How to Outline a Novel in 7 Steps [+Free Template]

By Steph Fraser | Posted on March 16th, 2019

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

Perhaps it’s because they don’t know how to outline a novel. Some writers cringe at the mention of such extensive planning, but outlining a novel is an important step.

If you are struggling with the idea, it can be helpful to start with a novel outline template. These are pre-made outlines that only need your story’s specific information plugged in. They can be far less intimidating than starting from scratch.

Outlining a novel is a part of knowing how to write a novel or how to write a book.

Jumping directly into writing without taking the necessary steps will do nothing but slow down your progress and leave you frustrated. It may even stop you from putting that story together.

It is true that many writers won’t put emphasis on how to outline a novel. 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. You need to ask yourself what type of novelist you want to be:

One who plans at a micro level or one who doesn’t care about planning or outlining a novel at all.

Missing the benefits outlining a novel comes with is not something you want for your story. This is why you may want to consider using a story outline template and 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, but they tend to have one thing in common, and that is the efficient use of novel outlines.

Follow these steps to create a complete and useful outline:

  1. Know why it’s important
  2. Choose which type of outline to use
  3. Know the benefits
  4. Set the stage
  5. Develop your characters
  6. Create a structure
  7. Organize the scenes

1. Outlining a Novel (Why It’s Important)

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

Here is an example of what the start of a novel outline looks like:

novel outline template

Think of something like this as a novel outline template, chapter by chapter. It summarizes your story, by significant events that will eventually make up chapters. Your story outline template is essentially the first draft you will prepare.

I can’t stress the importance of outlining a novel enough.

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 know how to outline a novel, it will serve as an inspiring force to keep these situations in check. If you need a little extra help, consider using a novel writing template:

general fiction template

This template, offered by Squibler, will help you get a novel started from scratch.

A Novel Outline Template Saves You Time

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

It is always frustrating to begin writing even when you do know how to write a novel. Sometimes, you feel lost – as though the story wasn’t right to begin with.

The outline should be your companion, your go-to map to direct the storyline. Without knowing how to outline a novel, you won’t have anything to fall back on. In the end, if inspiration is lost, you might give up entirely.

This is another reason a novel outline template is a helpful place to start. With a good template, outlining a novel becomes much easier.

Squibler offers a novel outline template for many different purposes – from a basic novel outline to specific genres.

Even once you know the structure of a novel, each genre has different tropes, guidelines, and “rules” that make it work.

For example – the “happily ever after” is a staple of a true romance. Dramatic plot twists are what make a thriller thrilling. A crime drama or mystery usually isn’t complete without at least one murder.

Following these genre rules doesn’t make your novel unoriginal. It makes it interesting, effective, and ultimately, successful.

Squibler’s novel outline templates will take you through the required elements of each genre and help you craft the perfect story.

This will save you copious amounts of time as you won’t be drowning in plot holes and rewriting everything just to make it work.

Outlining a Novel Gives You Direction

When you write a novel with an outline in place, you know where you are headed. Without it, much of your writing will be random and unplanned. At some point, uncertainties will throw you off the path.

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

A Novel Outline Template Feeds Creativity

Some writers argue that having a fixed story outline template that guides your writing will stifle your creativity.

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 the milieu. A glance at your outline will remind you where you’re going. Staying on track will help the novel ideas flow.

The 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 knowing how to outline a novel is unnecessary.

2. Which Novel Outline Should You 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. In the end, though, you want to be able to take your novel outline template chapter by chapter.

Scenes need to flow easily into each other and create logical, deliberate chapters. Regardless of exactly how you do it, each chapter should be covered.

If you have become frustrated with outlining a novel in the past, it could be because you didn’t take time to find which type of outline best fits your writing style.

Below are the types of novel outlines you can use. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Learning how to write an outline for a book is valuable and necessary.

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 start to plan. You will be able to see the rises and falls, highs and lows, and every other thing you will need to tell the story.

Create a linking relationship between the characters, plot, setting, structure, themes, and conflicts. This will make the story cohesive and understandable.

Here is an example of what a visual outline for your novel could look like:

visual outline for novel example

Here we see the inciting incident, some rising action, and major conflict. This is, of course, a very basic example. The point is, you need to convert your mind into a map and explore its rich terrains.

You own the fictional world your characters are set in. Take what you see in your mind and replicate it on paper, even if you’re not an artist. This will help you see the story play out.

