Outline your novel in a way that allows for the magic of discovery as you write.
The first time I wrote a novel, I did so in the most difficult way a writer can. That is, I decided I would write a novel, opened up a blank page and proceeded to muddle my way through a story. Unsurprisingly, the novel took years to finish and by the time I was done with it, I questioned whether I wanted to repeat the process ever again.
The second time, I was smarter. I understood that while I enjoyed discovering the story on the page and that I would always, to a certain extent, want the freedom of letting my characters telling me where to go, I needed a better process.
I worked with a story outline and this time, instead of years, I finished my first draft within weeks. I was surprised by how much easier and faster the writing process had been, but also how much more fun. Now I won’t start writing a novel (or any book, really) without at least a basic outline.
If you, too, are stuck on a novel or fed up with a process that’s working against you, here’s how to outline a novel in a way that gives you clarity but allows for the magic of discovery as you write.
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Why do you need a novel outline?
It is widely accepted that there are two types of writers:
- Plotters: Writers who create detailed outlines before they commit a single word to page. For example, bestseller J.K. Rowling plotted out not only each Harry Potter book but also the entire series before she wrote it.
- Pantsers: Writers who write by the seat of their pants, that is, like me, they open up a blank page and start discovering the story as they write. New York Times bestselling author Stephen King is the most famous pantser.
I’d argue now that there is a third, and better, way, which allows you to achieve the clarity that comes from plotting while also giving you the freedom to discover your story on the page.
A simple novel outline can serve as a roadmap for your writing journey, giving you structure, direction, and a clear vision of where you’re going.
The benefits of this approach include:
- An outline helps you organize your story into a beginning, middle, and end, which helps with establishing a logical flow of events and character development.
- When you know where your story is heading, you’re less likely to experience writer’s block.
- A rough outline can help maintain consistency and prevent plot holes that you have to fix through multiple edits.
- Outlines make writing novels more efficient and, especially for new writers, having a plot structure can save valuable time that is often wasted going down roads that lead nowhere.
- Knowing your characters’ arcs early on can help make them come alive on the page.
- For crime fiction, mysteries, and other plot-driven stories, a novel outline makes it easier to introduce red herrings and surprise readers without excessive rewriting.
- If you’re on a deadline, such as if you have a book due on contract or you’re self-publishing on Amazon regularly, an outline can help you write faster and bring in editor feedback earlier in the process.
The elements of a successful novel outline
“Outlines take many forms—some of them little more than a few sentences scrawled on Post-it Notes, some of them notebooks full of ramblings,” writes author K.M. Weiland in her book Outlining Your Novel. “No one says your outline has to be of any particular length. Most of my outlines fill up at least a notebook or two. A bulleted list of scenes may be all you’ll need, or you may end up with five notebooks of scribblings. What is important is recognizing the outline as a valuable tool and then figuring out how to make it work for you.”
While there is no fixed length or way to create an outline for your novel, there are a few key questions that it should answer. These will help you give shape to the book as you start writing.
What’s the premise?
This is the “hook” that draws readers in. It could be a unique concept, a compelling question, or a vivid scenario. Your premise should set the stage for the entire story. No matter what kind of book you’re writing—a novel, a children’s book, or a non-fiction book—this will be the first question to answer for every creative writing project.
What is happening?
This is the plot, that is, the key events of your story. The core of the outline. Now listen, let me put the pantsers among you at ease right away because it’s at this precise moment that many of you will start checking out. When I’m writing, I don’t necessarily want to know exactly what happens and when. That takes away from the magic of the writing process for some people, including me.
So let me be clear: you don’t need to know everything that happens. But you need to know something. Good stories are written when things happen. What’s happening in your novel?
Who is it happening to?
And, of course, characters. Especially for character-driven stories, it’s important to have a good understanding of your main characters, their personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. A successful novel often hinges on the journey of its characters, so make sure they’re complex, relatable, and undergo meaningful development throughout the story.
What are the stakes?
