How to Outline a Novel [Step by Step]

By Steph Fraser | Posted on March 16th, 2019

Have you ever wondered why writers scribble on blank sheets but then squeeze and burn those innocent pieces of paper just because they can’t seem to capture the story in their mind perfectly?

It’s because they didn’t create an outline.

And knowing how to outline a novel is an important part of the process. Needless to say, knowing how to write a novel or how to write a book isn’t just enough.

Jumping directly into writing without taking the necessary steps will do nothing but slow down your progress or even frustrate you from putting that story together.

It is true that many writers won’t put emphasis on how to outline a novel. After all, they write fascinating books without outlines.

But, the importance of detailing the outline for your novel is enormous. In fact, it should be the first step after idea generation.

According to Zadie Smith, there are two types of novelists: Macro planners and micromanagers. While it’s a worth reading piece, you need to ask yourself: What type of novelist you’d like to be?

One who plans at a micro level or one who doesn’t care about planning (and outlining)?

Missing the benefits a novel outline comes with is not something you want if your novel is to come out great. This is why you may want to consider learning how to outline a novel before you jump into any large writing projects.

By merely looking at bestsellers, one begins to think – “What went into the preparation?” “How did the author pull this off?”

The answers to those questions vary greatly but they tend to have one thing in common, and that is the efficient use of novel outlines.

What is a Novel Outline?

A novel outline is a structure that helps you fluidly articulate ideas around the central theme of your story.

Here is an example of how a novel outline looks like:

novel outline template

Think of it as a template summarizing your story, probably by major events that could later make up chapters. In the real sense, your story outline is more or less the first draft you will prepare.

When the book is completed, we can say the outline has been given life.

Here’s Why You Need a Novel Outline

Again, the importance of having a novel outline is huge.

There may come times when you hit rock bottom and run out of ideas for your book. It could even be the almighty writer’s block.

If you have an outline in place, it will serve as an inspiring force to keep these situations in check.

A Novel Outline Eases the Writing Process and Saves You Time

When you have a structure on the ground, it will be easy to look back, make reference to a particular chapter, develop better ideas, and increase the pace of your writing.

It is always frustrating to begin writing a novel (after having a clear understanding of how to write a novel) and somewhere in-between, you feel lost, as though the story wasn’t right to start with.

The outline should be your companion, your go-to map to direct the storyline.

An Outline Gives You a Definite Direction

Writing a novel with an outline in place signifies you know where you are headed. Without it, the majority of your writing will be random, and at some point, uncertainties can throw you off the path.

Your outline should be your map and your compass to navigate through the sophisticated process.

A Story Outline Feeds Your Creativity

Some writers argue that having a fixed template that guides your writing journey is like loading a gun and pulling the trigger on your creativity.

But this is not true.

When there is an outline for your book, you know where to go if you are lost in character development or in developing the milieu. A glance at your outline will send loads of ideas running wild in your head.

The same outline helps you gather your thoughts and creativity and make productive use of them. So, don’t settle for the school of thought that suggests novel outlines are unnecessary evils.

What Type of Outline to Use

In writing novels, there is no right or wrong method. The same thing applies to the novel outline.

There are different ways of planning your story so that thoughts and ideas flow with ease from scene to scene or chapter to chapter. Whichever you settle for, it will serve your needs and relieve a bit of the burden that novel writing comes with.

If you have had issues with outlining your novel in the past, it could be because you didn’t take time to find which novel outline will be best for your writing style.

Below are the types of novel outlines you can use.

Synopsis

A seasoned writer should know what this means, but how about first-time novelists?

A synopsis is a brief overview of a story.

It contains holistic and detailed information about the story’s plot, major themes, characters, settings, and other elements of fictional writing.

Not sure how to create a synopsis for your novel? This guide on how to write a one-page synopsis by Amanda Patterson is sure to help you.

how to write a one-page synopsis

A typical synopsis summarizes the story in not more than three pages of a document.

Character Development

Any story centered on the role of one or two main characters requires a character-led novel outline.

Emphasis will be placed on the development of such characters and other character-centric elements like a character arc.

Here is an example of a character development template that you can use to get started.

Visual Outline

Every story is first conceived in the mind before it is brought on paper.

You can explore your mind, tap into your creative flair and plan the rises and falls, highs and lows, and every other thing you will need to tell the story perfectly.

Create a linking relationship between the characters, plot, setting, structure, themes, conflicts and every other element you need.

Here is an example of how visual outline for your novel should look like:

visual outline for novel example

The key is to convert your mind into a map and explore its rich terrains. You own the fictional world your characters are set in.

Therefore, manipulate the features in your mind and make the most out of your novel.

The Beat Sheet

Beat sheets are interesting structure templates to personalize novel outlines.

With a beat sheet, most likely in Excel format, you represent major plots by point and detail them. For example, after determining the structure your book is going to take (check this post on the novel structure if you are amiss), the next step will be to highlight the major plots and themes.

