Smarter Artist 40 Sentence Plot Template

– by: Smarter Artist

a division of Sterling & Stone

Before You Start Plotting

Make sure you know:

  • Who your protagonist is – what makes him special, what he wants more than anything, and what he fears more than anything (i.e. he’s an adrenaline-junkie smuggler who’s determined to strike it rich, but his fear of being a sucker means he keeps everyone at arm’s length)

  • Your protagonist’s external goal (i.e. to complete the K-run in less than 12 units of speed—not parsecs, because parsecs are a unit of distance)

  • Your protagonist’s flaw or backstory-inflicted wound, and how that flaw/wound is keeping him stuck in a rut and causing him to fit/not fit into his everyday world (i.e. his inability to trust others comes from being abandoned by his con-artist father)

  • Your protagonist’s coping mechanism(s) that he uses to deal with the pain that’s eating him (i.e. drinks, gambles, jogs away the hangover while his one-night stand is still snoring)

  • Your protagonist’s misbelief – the flawed way of thinking that warps his understanding of reality, which arises from his backstory-inflicted wound (i.e. everyone else is looking out for number one first, so I need to protect myself by doing the same)

  • The same things for your antagonist, plus how he embodies what’s wrong with your protagonist’s world (i.e. in a galaxy dominated by a totalitarian government determined to keep its citizens “safe” by micromanaging their lives, this control-freak cop believes that rule-breakers create chaos that rots civilization from the inside out)

Put twists in wherever they make sense—never force them! But if you’re looking for spots where story structure tends to support a twist, those have been noted in the template.

A subplot is optional:  you can keep all 40 scenes focused on the main story. But if you’d like to include a subplot—a romance, a bromance, or some other smaller story line—you can use the following scenes to develop your subplot:  5-7, 12-13, 17-18, 22-23, 27-28.

(See For the structure geeks at the end of this document for more details.)

This outline was created by an associate at the Sterling & Stone. The knowledge and experience they offer are a great asset to writers. All copyrights belong to them.

Smarter Artist 40 Sentence Plot Template

Act One

1 It’s business as usual for your protagonist, who’s being his sympathizable self while he chases his dream…until something throws him off-stride. (Could be someone messing with him, or could be he slipped up.)

2 We see what’s special about him as he does his best to recover from the stumble, but we also see what sucks about the rut he’s stuck in, and how is flaw or wound is keeping him there.

3 He thinks he’s getting his groove back, but instead he staggers face-first into the inciting incident, which irrevocably screws up his life and starts the clock ticking on his story goal.

4 He didn’t handle that very well, did he? So he indulges in one or more coping mechanisms as he muddles through the aftermath, resolving to get his life back on track.

5 Your protagonist has a new plan, and it’d be a great one, if it wasn’t based on his misbelief. But something has changed, whether he recognizes it or not, and things get a little rocky as he executes it.

6 He leans on his usual allies and resources, but they’re not enough; even worse, the trouble he gets into triggers his flaw or wound—this new situation feels a little bit like that thing he never got over.

7 Taking a step back, literally or metaphorically, your protagonist tries to figure out how he lost control of this situation. He might go looking for advice, or advice might come looking for him…but either way, his misbelief prevents him from understanding it.

8 Realizing it’s time to pull out what he thinks are the big guns, your protagonist does something that he would normally consider to be a last-ditch effort to get his life back on track—but instead, whatever he tries ends up backing him into a corner.

9 He might have a moment of false success before he finds himself stuck outside his comfort zone, exposed and vulnerable. (Maybe he wasn’t expecting there to be a twist here?) He’s made his situation ten times worse, and none of his usual allies can (or will?) help him.

10 Maybe he has no choice, or maybe they’re all bad choices—either way, your protagonist has to choose between letting his everyday world become intolerable or stepping into uncharted (for him) territory. He commits to entering the extraordinary world.Act Two

11 Your protagonist immediately stumbles on unfamiliar terrain—everything feels different here, even if it looks the same:  new rules, new problems, new dangers. As he dusts himself off, his insecurities sing a song of future failure.

