How To Outline A Novel

book outline in black marker

There are many reasons to outline a novel, even for those writers inclined to write by the seat of their pants. Here are some practical ideas to get you started on a novel outline.

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

We’re told that writers generally fall into two categories: pantsers and plotters. Pantsers love to dive in and start writing, letting the story go wherever the characters take it. Plotters, on the other hand, prefer to plan out their entire novel before ever typing “Chapter One.”

Like I said, that’s what we’re told. In practice, I suspect most writers do a little bit of both. Personally, I tend to be more of a pantser than a plotter, but if I feel that my story is running away from me, I will pause the narrative and write up a quick outline so I can regroup.

In this post, I’m going to look at how to outline a novel in a way that will benefit both plotters and pantsers.

The advantages of outlining a novel

For some, the idea of writing a novel by just sitting down and typing away is overwhelming. They like to figure out the characters’ backstories and build the world. They want to map out the story structure, subplots, and ending so they can properly set up the beginning.

They also want to avoid the “and then” problem that can plague pantsers (i.e., something happens, and then another thing happens, and then yet another thing happens, creating a story that meanders rather than building to a climax). And finally, when they do start writing, they want to be able to focus on the quality of the written word, rather than constantly having to think about what will happen next.

Outlining your novel can solve these problems. By taking a thirty-thousand-foot look at your overall story, you can ensure your novel has no loose ends and no wasted moments. And if you are a pantser who has gotten stuck, the outlining process can help you see just where you’ve gone off the rails..

Outlining a novel is a process

Outlining is not simply writing up all the things you want to happen in your novel in bullet point form. Outlining is a several-step process in which you examine your novel in ever-increasing detail. This process can end with a classic bullet-point outline that establishes what happens in each chapter, but it doesn’t have to. You can abandon the process the moment you feel like you have everything you need.

As a pantser, I have never gone so far as to detail the events of each chapter, but I do find the first few steps of this process extremely helpful.

Let’s dive into the process — but remember, there isn’t one way to do this and you don’t have to do these steps in this order. This is just a guideline. At the end of the day, you are just trying to do whatever it takes to write your novel.

Step 1: Start with your hook

So you’ve decided to write a novel. You didn’t come to that conclusion out of nowhere; you had a story idea. And not just any old idea, but something that got you excited and that held your attention long enough to decide, “Oh wait, there’s a story here.” That is your hook. It’s the thing you’re going to say when someone asks you what your new book is about.

Write that down, and then write down all of the things that your hook makes you excited to explore. These are going to be the ingredients that keep you fueled as you write.

Step 2: Write a logline

Before you get carried away imagining various key scenes you want to happen, answer a few key questions first so you can funnel your creative energy in the most productive direction.

  • Who is your main character?
  • What are they trying to do?
  • What’s preventing them?
  • What will happen if they fail?

One way to succinctly do this is to write a logline. The term logline comes from Hollywood and is something used to sell screenplays. Now, even though you’re not writing a screenplay, writing a logline is still useful because it will help you answer the four questions we posed above. Also, it’s a great way to consider character development before fleshing out a character.

Here is one template for a classic Hollywood logline. The order of each bullet point isn’t important — every genre will be slightly different — but you do want to make sure you nail down each of these ingredients.

  1. When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS]…
  2. A [CHARACTER TYPE]…
  3. Must [OBJECTIVE]…
  4. Before [STAKES]

Here is one example of this kind of logline for Back to the Future: “When a teenage boy is transported to the past, he must unite his parents before he and his future cease to exist.”

Perhaps you are envisioning a novel with a strong antagonist. Here is a template to accommodate that:

  1. A set of circumstances
  2. A protagonist with a clear goal
  3. An opposing antagonist
  4. A point of conflict between the two parties

Here’s an example of this kind of logline for The Fugitive: “Falsely accused of killing his wife, a doctor desperately searches for the real killer with a relentless federal agent hot on his trail.”

Query letter

As a side note, once you’ve written your logline, you may want to write a query letter, which is essentially an expanded logline.

Now that you have a clear understanding of the basic elements of your novel, let’s take a closer look at our characters.

Step 3: Character is king

You do not have a story with characters in it, your characters are your story. When outlining a novel, at this point, many writers like to draw up character backstories so they know their characters inside and out. Where are they from? Who are their parents? What defining events happened to them? These elements may never show up in the book, but they can help you to understand how your character will react to various situations.

As important as the background information may be for your writing process, however, the most important things you need to nail down at this point are what your characters want and what they need.

Character wants

By writing up your logline, you have already established what your character wants, which is the stated objective. Their pursuit of this objective will form the plot of your book, but it’s important to think of the plot in terms of your main character’s wants, because people will only care about your plot if they care about your protagonist.

Character needs

It’s not enough to read about characters attempting to accomplish a goal; readers also want to see how the protagonist’s struggles change them. This change, also known as a character arc, is what gives stories gravitas.

While the protagonist is aware of their want (the stated objective), they are often unaware of their need. Usually, this is because the character is flawed or incomplete in a way they can’t see. (Author K.M. Weiland describes this as the character believing in a lie.)

Perhaps your character is selfish, or they don’t believe they are worthy of love, or they blame themselves for something that wasn’t their fault, or they can’t get over the loss of a loved one. Whatever their flaw is, it should be easily expressed and something universal to the human experience.

Remember: It’s not just your protagonist who will have wants and needs, all of your major characters should have a character arc. After all, every one of your characters is the main protagonist in his/her/their story.