If you want readers to be invested in your novel, raise the stakes. Your protagonist has to be put in a situation where no action or the wrong action can cost them dearly. Knowing these stakes before you start writing can help you create pacing and tension more effectively as you write the first draft.
How to put together a novel outline in 6 steps
Okay, so how do you create an outline that gives you a clear roadmap without stifling your creativity? Here’s my outlining process to help you create a solid storyline.
Step 1: Get clear on the premise of your story
Your novel’s premise is the catalyst, the initial spark that sets your narrative in motion. It’s the core idea or concept that sums up the essence of your story. This is the stage upon which your characters will act out their roles, and where the conflicts and resolutions of your plot will take shape.
At this stage, you’ll need to spend time exploring these fundamental questions:
- What is the central conflict or challenge your characters will face?
- What is the backdrop for these events?
- Who are the central figures, and what drives them to take action within the plot?
For me, this is one of the most exciting parts of the process. You start with infinite options at this step and with every decision you make, you’re closing in on the story, limiting the canvas. This can be both terribly exciting and incredibly terrifying.
Here are some effective ways to brainstorm story ideas and narrative arcs for your premise:
- Ask “what if” questions about implausible scenarios.
- Use creative writing prompts and see if you can find intriguing starting points for your stories.
- Observe your surroundings, people, and everyday situations and keep an eye out for anything unusual.
- Read books, articles, and news stories from various genres and fields. Cross-pollination often leads to unique story premises.
- Create a mind map with your central idea or theme at the center, and branch out with related concepts, characters, settings, and conflicts.
- Explore historical events, periods, or figures that fascinate you.
- Begin with a character and build a story around their desires, flaws, or circumstances.
- Investigate unsolved mysteries, legends, or urban myths.
- Look up historical letters, diaries, or personal accounts that may reveal hidden stories or untold experiences.
Step 2: Get to know your main characters
Next, it’s time to get intimate with your main character. Wait, that came out wrong. What I’m saying is, you need to know your main character really well. Yes, you’ll understand more about them as you move through your first draft, but your character’s personality will impact how they react in different situations and this will reflect in your plot. That’s why, unless you’re writing plot-driven stories—and I’d argue even then—character and plot development must happen in tandem when you’re writing a novel outline.
Creating a well-rounded main character requires delving deep into their persona. Understand their fears, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. What drives them to pursue their goals? What are their internal and external conflicts? Are there underlying traumas or dreams that shape their choices?
Here’s what you need to know about your characters at this stage:
- Character arc: Every memorable protagonist experiences growth and transformation throughout the narrative. How will your main character evolve from the beginning to the end of the story? What pivotal moments will drive these changes?
- Motivations and backstory: Your character’s motivations will propel the story forward and, by understanding their past, their desires, and their internal conflicts, you can craft a character whose actions and decisions are believable.
- Relatability: Making your character relatable doesn’t mean that your reader must look, act, or live in the same circumstances as your protagonist. All it means is that the reader must be able to resonate with the character on an emotional level and understand their choices.
You won’t know everything about your character at this stage, and that’s okay. You don’t need to, and honestly, you can’t. The events in your story will affect your character and change them over the course of the book. How they change will become clearer as you write the outline of the story and, of course, the first draft.
Step 3: Build out the setting
When you’re writing fiction, your setting is the backdrop against which the plot unfolds. It provides the context and atmosphere that frame your narrative. Whether your story is set in a vividly imagined fantasy realm, a bustling urban city, a quiet suburban neighborhood, or a historical period, the setting plays a pivotal role in the overall storytelling.
For speculative fiction genres like fantasy and science fiction, world building is a fundamental aspect of setting. It involves creating the rules, history, culture, and geography of the fictional world in which your story takes place. A well-constructed world adds depth and authenticity to the narrative. The setting can also set the tone for your narrative. Is it a gloomy, oppressive place or a bright and hopeful one? The atmosphere and mood of the setting can contribute to the emotional impact of your story.
If you’re a pantser, these three steps are all you need before you begin writing your novel. The premise, the main character, and the setting will give a big picture overview for your book and you can discover the rest as you write.
