In this article, I’m walking you through my favorite outlining method for writing commercial fiction: The 24 Chapter Novel Outline.
I personally use this outlining method as a starting place for all of my books. And while I might modify it here and there as needed, I find it a great place to get started.
So let’s dive into it.
What is the 24 Chapter Novel Outline?
The 24 Chapter Novel Outline is a special outline created by Derek Murphy. It was created as a useful outline that works on a chapter-by-chapter level, which handily fills in the gaps of some of the more common story structures such as the three act structure.
That’s what attracted me to this outlining method: it fleshes out each step. You see, most outlining structures have clear benchmarks, but it’s not always clear what happens between each benchmark. The 24 Chapter Novel Outline fixes that problem.
Can You Use the 24 Chapter Novel Outline for Any Book?
This outlining method was designed specifically for commercial fiction. Anyone using alternative structures or writing from a more literary perspective will need to look elsewhere.
However, the 24 Chapter Novel Outline works for most commercial genres. It is designed to work best with 50,000-75,000-word manuscripts, i.e. roughly 2000-3000 words per chapter.
If you are like me, and write somewhat larger epic fantasies, you can still use this outline for your central plot/character. But I find I sometimes have to add additional scenes for other POV characters and subplots. You can simply outline those separately and layer them in with the central plot line.
So you may, occasionally, need to expand some of these chapters, depending on your genre, but for most simple stories it will work.
A Quick Summary of the 24 Chapter Novel Outline
Act 1: Hero & Ordinary World
- Chapter 1, Really Bad Day: establishes the character’s flaws and desires through a conflict or problem they face
- Chapter 2, Something Peculiar: presents an unusual event that the protagonist ignores, foreshadowing future challenges
- Chapter 3, Grasping at Straws: shows the protagonist struggling to maintain control over their world, while questioning their choices and feeling a pull towards a different world
- SECTION BREAK: The Inciting Incident: marks a significant shift in the story with an event that disrupts the protagonist’s status quo
- Chapter 4, Call to Adventure: presents an extraordinary event that the protagonist cannot ignore, forcing them to confront new challenges
- Chapter 5, Head in Sand: shows the protagonist resisting the Call to Adventure, longing for their previous ordinary life
- Chapter 6, Pull out Rug: presents a personal and significant event that compels the protagonist to take action, despite their reluctance.
Act 2A: Exploring New World
- Chapter 7, Enemies & Allies: introduces the protagonist to new characters, including potential allies, enemies, mentors, or love interests
- Chapter 8, Games & Trials: sees the protagonist facing challenges, undergoing training, and learning to harness newfound abilities
- Chapter 9, Earning Respect: focuses on the protagonist achieving a small victory, gaining begrudging respect, and boosting their self-confidence
- SECTION BREAK: 1st Pinch Point (first battle): marks the protagonist’s first major interaction with the antagonist or forces of evil, raising the stakes and increasing tension
- Chapter 10, Forces of Evil: sees the protagonist facing the true dangers and implications of their involvement and confronting the antagonist’s ultimate goal
- Chapter 11, Problem Revealed: sees the protagonist feeling excluded and demanding answers, showcasing their shaken confidence and newfound determination
- Chapter 12, Truth & Ultimatum: reveals critical information that alters the protagonist’s worldview, forcing them to choose whether to commit to the journey ahead or not.