This is how a beat sheet looks like:

beat sheet outline example

Use it to create your own template.

Write the scenes of those plots and make them elaborate in your story.

Beat sheets are like thought holders.

They hold ideas in concise lines and unleash creative thinking when you go back to them.

The Skeleton

As the name implies, this is a rigid but naked framework. All it comprises are major key plot points.

Think of an outline as a human with mere bones. Here is an example:

skeleton outline example

When the book is eventually completed, it assumes a fleshy form.

The skeleton constitutes the pillar of your novel. It is like a road map with the major cities marked in large letters for easy navigation.

What does this mean?

With this outline, you navigate your thoughts, explore your fictional world and tell that story perfectly.

Processes Involved in Outlining a Novel

A good outline will be flexible enough for you to hop in at any stage and flow with ease.

It should be a ladder with rungs that help you climb higher as you write more.

Poor outline or no outline at all, just like a ladder with rusty or faulty rungs, will only make you collapse. Even if you have mastered how to write a novel, you will fail.

And definitely, your story comes down with you. That’s the last thing you want with your novel.

We have analyzed the benefits of a novel outline, and also, we have discussed the various types of outlines out there.

Now, the question remains – “How does one begin outlining?” “Where do I start from?”

These questions do have answers, though every writer will find different things work for them.

Get the Stage Set

Just like in any field, poor planning will result in shaky structures that will later on collapse.

If you don’t set the stage well for your characters to exist and your scenes to make meaningful sense, the story is as good as nothing.

A lot of time should be devoted to brainstorming.

Do you have a central idea?

Are there related and underlying themes that you need to capture in the story?

Consider these and craft a perfect environment for them to thrive.

Another name for the central idea of your novel is ‘premise.’ It is the most basic component of your work.

Without it, things will become messy.

Imagine you have learned everything on how to write a book, have finished writing that dream novel, and it is time to publish. When you take it to an editor, and they ask what your story is about, what summary will you feed their ears with? What you respond is the premise –the central idea of your novel.

If you can’t answer this question, you need to sit back and review the themes of your story.

The answer to that question should also contain the reason for telling that story and writing that book in the way you did.

However, you don’t have to be conscious of this.

A true story from a creative psyche is an extension of the writer.

Develop Your Characters

The characters always make or mar a book.

How they are presented to the readers and how their actions progress is of concern to the literary world.

Why?

People tend to have an emotional attachment to the characters in a book.

What does this mean?

For you to come out with a great novel, probably a bestseller, you need to build your characters well. Know who they are, their attributes and features. How they function differently and how they view the world.

Since they are imaginary, although not totally (more on this soon), their wills are just in your fingertips, one snap and they obey, create unique personas that are relatable, mysterious, and awesome.

Now about characters not being imaginary – most characters are built from the people we come in contact with.

That old pa in a train station, sinking into an armchair. The redhead in a movie with an obsession for pasta.

Characters can be sourced from many places.

No doubt, they could also be solely the product of your imagination that is an indisputable fact especially in the fantasy genre.

If you don’t know how to go about creating your characters, do some research. Just like when you don’t know how to write a book, you do research and learn all about it.

Take on a couple of character development tests and build a unique cast for your book. After creating them, test to see if they can survive in the already set stage.

Will their attributes allow them to function?

Will there be difficulties or flaws in their dealings?

You call the shots!

Create a Structure

Now you have some elements of any fictional work ready – specifically the characters and plots.

Next is to give your book a structure.

There are different structures that you can choose from.

It could be the three-act structure where your book is partitioned into three acts with each ending and flowing into the next to increase the sophistication and later end in a resolution of the major conflicts.

three-act structure for book

If you need a headstart, check out this post on how to structure a novel.

Something unique the structure does is that it points out the beginning of your story, as well as the middle, and the end.

This helps in summarizing the story and gives you coherence in writing; a structure helps you stay on track. There won’t be a need for unnecessary deviations.

Even when new ideas come, your outline will help to articulate them and broaden the storyline.

Organize the Scenes

After mapping out the path that story will trend, visually and in other formats, you should begin to break down the story into acts, sequences and probably chapters.

When you do this, you understand the progressive pace, and you are guided against jumping scenes and creating messy loopholes.

Scenes build on your central idea.

Therefore, before creating and organizing scenes, think of how they will fit into you narration neatly.

No reader should sense a forced organization in your book like the chapters are barely clinging to each other with one shooting hard into the next.

You can create suspense.

How do you do this?

Jot different scenes in the normal order of their occurrence. Try to reshuffle them without the story losing its distinctive beat and meaning.

Go Over the Final Version

Once you’re done with the previous steps, you will need to check the outline for leaky scenes –places that need concrete, better illustrations.

Highlight and review the outline.

You don’t have to get it right all at once; it’s acceptable to make mistakes. There is no right or wrong approach. Do what works for you and your story.

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