If you’re a plotter, however, it’s time to construct a thorough plot outline. And how you do so will depend on the outlining method you choose to follow.
Step 4: Construct your plot using a novel outline template
Think of your plot as the architectural blueprint for your story. It’s a carefully designed structure that determines the flow of events, character arcs, conflicts, and resolutions. But there are several ways to construct this story and if you’re looking for a book outline template, you’ll find many. Let’s talk about some of the common plot outline templates and select the novel outline format that’s right for your current work in progress.
Please note: These are mostly Western storytelling formats. There are multitudes of Eastern storytelling formats that can work incredibly well and that I’ll talk about in a future article.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is a powerful storytelling framework that’s been used in myths, legends, and literature across cultures and centuries. At its core, The Hero’s Journey is a narrative template that outlines a hero’s path of growth, transformation, and self-discovery as they embark on an adventure or face a challenge. The key elements of The Hero’s Journey are:
- The call to adventure: The hero begins in their ordinary world until they receive a call to action, a challenge, or a revelation that sets them on their path. This call disrupts the status quo and initiates change.
- Refusal of the call: Initially, the hero may resist the call, often due to fear, self doubt, or a desire to maintain their existing life. Ultimately, however, they’re drawn into the journey.
- Crossing the threshold: The hero makes a conscious decision to leave their ordinary world behind and venture into the unknown. This transition signifies a commitment to the adventure.
- Tests, allies, and enemies: Throughout the journey, the hero encounters trials, gains allies, and faces adversaries. These experiences shape their character and abilities, helping them grow.
- The approach: The hero approaches the central point of the story, where the main challenge or conflict awaits. This is often a critical moment of decision and preparation.
- The ordeal: The hero faces a major ordeal, a life-changing challenge, or a confrontation with a powerful enemy. This is a pivotal moment that tests their resolve and abilities.
- Reward (seizing the sword): After overcoming the ordeal, the hero receives a reward, gains new knowledge, or acquires a symbolic item (the sword) that empowers them for the journey’s continuation.
- The road back: The hero begins the journey back to their ordinary world, but the adventure is not yet complete. They may face additional challenges or confront unresolved issues.
- Resurrection: The hero faces a final, climactic challenge, often a showdown with the story’s central antagonist. This challenge leads to their ultimate transformation and rebirth.
- Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to their ordinary world, bringing back wisdom, experience, or a valuable gift to share with their community. This return marks the hero’s transformation and the completion of their journey.
The Three-Act Structure
The Three-Act Structure is a foundational and time-tested narrative framework that’s served as a blueprint for storytelling in various mediums, including literature, film, theater, and television. It divides a narrative into three distinct acts, each with its own specific functions, building tension, and contributing to the overall progression of the plot. The key elements of the Three-Act Structure are:
Act 1: Setup
- Introduction of characters and setting: Act 1 introduces the audience to the story’s world and its key characters. This phase sets the stage and establishes the story’s initial context, providing a glimpse into the characters’ ordinary lives.
- Inciting incident: A critical moment occurs, often in the form of a problem, challenge, or opportunity. This incident disrupts the equilibrium of the protagonist’s ordinary life and triggers the desire or need for change.
- Establishment of goals: The protagonist’s objectives, desires, and motivations are made clear. These goals will drive the narrative forward and provide a sense of purpose.
- First plot point: The first major turning point in the story takes place. It usually happens near the end of Act 1 and propels the protagonist into the central conflict or adventure of the narrative.
Act 2: Confrontation
- Rising action: Act 2 is the longest of the three acts and is marked by a series of escalating events, complications, and challenges. The protagonist faces obstacles, makes allies and enemies, and embarks on the central quest or journey.
- Midpoint: At the midpoint of the story, there is often a significant revelation or turning point. This can be a moment of success, a major setback, or a profound realization that reshapes the character’s perspective.