Act 2B: Bad Guys Close In
- SECTION BREAK: Midpoint (victim to warrior): marks the protagonist’s transition from a defensive, reactive role to a proactive one, determined to fight back and win
- Chapter 13, Mirror Stage: sees the protagonist transitioning from a passive, reactive role to a deliberate, active one, armed with new information and understanding of risks
- Chapter 14, Plan of Attack: sees the protagonist devising a plan with allies to confront the antagonist, considering potential obstacles and challenges
- Chapter 15, Crucial Role: sees the protagonist taking on a critical task with significant responsibility for the outcome of the conflict
- SECTION BREAK: 2nd Pinch Point (second battle): marks a significant turning point in the story, where the protagonist faces forces representing the antagonist’s interests
- Chapter 16, Direct Conflict: sees the protagonist and allies directly confronting the antagonist’s higher-level forces, heightening tension and leaving the protagonist in a precarious situation
- Chapter 17, Surprise Failure: sees the protagonist’s plan unraveling disastrously, leading to serious consequences and shattering strategies
- Chapter 18, Shocking Revelation: sees the protagonist uncovering crucial information about the antagonist’s true identity or plan, raising the stakes and impacting the protagonist’s emotional state, desires, and needs
- SECTION BREAK: 2nd Plot Point (dark night of the soul): plunges the protagonist into their darkest hour, where they suffer a crushing defeat, leading to a change in mindset and ultimately transforming into the hero needed to defeat the villain.
Act 3: Defeat and Victory
- Chapter 19, Giving Up: The protagonist loses confidence and gives up after a disastrous defeat, emphasizing their deteriorating mental state.
- Chapter 20, Pep Talk: An ally’s pep talk helps rebuild the protagonist’s confidence and inspires them to choose a new path forward.
- Chapter 21, Seizing the Sword: The protagonist addresses their fatal flaw, seizes the sword, and prepares to confront the antagonist.
- SECTION BREAK: Final Battle: The protagonist finds the resolve to confront the antagonist despite seemingly hopeless odds, leading to a dramatic turning point in the story.
- Chapter 22, Ultimate Defeat: The protagonist faces ultimate defeat at the hands of the antagonist, leading to a realization of their flaws and what must be done to overcome them.
- Chapter 23, Unexpected Victory: At the brink of defeat, the protagonist reveals a hidden weapon or ally and undergoes the final transformation in their character arc, leading to a triumphant victory.
- Chapter 24, Bittersweet Return: The protagonist emerges victorious, returns to the Ordinary World transformed, and ties up loose ends in the narrative.
- SECTION BREAK: Rebirth: The protagonist reflects on their growth and faces earlier challenges with newfound confidence.
- Chapter 25, Death of Self (optional): The protagonist experiences a rebirth and completes their character arc through a significant transformation.
Act 1: Hero & Ordinary World
In Act 1: Hero & Ordinary World, the protagonist is introduced within their mundane daily life, highlighting their relationships, environment, and personal struggles. The character should have room for growth and may face emotional challenges or dissatisfaction with their current situation.
The protagonist’s desires and aspirations should be revealed, as well as their internal flaws, which should be mirrored by their environment. Introducing sources of conflict and the character’s favorite object can provide further insight into the protagonist’s life and motivations.
1. Really Bad Day
In the “Really Bad Day” chapter, the protagonist is introduced in their ordinary world, facing a conflict or problem that prevents them from achieving a desired goal.
This chapter establishes a three-dimensional character with flaws, desires, and unique personality traits, allowing readers to connect with the protagonist.
It also hints at the protagonist’s underlying needs and character flaws, which may be unrecognized but still causing harm.
2. Something Peculiar
In the “Something Peculiar” chapter, an unusual event occurs that doesn’t align with the protagonist’s worldview, leading them to dismiss or ignore it.
The protagonist’s focus on their own goals and problems prevents them from recognizing the full implications of this peculiar event.
To build tension, the reader may be more aware of the event’s consequences while the protagonist remains oblivious, foreshadowing future challenges in the story.
3. Grasping at Straws
In the “Grasping at Straws” chapter, the protagonist struggles to regain control over their ordinary world as setbacks mount and problems worsen.
They catch a glimpse of a different world and feel a pull towards it, leading them to question their choices and become critical of their current situation.
Despite these feelings, the protagonist still desires to maintain control and stay within the ordinary world, grappling with internal conflict and an evolving perspective.
Section Break: Inciting Incident
The Inciting Incident section break marks a significant shift in the story, as an event intrudes upon the protagonist’s ordinary world.
