Plotting / Writing

The Secret to Writing a Perfect Outline: The Two Pillars

In case you haven’t realized by now, I’m a plotter. I like charts and outlines and detailed, color-coded index cards all tucked into their perfect spots. Unfortunately, that means I spend way too much time trying to make things perfect. So you can imagine how excited I was to find a system that I could implement into my routine to speed up the process a bit. Ready?

The First Pillar

There are 3 acts to a story.

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. You’re born. You live. You die. (I have no idea if that’s how that idea actually started, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?)

The beginning tells us who your MC is and sets up the world. They’re born. The only problem here is that readers don’t know literally anything about the world you’re writing. You have a laundry list of shit to do just to make it to the part of the book advertised on the little flap.

You have to show the world, set the tone, reveal the stakes, introduce the main players, and set up your MC’s normal all within the first third of the book and no one’s even incited a riot yet.

The problem is that the reader isn’t invested until you start the riot (or whatever inciting event you have planned). You can detail all you want, but until there is something at stake, your reader will not care.

So how do you fix that?

Make the MC unable to go back to the way things were. Bell calls this the “Doorway of No Return” and is totally different than the riot you just started.

In the Hunger Games, the first pillar or ‘Doorway of No Return’ is when Katniss sees her sister chosen and decides to volunteer. She chooses to jump in, to actively participate in the plot, and instantly raises the stakes.

note: Ever wonder why all MC’s seem to be daring and brave? It’s not necessarily because they are those things. The cost just finally outweighed the risk. Nice use of that risk analysis.

Make it so they can’t go back to how life was before. Katniss couldn’t return to her pre-cataclysm life any more than I can shove words back into my mouth. It’s out there and there’s no fixing it. That’s what’s at stake here. Normal.

The Second Pillar

The second pillar is the point where the MC can’t simply finish out the task and go home.

After the first doorway has slammed shut on your precious baby’s face, destroyed the way things were, and forced them to fight, they’ll then have to confront the opposing force. You know, those assholes who keep raising the stakes?

Act II is the opportunity to fight. They’ve been fighting, but now it’s oh so much worse. Some major crisis sends the MC gathering their forces to squash the opposition.

This is another choice. Things won’t be like before, but they won’t make a permanent enemy. They won’t be leading an assault.

It’s the answer to the question ‘Do we go to war?’

So what’s in between the pillars?

Look at the first pillar again. They’re forced to participate because something changed. By the second pillar, it’s no longer something they have to do. Somewhere in between, your MC decided it was something they wanted to do.

This is a Transformation.

And trust me when I say it’s the best part of the entire process.

Placements and Checklists

First Pillar

The first pillar should appear before you 1/5 mark. In some stories, like fast-paced action novels, then it can occur sooner. In The Hunger Games it happens in chapter 2. In Gone With the Wind it happens at the 1/10 mark. Decide how fast you want your novel to be paced. The faster the novel, the sooner your first pillar.

By the time you finally get to the first pillar, you should have accomplished a certain number of things. These are so important that they’ll later get their own post, guys. Your Act I, YOUR NOVEL, will fail if you have not done all of these things.

Did you give your readers:

  • A character worth following
  • A disturbance in the opening pages
  • Death stakes of some sort
  • A scene that forced the character into Act II
  • A strong lead character that can’t resist going into battle
  • A pillar at or before the 1/5 mark

Pass all those? Cool. You can move on to Act II.

Second Pillar

There’s pretty much only one thing on the checklist for Act II and I have a very specific way of summarizing it:

Did you fuck up your characters’ lives until you almost broke them?

Bell would say “Have you created major crisis or setback the Lead must overcome?” But the reality here is, as readers, we all want the author to break our heart. We WANT to feel that pain and know complications will keep coming. So what we all really want is for the lead characters to be creative, intelligent, and witty enough to overcome an opposing force to the point of climactic escalation.

Your second pillar should force the final battle and make resolution possible. So there isn’t a specific place in your novel this needs to go besides before the climax when everyone is getting ready for a showdown.

Personally, I recommend about 75%. That gives me plenty of room to build a little more and stretch out that last conflict. Readers want to be swept away in the emotion of that battle, and 25% gives me enough space to do that.


The two pillars are like the two chairs you use to build your blanket fort. They are the support system and without them you’re just taking a really average nap. And what goes in between the two chairs? A broom. A tall stick. A hook to attach the middle of the blanket to the ceiling fan. (Totally have never done this)

You need something in the middle to keep the blanket from sagging and hitting you in the face is what I’m saying. Naturally, our two pillars are good on their own, but I want something to make it even better. I need a Mirror Moment. A really really good stick. And we’ll get into that next time.

If you want to read Bell’s book, you can buy it here.

Until then, keep liking, commenting, sharing. And most importantly, keep writing, Lovelies


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