- Crisis and climax: Toward the end of Act 2, the story reaches a crisis point, often involving a high-stakes conflict or confrontation. This leads to a climactic event that tests the protagonist’s resolve and commitment.
Act 3: Resolution
- Climax: The story reaches its peak of tension and drama. The protagonist confronts the central conflict head-on, and the narrative’s most critical questions are answered. This is the moment of truth.
- Falling action: After the climax, the narrative begins to wind down. Loose ends are tied up, and the consequences of the climax are revealed. This phase provides closure and resolution.
- Resolution or denouement: The story’s final moments offer a sense of reflection and leave the audience with a lasting impression. Characters may undergo further transformation, and the story’s themes are reinforced.
Save the Cat
“Save the Cat!” is a plotter’s dream. This popular and influential screenwriting and storytelling methodology was created by Blake Synder, a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter and teacher and is based on the Three-Act Structure, but takes it further. It was adapted for the novel writing process in the book “Save the Cat Writes a Novel” by Jessica Brody.
At its core, Save the Cat is a beat sheet. It outlines 15 key story beats to help writers create well-structured and engaging narratives. These beats serve as an in-depth guide or worksheet for understanding the core elements of a story.
Here are the 15 beats in the “Save the Cat” method:
- Opening image: The story’s beginning and the first impression it makes on the audience. (Think Harry Potter in a cupboard under the stairs.)
- Theme stated: An early introduction to the story’s central theme or message.
- Set-up: The establishment of the story’s world, characters, and their ordinary lives.
- Catalyst: An incident or event that disrupts the status quo and sets the story in motion.
- Debate: The protagonist’s initial reaction to the catalyst, often involving hesitation or resistance to change.
- Break into two: The moment when the protagonist decides to pursue a new goal or challenge.
- B story: The introduction of a secondary storyline, often involving relationships or personal growth.
- Fun and games: A sequence of events where the protagonist explores the new situation and faces challenges and obstacles.
- Midpoint: A pivotal moment in the story where the protagonist’s goals and the stakes are elevated.
- Bad guys close in: A series of setbacks and obstacles that intensify as the story progresses.
- All is lost: A moment of crisis where the protagonist faces their lowest point and may lose everything.
- Dark night of the soul: A moment of reflection, self-discovery, or inner conflict for the protagonist.
- Break into three: The turning point where the protagonist gains a new perspective or insight, setting the stage for the climax.
- Finale: The climax, where the story’s central conflict is resolved.
- Final image: The closing scene that reflects how the characters and their world have changed as a result of the story.
The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method is a popular and systematic approach to novel writing, created by award-winning author Randy Ingermanson. This method is designed to help writers methodically plan and develop their novels, starting with a single idea and gradually expanding it into a full-fledged story.
By progressively expanding your story from a single sentence to a comprehensive novel, this type of outline helps ensure your novel is well-structured, your characters fully developed, and the plot is engaging and coherent.
The key steps of the Snowflake Method are:
- One-sentence summary: Start with a single sentence that summarizes the core of your novel. This sentence should encapsulate the entire story, including the main character, their goal, the conflict, and the resolution.
- One-paragraph summary: Expand the one-sentence summary into a one-paragraph summary. This paragraph should provide more detail about the characters, setting, and key plot points.
- Character profiles: Create detailed profiles for your main characters, including their backgrounds, motivations, goals, and flaws. Understand their roles in the story.
- Expand to a page: Expand the one-paragraph summary into a full page. Start introducing subplots, secondary characters, and more detailed information about the story world.
- Character charts: Develop charts or lists for each major character, outlining their individual character arcs, growth, and key interactions throughout the story.
- Scenes list: Create a list of scenes, each with a brief description. Include the location, characters involved, and the purpose of each scene. This step begins to shape the structure of your novel.
- Story synopsis: Expand the page-long summary into a multi-page synopsis. Include more details about each scene, character development, and how the plot unfolds.
- Character synopses: Write individual synopses for each major character, detailing their personal growth, transformation, and contributions to the story’s development.