This change can be a new arrival, a loss, or an unexpected invitation, initiating the plot and disrupting the protagonist’s status quo. Often met with denial or refusal, the protagonist is hesitant to accept the call to adventure, preferring to focus on their previous goals and returning to normalcy.
This turning point should be carefully considered, as it deeply impacts the protagonist’s journey. Consider symbolic objects, setting, and unique character traits to enrich the narrative during this pivotal moment.
4. Call to Adventure
The “Call to Adventure” chapter presents the protagonist with an extraordinary event, invitation, or mission that cannot be ignored or resolved easily.
This significant occurrence forces the protagonist to abandon their previous goals and confront the new challenges arising.
The protagonist’s reaction and emotional state, influenced by their unique flaws and circumstances, are vital to understanding how they begin to push back against this new development, setting the stage for their journey into the unknown.
5. Head in Sand
In the “Head in Sand” chapter, the protagonist refuses to accept the reality of the Call to Adventure, attempting to ignore the growing intrigue, tension, and mystery. They resist facing the new challenges and entering the New World, longing for their previous ordinary life.
As regret and doubt build, events continue to conflict with their Ordinary World, illustrating the protagonist’s emotional response and their inability to maintain their previous existence.
6. Pull out Rug
In the “Pull out Rug” chapter, the protagonist continues to address ordinary world issues while resisting the Call to Adventure, until an event forces them into the Point of No Return.
This personal and significant event, such as a theft, kidnapping, or loss, compels the protagonist to take action, despite their reluctance.
The stakes and tensions rise, creating a hook for the reader and establishing the protagonist’s uncomfortable and involuntary entry into the new world.
Act 2, Part 1: Exploring New World
Section Break: First Plot Point
The First Plot Point section break signifies a major turning point in the story, with events becoming increasingly strange and intriguing.
The protagonist, initially attempting to ignore these problems, is eventually forced into action, leaving the ordinary world behind.
A significant event, such as a revelation, death, or disaster, shatters their previous understanding and leaves them feeling vulnerable. This unforgettable scene may be a metaphorical leap rather than a physical change of location.
The transition can be symbolized by an object or reflected in the environment, with a flash of color conveying the mood. By the end of Act One, all major characters should be introduced, marking a critical moment in the story that impacts the protagonist’s journey.
7. Enemies & Allies
In the “Enemies & Allies” chapter, the protagonist enters the New World, navigating new surroundings and adapting to their altered daily life.
As they fumble through their new role, they encounter main characters, including potential allies, enemies, mentors, or love interests. The protagonist may face skepticism, bullying, or support from their new peers, while the antagonist is introduced or hinted at.
This chapter establishes expectations for upcoming challenges, as well as the protagonist’s guide to help them traverse the unfamiliar territory.
8. Games & Trials
In the “Games & Trials” chapter, the protagonist faces the challenges and excitement of the New World, encountering new characters and learning to navigate their new environment.
This stage may also introduce conflicts with a love interest, as well as require the protagonist to undergo training or learning to harness newfound abilities. The protagonist’s frustration, self-doubt, and feelings of not belonging create a connection with the reader, while the unique aspects of the New World are showcased through the protagonist’s actions and training.
9. Earning Respect
In the “Earning Respect” chapter, the protagonist achieves a small victory, demonstrating their capabilities to both allies and enemies. This accomplishment helps to garner begrudging respect and fosters a sense of belonging, leading to a boost in the protagonist’s self-confidence.
This stage explores the nature of the small victory, the reactions of allies, and the growth of the protagonist’s newfound self-assurance.
Section Break: 1st Pinch Point (first battle)
The First Pinch Point marks a significant section break in the story, where the protagonist encounters their first major interaction with the antagonist or the forces of evil. This confrontation does not have to be a literal battle, but it serves to raise the stakes and increase tension.
