An Author’s Guide to Outlining a Novel

If you are in the process of writing a novel, especially if it’s your first time, how to outline a novel can seem like a daunting task. If you are used to writing without any structure, outlining may appear to be constraining. Having a plan before you start your story can seem like your creativity is being restricted, forcing you to stick with a specific plotline.

However, outlines can be great if you know exactly what you want out of your story. If you run into a period of writer’s block, you can take a look at your outline for reference. Simply put, outlines give you a safety net if or when you need more creative assistance. 

With that being said, there is no right or wrong way to write a book. You may try to use an outline only to find yourself deviating from your original plans. That is perfectly fine, and creative freedom should be celebrated as you write your novel.

Even so, if you are interested in giving it a try, here is a 10-step guide on how to outline your novel. 

Familiarize Yourself With the Purpose of an Outline

A book outline is a structured resource that prepares your story and includes details of your plotline for you to view at any time. It is essentially the skeleton of your novel, including a very broad concept of a much more complicated object. 

Depending on the genre you’re writing, your outline may have slight differences, but the purpose will remain the same. No matter what you are writing about, an outline is a tool that includes all of the ideas you have for your novel in one space. 

Outlines can help you avoid writer’s block, write fast, and finish your first draft. You may not feel like you need it, and some writers don’t use one at all. However, if you familiarize yourself with the purpose of an outline, you may find that it becomes an essential part of your writing strategy. 

Start With The Main Concept

If you can, summarize your entire novel in one sentence. Have this sentence placed at the very beginning of your outline and stick with it. This one sentence will determine your entire novel’s premise, allowing you to get a better idea of its setting, characters, and plot points. 

With this broad concept, you can begin to delve deeper into your novel. However, try not to get carried away. Starting with a general idea prevents you from veering off into too many directions. Start simple before getting into some of the more complicated aspects of writing your novel. 

Put Your Main Character in Danger

Otherwise known as in Medias Res, consider having your story start in the middle of intense plot development. Putting your main character in a perilous situation will make your readers want to know what happened to them, thus allowing you to flesh out the story and provide an explanation as to how they get there. 

This may look different with certain genres, but having a general danger that your character has to overcome will add more stakes to the story. For example, a fantasy story may mean having your main character overthrow an evil ruler, while a romance’s danger may include a love triangle. 

Outline a Story Structure

If you have ever observed a classic story structure, you know that every novel has a basic beginning, middle, and end. When broken down into parts, this equates to exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. 

Go through each point in the story structure to pace your novel evenly. Brainstorm ideas that you could fit into each segment without necessarily going into too much detail. If you can even think of a character being incorporated into that portion of the plotline, that is enough. 

Create Your Story’s Plot

Take the one-sentence plot summary and bring it up a notch. Instead of just have one sentence that represents the entire novel, come up with a complete plot summary. This will help you work with the details you need later on.

This does not mean that you need to have everything planned and ready. This simply allows you to get a better idea of where you want your story to go. Sometimes, all you need is a general plot description to get your creative juices flowing. At the very least, try to come up with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. 

Fold in Little Details Over Time

After you have identified your plot, story structure, and main character, start adding more details in between segments of your story. For example, instead of simply knowing your beginning, middle, and end, start delving deeper into the process of getting there. 

This can also include little moments between other characters, getting from one location to another, or inciting incidents that may need a little breathing room for character development. With that in mind, remember that it is merely a brainstorming process, so don’t feel the need to write completely separate outlines for every new detail.

Identify the Characters in Your Novel

Create character maps that identify each player’s skills, personality traits, weaknesses, and strengths. Describe their physical attributes and elements that make them stand out. This will not only help you create them, but it will also allow readers to relate to these characters on a personal level.

More than anything, character development is a significant part of reading novels. Your readers will want to see your characters change and develop throughout your novel, so make sure that you’re pointing out where significant events happen and which character is involved with that specific scene. 

Establish Major Scenes

Finally, once you’re done completing the majority of your novel, point out inciting incidents that occur in your novel. These will be the driving force of your novel’s pacing, allowing your readers to want more as they go along.

It is important to find a healthy balance with your writing. If you take up too much time to establish character, setting, or exposition, your readers may get bored. If you keep travelling from one moment to another without fleshing out your characters, your readers may feel extremely rushed. Try to do a little bit of both, and you will create a powerful, engaging story. 

Visualize Your Outline

Utilize resources like storyboards, post-it notes, or bubble maps to visualize your outline.

Sometimes, being able to see everything as you continue writing can greatly help you maintain your focus and avoid writer’s block.

This will be slightly different from your regular outline, as it should be solely visible and easy to reach. It also shouldn’t have everything that is included in your outline. Use a document to refer to the smaller details and save visual outlines for main ideas. 

Start Writing!

Once you have completed your outline, it’s time to start writing your novel! With a resource like an outline at the ready, you will be capable of overcoming any obstacle. Instead of giving up on writing projects because of writer’s block, you will have an entire story developed and ready to go. 

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to write, it’s simply a matter of doing it. Once you have created an outline, the most difficult elements of storytelling will be completed. So get your outline created, open up a blank page, and start writing your novel!