I know how the whole story hangs together, and that's because I have the outline. (And the outline of the larger arcs, etc.) And the outline tends not to have plot cul-de-sacs or corners I paint myself into because it's got a solid structure.
I've talked about the twelve-part outline structure before, and it's the basic scaffolding I use to craft an outline. Here it is:
- Establishment: Show character(s) and initial situation. Here’s where you set up not only who your main character(s) is, but what the rules of the road are. What is “normal” for your story? If there is magic, for example, you need to let the reader know here. Especially in a genre story, you need to make it clear what’s going on.
- Incitement: Incident or new information spurs protagonist. This may be interwoven with Establishment, or exist on its own, but the important this is that the something changes to throw us out of the Established “normal” and gets the protagonist acting.
- Challenge: Minor antagonists come into play. You can’t throw the big guns at your protagonist yet. Either your protagonist isn’t aware of the Big Bad yet, or doesn’t understand the scope of what is happening, or just plain isn’t ready for the big picture yet.
- Altercation: Conflict with minor antagonists. Give your protagonist a hard-won victory, even if it’s minor or only symbolic. This lets you show your protagonist as having the competence and drive to deserve being at the center of the story.
- Payback: Minor antagonists report back to major, allowing a strike back. That hard-won victory may have felt good, but it isn’t without consequences. Perhaps it means that your Big Bad just re-evaluated your protagonist, and has elevated the threat level from Nuisance to Problem.
- Regrouping: Protagonist reacts to the payback, possibly in an ineffective way; thinks confrontation is over, relaxes. Here is where your protagonist has another victory, but not the victory they think they’ve had. This is where they make a mistake, be it underestimating the antagonist, or just sloppy pride. That deep character flaw you’ve woven into them is set up to bite them back.
- Collapse: Protagonist loses stability and safety of base situation. Everything falls apart. Whatever your protagonist thought they could count on crumbles under their feet.
- Retreat: Protagonist must leave base situation to escape threat from main antagonist. Deal them that serious blow. Force their hand.
- Recovery: Protagonist establishes a new situation, enough to be stable and safe. You need to give them a chance to lick their wounds, figure out where they stand, and if they can accept that.
- Investment: Personal reason forces protagonist back into fray with main antagonist—they won’t choose to walk away. This is where you make your heroes. At this stage, a lesser protagonist would cut their losses, admit defeat. Your protagonist can’t do that. It’s time to see this to the end.
- Confrontation: Goes after main antagonist, partly to reclaim investment. Now you’re at the climax.
- Resolution: Defeat of main antagonist, which can create a new base situation or re-establish stability of original one.