The protagonist may not fully comprehend the situation but finds themselves at the heart of the conflict. The scene should be intense and dire, pushing the protagonist’s self-identity to its limits. Consider using the setting and characters to reflect the mood, making the scene memorable and epic.
This crucial turning point requires a pause to understand its impact on the protagonist before continuing with the next chapter.
10. Forces of Evil
The stakes are raised as the forces of evil become more apparent, and the antagonist is revealed. After gaining some confidence, the protagonist now faces the true dangers and implications of their involvement.
This conflict, whether direct or remote, provides a clearer understanding of the antagonist’s ultimate goal, humbling the protagonist.
The chapter should depict small successes for the protagonist and their allies, increasing tension as the antagonist’s forces work toward the same goal. By highlighting the protagonist’s newfound understanding of the antagonist and the resulting humility, the story’s intensity is further heightened.
11. Problem Revealed
The protagonist feels overwhelmed and left in the dark after confronting the challenges in the previous chapter. Realizing their allies withheld information about the danger and true threat level, they experience feelings of exclusion and alienation.
They confront the allies, demanding answers, and are initially dismissed, being told they are not ready or need to further develop their powers.
The scene should capture the protagonist’s shaken confidence in both the allies and themselves, while also showcasing their newfound determination to stand up for what they deserve.
12. Truth & Ultimatum
The protagonist discovers critical information that alters their worldview, revealing the full extent of the antagonist’s forces, the problem’s backstory, and what they’re up against. They may also see their allies in a new light or develop empathy for the antagonist’s viewpoint.
With this comprehensive understanding, the protagonist must consciously choose whether to commit to the journey ahead or not.
This new information and the protagonist’s decision to move forward or not create a compelling and intriguing turning point in the story, further engaging the reader.
Act 2, Part 2: Bad Guys Close In
Section Break: Midpoint (victim to warrior)
At the midpoint of the novel, the protagonist transitions from a defensive, reactive role to a proactive one, determined to fight back and do whatever it takes to win. This turning point may be fueled by anger towards the antagonist, a new perspective, or increased self-confidence.
No longer playing the victim, the protagonist questions their identity and experiences a shift in perspective, often symbolized by an object or a flash of color in a remarkable setting. This significant change in the protagonist’s attitude marks a crucial turning point in the story, compelling the reader to eagerly anticipate the protagonist’s next steps.
13. Mirror Stage
At this stage, the protagonist transitions from a passive, reactive role to a deliberate, active one, moving from victim to warrior. Armed with new information, backstory, and an understanding of the risks, they make a conscious decision to continue.
This point may include a significant revelation or twist, causing the protagonist to second-guess their decision and confront their weaknesses.
Through deep self-reflection, the protagonist defines who they want to be, but they are not yet prepared to face their fatal flaw fully.
14. Plan of Attack
The protagonist, now fully committed, devises a plan of attack with their allies to tackle the problem from Chapter 11 and confront the antagonist. The planning session covers the antagonist’s intentions, the actions required to stop them, and whether the protagonist and allies will face the antagonist’s forces directly or address a central issue.
Additionally, the planning stage considers potential obstacles the antagonist may present to hinder the protagonist’s progress, keeping the antagonist one step ahead for now.
15. Crucial Role
The protagonist, now entrusted with a critical task as part of the overall strategy, is given a chance to prove themselves in a real-world situation. As the team begins to trust the protagonist more, they take on a role that bears significant responsibility for the outcome of the conflict.
The emotional stakes are heightened as the protagonist must decide whether to embrace this responsibility fully or maintain a certain distance from the conflict.
Section Break: 2nd Pinch Point (second battle)
In the upcoming second battle, the protagonist faces forces representing the antagonist’s interests, rather than the antagonist themselves. Despite slim chances of success, the protagonist feels responsible for the outcome and is determined to see it through.
This confrontation reveals that they have underestimated the antagonist’s power, leading to a defeat or foreshadowing of higher stakes in the next major encounter.