12 Moving onward, he meets a representative of this extraordinary world—the antagonist, a minion, a mentor, a former ally or enemy who’s comfortable here, or maybe even a random stranger who embodies the spirit of this place. Your protagonist starts to understand the new yardstick that he will be measured by here, and that he’d underestimated the dangers he’ll face. 

13 Your protagonist plots what he thinks will be a safe course through the extraordinary world, recruiting whatever allies and resources he can, and sets off in a new direction.

14 He seems to be making progress…yeah, he was freaking out, but now that he’s getting the hang of this place, maybe it’s not going to be as bad as he thought. The new world throws a problem at him, and he handles it almost competently (or was that beginner’s luck?).

15 Crossing paths with the antagonist—or stumbling into a mess that the antagonist has left behind—your protagonist is taken off guard. He gets a glimpse of the antagonist’s true power for the first time, and realizes he’s in completely over his head as he takes significant damage.

16 Retreating, your protagonist finds temporary safe haven, but only at the cost of a sacrifice big enough to hurt. He licks his wounds, and if he receives advice, his misbelief keeps him from understanding how to apply it correctly.

17 Your miserable protagonist reaches for one of his usual coping mechanisms, but even if it’s available in this strange world, it doesn’t give him relief. He might hide it well from those around him, but he’s on the verge of a meltdown and desperate enough to try something new, even if it means temporarily abandoning the misbelief that he’s been hiding behind.

18 A new door opens up for your protagonist…but the price of walking through is steep, and might include losing allies or sticking his neck out in a big way.

19 On the other side of the door waits an ambush that your protagonist survives by improvising, surprising even himself.

20 Past the ambush, your protagonist makes a discovery or has an epiphany that allows him to see that he hasn’t been playing the game wrong, he’s been playing the wrong game…and more is at stake than he ever imagined. (Man, is this a great place for a twist!)

Act Three

21 He might feel foolish for not seeing things clearly until now, but your protagonist makes a new plan. Unfortunately, now that he’s past the meltdown, he fails to recognize that temporarily abandoning his misbelief was a healthy thing, and he grabs onto it more tightly.

22 Executing the new plan while gathering allies and resources as he goes, your protagonist hits a snag and it becomes apparent that his epiphany might’ve made him a wee bit overconfident. 

23 He must improvise once again in the face of a dilemma:  his misbelief wants him to choose option 1, but his epiphany suggests option 2 is the way to go.

24 Whether he makes the wrong choice or fumbles after making the right choice, he’s now on a collision course with the antagonist. He might be walking into an ambush, or he might be deliberately seeking the confrontation without realizing how seriously he’s outgunned.

25 The antagonist has the upper hand, and your protagonist feels his enemy’s true power—the antagonist is even stronger than before. Your protagonist might get a glimpse into the enemy’s end game, but he definitely realizes how deeply he’s in over his head. (Another place where you might add a twist!)

26 Your protagonist retreats in the face of his worst disaster yet, a disaster that feels so much like that thing he never got over that’s he’s having déjà vu. He might’ve noticed a chink in the antagonist’s armor, but not soon enough to take advantage of it.

27 As he’s gathering new allies and resources, something your protagonist did (or failed to do) in Act Two because of his misbelief comes back to bite him on the butt.

28 He’s got to eat crow, beg for help, sacrifice more resources or improvise within an already imperfect plan—and he can only blame himself. He starts to question his misbelief:  his biggest success came when he’d temporarily abandoned it, but the idea of giving it up voluntarily is terrifying.

29 Your protagonist attacks that vulnerability that he noticed earlier, and at first it seems he’s caught the antagonist unprepared—is victory at hand?

30 Nope. (Maybe there’s a twist here?) Either the antagonist was using that weakness to draw the protagonist in, or he reacted fast enough to protect it. Your protagonist gets one clear shot at the antagonist, but he has to give up his misbelief to take it, and he isn’t able to make that leap of faith.