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 plot items by point and detail them.

For example, after determining the structure your book is going to take, the next step will be to highlight the major plots and themes.

This is what a beat sheet looks like:

beat sheet outline example

This is a useful, straightforward novel outline template that will help you create the perfect outline. Fill in the sections and answer the questions with your novel in mind, and everything will start coming together.

Next, you can begin to elaborate on each of the plot points one by one. Once you get some information down, scenes and chapters will start forming naturally.

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 plot points.

Think of an outline as a human with mere bones. The shape is there, but there aren’t any notable or significant features. Here is an example:

skeleton outline example

When the book is eventually completed, it assumes that fuller, more attractive 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 bring that story together perfectly.

3. Benefits of Using a Book Outline Template

Despite your writing style and whether or not you’re an author who typically relies on a book outline template, it’s probably safe to say there are times you might wish you had one. Maybe.

I should note there are a few definitive cases for having at least a loose outline of your book. Even those who hate to outline will agree to this.

Keeps Your Plot Fresh in Mind

There are times you start a book and for some reason, you put it aside. Maybe you have another story burning to be told. Maybe you had to deal with sickness – your own or a loved ones.

Assuming you don’t have total recall, after months—or perhaps years—do you remember your story? It’s plot and all its details? Or have you completely lost its thread? If you have an outline, it doesn’t matter what you’ve forgotten.

It Can Aid in Writing a Synopsis

Perhaps you’re intent on having your books traditionally published. If so, agents and publishers will often request a synopsis of your book.

Imagine this. The publisher you’re interested in requires a query letter, three chapters, and a synopsis. I know several authors, myself included at times, who would only have those first three chapters written.

Back when I started writing—this hasn’t changed, by the way—you could wait for months to hear back from a given publisher and depending on how quickly you wrote that was plenty of time to finish the book. Or at least motivate you to write faster. But you had to write your synopsis first.

That’s much easier to do if you have a detailed outline in place already.

It Can Help You Ease Into Writing in a New Genre

Templates and outlines might be especially useful to writers new to a genre. Some genres have very specific structures and arcs that need to be developed and followed. For example, if you’re thinking about writing a romance novel you need to meet reader expectations. An outline could help you meet them.

Let’s recap some reasons why templates or outlines may be good for some:

  • Some writers, new or seasoned, are lost without one.
  • If you have to leave off writing your book, you can come back to it any time.
  • It’s much easier to write a synopsis when you already have an outline.
  • If you’re new to a genre, an outline could be very helpful.

Outlining a Novel is a Process

A good novel outline template 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 – not something that confines you to one rigid path.

A poor outline or no outline at all, just like a ladder with faulty rungs, will only make you collapse. Even if you have mastered how to write a novel, you will struggle without an outline.

We have analyzed the benefits of a novel outline. And we have discussed the various types of outlines.

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

These questions do have answers, though they will vary for every writer. Learning how to write an outline for a book is a different process for everyone.

4. 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 setting to be logical, the story won’t make sense.

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 give them?

What you respond with 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.

5. Develop Your Characters

The characters always make or mar a book.

How they are presented to the readers, and how their actions progress, are 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, perhaps a bestseller, you need to build your characters well. Know who they are, their attributes and features. How they function as individuals 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.

Characters From Real Life

Now about characters not being entirely 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 theater with an obsession for pasta.

Characters can be sourced from many places.

No doubt, they could also be solely the product of your imagination. This does happen, 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 stage you have set.

Will their attributes allow them to function?

Will there be difficulties or flaws in their dealings?

You call the shots!

6. Create a Structure

Now you have some of your elements ready – specifically the characters and plots.

Next, you need 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. This will have each ending and flowing into the next to 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.

The structure will give you a clear picture of your story’s beginning, middle, and 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 that you’ll just end up removing later.

Even when new ideas come, your outline will help to articulate them and broaden the storyline. It will make them productive parts of the plot, rather than random additives.

7. Organize the Scenes

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

No reader should sense a forced organization in your book like the chapters are barely clinging to each other with no fluid transition between each one.

You can create suspense.

How do you do this?

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

Go Over the Final Version

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

Highlight and review the outline. Be critical. Don’t be afraid to make changes and move things around.

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. Just remember – don’t neglect the importance of learning how to outline a novel properly.

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