This section break marks a significant turning point in the story, with changes that will impact the protagonist as they continue their journey.
16. Direct Conflict
In the second battle, the protagonist and their allies directly confront the antagonist’s higher-level forces, after having been underestimated in the first conflict. They execute their plan, which may involve infiltrating the antagonist’s lair or attempting to steal a crucial item.
The goal and level of forces they encounter heighten the tension and leave the protagonist in a precarious situation, further emphasizing the stakes and challenges they face.
17. Surprise Failure
The protagonist’s plan unravels disastrously, leading to serious consequences such as the death of an ally, permanent injuries, or the loss of vital resources. The failure could stem from various factors, resulting in exposed identities and shattered strategies.
This dramatic scene intensifies the challenges faced by the protagonist and their allies, leaving them in a state of uncertainty and heightening the stakes for both the characters and the reader.
18. Shocking Revelation
The protagonist uncovers crucial information about the antagonist’s true identity or their full plan, exacerbating their predicament. Overwhelmed by guilt and anger for their failure and the antagonist’s cunning, the protagonist feels responsible for letting everyone down.
This revelation raises the stakes, intensifies tension, and plants seeds of doubt, shaping future plans and decisions while profoundly impacting the protagonist’s emotional state, desires, and needs.
Section Break: 2nd Plot Point (dark night of the soul)
The second plot point plunges the protagonist into their darkest hour, where they suffer a crushing defeat, often due to their own character flaw or lack of knowledge. As their worst fears materialize, they lose all hope and resign themselves to failure.
The catastrophic loss prompts a change in mindset, forcing the protagonist to abandon their initial desires and pursue a new direction. When they recognize and confront what’s been holding them back, they ultimately transform into the hero needed to defeat the villain.
The heart-wrenching scene involves significant and irreversible consequences for the protagonist or their allies, serving as a poignant reminder of the stakes involved in their journey.
Act 3: Defeat and Victory
19. Giving Up
The protagonist, facing the Dark Night of the Soul, loses confidence and gives up after a disastrous defeat. They underestimated the antagonist, and their failed plan leaves them feeling powerless, hopeless, and ridden with self-doubt.
As they grapple with the consequences of their failure, they may experience guilt and a sense of responsibility for the dire outcome.
This chapter emphasizes the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state, whether it’s anger, depression, or guilt, and amplifies the stakes, making victory seem unattainable.
20. Pep Talk
In the depths of despair, the protagonist receives encouragement and a pep talk from an ally, pulling them out of their depressive cycle. This may include a vulnerable revelation about the protagonist’s past, identity, or fatal flaw, offering insight into their struggles.
While the fatal flaw may not be entirely resolved, the protagonist starts to confront it. The ally’s words help rebuild the protagonist’s confidence and highlight the stakes, inspiring them to choose a new path forward.
This chapter not only rekindles the protagonist’s courage but also reminds the reader why resolving the problem matters.
21. Seizing the Sword
The protagonist, having addressed their fatal flaw, seizes the sword, making a deliberate choice to continue despite slim chances of success. A hidden piece of critical information is revealed to provide them with a much-needed boost.
As the protagonist and allies gear up for the final battle, they prepare by obtaining essential items, gathering forces, or formulating a plan. This chapter highlights their determination to confront the antagonist, engaging the reader in their decision to move forward against all odds.
Section Break: Final Battle
In the final battle section break, the protagonist, having received a pep talk from a close friend, finds the resolve to confront the antagonist despite seemingly hopeless odds. Initially, they fail and are captured, but in a sudden twist, they dig deep within themselves, finding the motivation and tenacity to persevere.
They unlock access to a secret weapon or newfound knowledge, which enables them to defeat the antagonist.
This major turning point in the story dramatically impacts the protagonist, forcing them to grow, change, or make a critical realization. The narrative then continues to explore the consequences of this climactic event.