- Scene-by-scene summary: Write a detailed summary for each scene, incorporating dialogue and character emotions. This step serves as a detailed outline for your novel.
- Write the novel: With the comprehensive scene-by-scene summary in hand, you can start writing the first draft of your novel.
Step 5: Put together a scenes list
If you want to get super detailed with your outline, this is the point at which you’d create a chapter-by-chapter outline or a scenes list. Which one you create depends on your personal writing style, the needs of your story, and your level of detail. If you prefer to work with larger narrative units and have a broader view of your story’s structure, you might choose to create chapter summaries. However, if you prefer a more detailed and granular approach to your outlining, a scenes list might work better.
In many cases, a combination of both chapter summaries and scene lists can be beneficial. You can structure your novel with chapters to create a sense of organization and pacing, while using a scenes list to manage the details within each chapter. A scenes list can act as a sort of cheat sheet, a handy guide you’ll refer to constantly as you’re writing your first draft.
To create a scenes list:
- Know the number of scenes you’re working with: I’m motivated by numbers, which is why I like to give myself specific targets, both when I’m outlining and when I’m writing the first draft. For example, if I know that the word count for my final draft will be 80,000 words and I write 1,500-word scenes, I’ll need to plan out 54 scenes for the book.
- Move scenes around as you’re planning: To me, this part of the novel outline process feels more like construction than creativity. I’ll usually have a general idea of the scenes I want to write, but I won’t know their exact order or placement until I have all the scenes written out. To keep the planning flexible, many authors will use index cards to write their scenes on, which they can move around as they plan the order of their novel. I prefer to do this in Scrivener, which is an excellent word-processor but also allows this sort of mind mapping and organization.
- Get detailed in your scene descriptions: Include as many details as you can when you’re writing your scene descriptions. This includes details about the location, the characters involved, the point of view, and the scene’s role in advancing the plot or character development. Consider the emotional and thematic content of the scene and define its objective. What specific purpose does it serve in the larger narrative?
- Pay attention to scene transitions: Ensure a smooth flow from one scene to the next. Effective transitions maintain coherence and prevent jarring shifts in the narrative.
Step 6: Read through the outline
At this point, you’ll have a fairly detailed outline that you can use to start work on the novel. Before you begin, however, it’s important to go through the outline one last time to make sure everything is where it needs to be, the scenes are in the right order, and that characters don’t need any more tweaking.
This step can feel like drudgery, but trust me, it will save you a lot of time in lengthy revisions if you have the beats down right at this stage.
Here are some questions to ask during this phase of the process:
- Do you have a clear and compelling story premise?
- Have you identified the central theme or message you want to convey?
- Are your characters realistic, multi-dimensional, and relatable?
- Are you clear on the goals, motivations, and conflicts of all your major characters?
- Have you considered the character arcs and character development throughout the story?
- Is the story set in a well-defined and immersive world?
- Does the setting complement and enhance the plot and characters?
- What is the story’s structure? (Linear, non-linear, dual timelines, etc.)
- Have you identified key plot points and turning points?
- Do you have a central conflict and a satisfying resolution?
- Do your subplots add depth and complexity to the main story?
- Are your subplots relevant to the main narrative and do they contribute to either character development or the central plot?
- Is your story organized into chapters and/or scenes?
- Is there a logical progression of events and character interactions?
- Have you introduced elements early in the story that will become significant later? (Foreshadowing.)
- Is there consistency in your characters’ actions and motivations?
- Are there compelling conflicts that drive the plot?
- Have you established high stakes to maintain reader engagement?
- Are there any plot holes, inconsistencies, or unresolved questions?
And that’s it. With this novel outline in hand, you can confidently step into the first draft of your book or short story, knowing that there won’t be any loose ends or endless revisions once you’re finished.
Write your novel the easy way
Putting together a novel outline can be an excellent way to take the pressure off when you’re writing your first draft. However, sometimes you may find yourself in the middle of a messy draft that’s grown five legs and two heads, and you have no idea what to do with it or how to go on. If that’s you, Wordling PLUS is here to help.
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Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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