Step 4: Outlining your story structure

After knowing your protagonist’s wants and needs, figuring out your novel’s structure is the most important part of outlining a novel. Structure is what’s going to keep your story focused and prevent you from committing the “and then” problem.

So what is structure and how is it different from plot? Structure deals with generalities (acts and archetypes), plots deals with specifics (scenes and characters).

While every novel has a different plot, most novels have similar structure. For example, almost every novel has some sort of “inciting incident,” or a moment, early in a story, in which external forces change the protagonist’s world forever. In The Hunger Games, this is where Katniss’ sister is chosen as tribute; Dorothy getting swept away by a tornado in The Wizard of Oz; Claire being transported back in time in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Structure template

You already have the information you need to start working on your story’s structure, and what’s more, you don’t have to start from scratch: numerous structural templates can be found online. My advice would be to find a template that makes the most sense to you, and then start applying your specific details to that template.

Years ago, I stumbled onto this great analysis of the movies Erin Brockovich and Gladiator, and I have been using Michael Hauge’s template for my novels ever since.

Don’t worry that using a template will turn your novel into a formulaic pile of mediocrity. Like I said before, most novels use the same structure — and not just recent novels. As Joseph Campbell pointed out in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, people have been telling stories that adhere to a very consistent structure since The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written at least 3,000 years ago. Your job is to create vivid and original worlds, characters, and plots to hang on to that structure so your story feels fresh.

Step 5: Let the bullets fly

Once you have mapped your characters and conflicts onto a structure, you may feel ready to begin writing. If you really want to plan out all of the details, now is when you start bullet-pointing, expanding upon your structure and planning out every event and emotional twist for every chapter of your book.

You may find it helpful to do two drafts of your detailed outline. On your first pass, simply include each element you deem vital for each chapter, without any regard for what order these things need to occur or be revealed. In your second story outline, you’ll be going into more detail, paying attention to give shape to each chapter. For example, you may want to end your chapters on a cliffhanger to keep people reading.

As you flesh out each chapter, be sure to adhere to your structure. If you suddenly come up with a new plot idea or character—that’s great (never toss away an idea)—just make sure it’s not going to ruin your structure.

And most important of all: keep your protagonists’ wants and needs at the forefront of your story.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Scott,

    I have read advice in this subject before, however, I find it much clearer the way you lay it out.

    I began as a pantser, but find the more writing I do, the more necessary I find I need more framework.

    I have done some minor plotting but still feel it does not deliver what I find lacking in my approach.

    I believe your explanation may reveal what I have been seeking in a manner I can put to use immediately.

    Thank you for your article!
    Continued success to you!

  2. Loved your article, thank you so much Scott! I am a non-fiction writer and I have found that having an outline keeps me focused, especially when I am going to address complex topics (or if whatever I have to deliver in written form is time-sensitive). With that said, I agree that a lot of us have a bit of both (and I would go on to say that is a good thing depending on the circumstances). Personally, I like the “organic & spontaneous feel” I get whenever I have a deep conversation with my keyboard. And though I might stray a bit from the original point as I am experiencing this “personal conversation,” sometimes that stray thought becomes a lead for a different topic. I keep finding these stray-ideas meaningful enough to have a dedicated storyline to that spontaneous “sidebar.” I am sure that most writers love seeing the thoughts bouncing in our mind becoming somehow tangible. And I found that as I am typing in a “pantsed” manner I can’t help but crave the need to make an outline. A lot of my in-progress and already published manuscripts started that way, and having the outline helped me articulate in the exact manner I envisioned.

  3. I am seeing how something I wrote 50 years ago totally “Pantsed” fits in some of these outlines. I am attempting to prepare a draft for publication. It has been retyped several times and now is entered into a computer for the first times with the rules of submissions followed.
    There are main characters, there are conflicts small ones built into a larger one, there are enemies to them and friends to them, there are also a lot of little side characters, wondering how they fit in because outlines would not include them.
    Yet the story requires them. Some of them are enemies or supports for the main characters.
    I am thinking of illustrating it myself. Mostly pictures of the characters.
    Thank you for the article. It helps me see how my book will fit into the outline.

  4. I’ve learned the hard way that the more pre-writing I do (outline, character bios, etc.), the less likely I am to get anywhere with the book. The works that get any momentum are the ones where I write something and then say, “Where is this going?” or “How did my characters get here?”

    Yeah, trying to write the book linearly also turned out to be procrastination in disguise. I’d get to a fork in the road and not be able to decide which way to go. The solution turned out to be write some other part of the story, and another part, and another part, until I got to a part that turned out to be down the road from one fork or told me not to even go to that fork in the first place.

  5. Thank you, Scott. I am second drafting (okay, fourth draft…) my second novel. I always thought I was strictly an outliner. But I’ve learned that I am a hybrid outliner/pantser. I was strict about outlining my first novel, which was historical fiction. I needed the outline since seventy years transpired. But this story took twists and turns I hadn’t expected. I appreciate your simplifying this process.

    Judith Harch

  6. Thank you, for making clear what I need to do.
    I am writing my first children’s book and never planned on illustrating it myself. However, that’s exactly what I am doing. In the process, between all the bitching and doing over, the story is becoming richer by putting into pictures what I can’t put into words for the sake of word count. Other little scenes just pop into my head to visually enrich the images. I just go with the flow.
    Keep teaching us. Some of it actually gets stuck in my convoluted brain.
    Gratefully, Eveline

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