22. Ultimate Defeat
In the pivotal “All is Lost” moment, the protagonist, still not fully understanding their fatal flaw, confidently enters the final battle only to face ultimate defeat at the hands of the antagonist. As the protagonist is humiliated and forced to confront their true flaw, they are brought to their lowest point, seemingly without hope of victory or redemption.
The narrative emphasizes the protagonist’s mental and emotional turmoil as they grapple with the dire situation, the loss of allies, and the reality of their flaws. It is in this darkest hour that the protagonist finally realizes the nature of their flaw and what must be done to overcome it.
23. Unexpected Victory
At the brink of defeat, the protagonist gains a newfound understanding of their unhealed wound and decides to let go of their desires to achieve victory. Embracing their needs and willing to make sacrifices, they reveal a secret weapon, ability, or unexpected ally that has been overlooked throughout the story.
The antagonist’s gloating is cut short as the protagonist undergoes the final transformation in their character arc, leading to a triumphant and satisfying victory. This climactic scene may also involve further sacrifices, including the loss of allies or even the protagonist themselves, heightening the emotional impact of their ultimate triumph.
24. Bittersweet Return
The protagonist emerges victorious from the battle, leading to a period of either joyful celebration or bittersweet reflection. They may have only driven off the antagonist or defeated a lesser henchman, but they have undoubtedly changed as a person.
As they return to their transformed Ordinary World, they may let go of a symbolic object they’ve held onto, signifying their growth.
In this denouement, loose ends in the protagonist’s and other characters’ storylines are tied up, and the narrative concludes with a sense of resolution, unless the story continues in a subsequent chapter.
Section Break: Rebirth (return to ordinary world)
Upon returning to the Ordinary World, the protagonist is transformed, having achieved victory, albeit possibly temporary in the case of a series. Their newfound confidence, friendships, and hope for the future allow them to face earlier challenges or bullies, which now seem trivial.
The antagonist’s defeat marks a significant change in the protagonist’s life, as they reflect on their losses and gains, symbolized by specific objects, highlighting their growth and the impact of their journey.
25. Death of Self (optional)
In this optional, yet powerful chapter, the protagonist comes full circle, experiencing a rebirth as they shift from ambition to service.
After sacrificing their desires to save others and defeat the antagonist, they undergo an emotional recovery and adapt to the changed Ordinary World.
This significant transformation may be acknowledged through a ceremony or public celebration, highlighting the completion of their character arc. Loose ends are tied up, and if part of a series, hints of future challenges or unresolved issues are introduced.
Using AI to Build a 24 Chapter Novel Outline
One of my favorite things about the 24 Chapter Novel Outline is that it works perfectly with AI.
An AI tool like ChatGPT is great at developing outlines with standard, known methods such as the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat. But when it comes to getting that broad outline to a chapter-by-chapter level, it’s not as great.
So I purposely use this outline instead, as it gives ChatGPT the exact parameters for each chapter, and I can easily add an existing synopsis to the AI to then transform into the 24 Chapter Novel Outline format.
But there’s one slight problem: ChatGPT doesn’t know the 24 Chapter Novel Outline.
No worries! All that means is that we have to feed it the right information first.
That’s why I included the “Quick Summary” above, because that will help you feed the outline info into your AI tool first, then its memory should be enough to take your story synopsis and apply the outlining method.
I usually start with a prompt like this:
We’re going to be outlining a [GENRE] novel using the 24-chapter novel outline below. Once you have read this, please says “READ” to indicate you understand:
[PASTE QUICK SUMMARY OF OUTLINE]
Then, once I’ve done that, and I have confirmation that ChatGPT has stored the outline in its memory, I will add a prompt like this:
Now using the 24-chapter novel outline above, take the following synopsis and outline it in the same format. Feel free to add additional details as needed to fill in any gaps in the story.
Once you have that, all you have to do is take the output and flesh it out yourself further, but this is a great way to start, and the 24 Chapter Novel Outline is by far my preferred (and recommended) way of doing so.