Act Four

31 Forced to retreat or taken prisoner, your protagonist experiences a moment of hopelessness that allows him to see his misbelief for what it is:  a falsehood that’s kept him stuck in his flawed state ever since his backstory wound was inflicted.

32 Something rekindles his hopes:  maybe he sees a way to defeat the antagonist, or maybe he realizes he’d rather die on his feet than live on his knees. Either way, he’s ready to sacrifice everything to take his enemy down.

33 Your protagonist prepares for battle:  does a SWOT analysis for both sides, identifies the decisive blow that will be needed to win the battle, and makes his plan.

34 As he takes the fight to the enemy, he may indulge in one of those “if I die, I just want you to know” moments. When he arrives at the scene of the final showdown, he learns that the situation is different than he expected. (Another great place for a twist!)

35 No plan survives contact with the enemy—and your protagonist’s enemy has been crushing it since their last encounter. Both sides take damage, and when your protagonist redoubles his efforts, his forces manage to neutralizes one of the antagonist’s minion or resources.

36 The war of attrition begins as the antagonist’s forces fight harder and your protagonist is isolated from the allies and resources he was counting on. The antagonist’s minion or resource that was neutralized is brought back into play or replaced by someone/thing even more powerful.

37 Your protagonist steps forward to battle the antagonist mano a mano. The true extent of the antagonist’s power (and the depths of his evil) become clear, and the antagonist gains the upper hand. (Twist here?)

38 Your protagonist realizes how he can strike the decisive blow and defeat the antagonist—and he does. (This is the last place in your story for a twist.)

39 Your protagonist reacts to the defeat of the antagonist, who is or has been disposed of, and out-of commission allies might be recovered or revived.

40 Your protagonist and any surviving allies may celebrate their victory and console each other on their losses as they tie up all remaining loose ends (including a romance subplot, if there was one). Your story ends with your protagonist reaffirming how he’s changed and how he’s remained the same as a result of his ordeal (through both his words and his actions).

For the story structure geeks

You don’t have to understand four-act story structure to use this template. But if you’re curious, here’s how the template breaks down with respect to plot points (and where it’s designed to include a subplot, if you want one).

In between the major plot points, you’ll find a series of complications. You can use these smaller plot points to show the conflicts that fall out of the major points, or you can use them for a subplot. Just remember that any subplot you include must dovetail with the main story line and enhance its emotional impact.

In the summary below, scenes are grouped in sequences that form short arcs within your story.

1 Everyday world, everyday conflict

2 Setup for the inciting incident

3 Inciting incident

4 Aftermath of the inciting incident

5 Setup for the first complication 

6 First complication

7 Aftermath of the first complication

8 Minor dark moment

9 Setup for the first plot point

10 First plot point 

11 Aftermath of the first plot point

12 Second complication

13 Aftermath of the second complication

14 Setup for the first pinch point

15 First pinch point

16 Aftermath of the first pinch point

17 Third complication

18 Aftermath of the third complication

19 Setup for the midpoint

20 Midpoint

21 Aftermath of the midpoint

22 Fourth complication

23 Aftermath of the fourth complication

24 Setup for the second pinch point

25 Second pinch point

26 Aftermath of the second pinch point

27 Fifth complication

28 Aftermath of the fifth complication

29 Setup for the second plot point

30 Second plot point

31 Aftermath of the second plot point, part one:  the dark moment

32 Aftermath of the second plot point, part two:  the resurgence of hope

33 Climax, stage one:  preparing for battle

34 Climax, stage two:  taking the fight to the enemy

35 Climax, stage three:  first contact

36 Climax, stage four:  war of attrition

37 Climax, stage five:  mano a mano

38 Climax, stage six:  from the ashes of disaster

39 Resolution, stage one:  sweeping up

40 Resolution, stage two:  reconnection

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