Writing an Outline for a Novel Step by Step

Banner about writing an outline for a novel with a man holding a book in his hands

A Guide for Creating an Effective Outline for a Novel

Brainstorming a plot for a novel is an immense challenge. You may have some ideas on how to create the entire imaginary world and characters, some main conflicts, etc., and now it is necessary to put everything together into a consistent story that should be exciting for the readers. Simply put, now your task is to craft an outline.

Two books on the table

Some authors prefer writing novels without creating a preliminary structure. However, there are plenty of benefits of having an approximate story outline. By having a flexible plan, you make it much easier to brainstorm ideas, find possible character arcs, and so on.

What is an outline? Its pros and cons

A novel outline is a document that provides meaningful planning information about the plot, structure, scenes, characters of your novel. In other words, it is something like the skeleton of your story. You can craft an outline in the form of the one-page written document, a detailed visual mindmap with links between the points, or any other way that works well for you. Many authors like to write the key ideas on index cards and post them on the wall, thus making it easier to view and change the parts.

Whereas each author uses a different way to craft an outline, there are some general pros and cons of having such a roadmap.

The benefits of writing an outline:

  • Helps visualize the picture in general
  • Help keep the story on track
  • Makes it easier to present character arcs
  • Logs which actions take place where
  • Guides you to break the writer’s block when you are stuck
  • Helps avoid unnecessary details

The drawbacks of writing an outline:

  • Can lead to creating a narrative that sounds unnaturally
  • There is a risk of feeling formulaic if you follow it too closely
  • Sometimes leads to more showing instead of telling in the novel
  • Characters may seem to make spurious decisions, solely based on plot ideas rather than natural results from narrative action

Steps of writing a novel outline

1. Develop your novel’s main idea

Even the best story ideas do not necessarily come in a flash of inspiration solely. Often, they emerge as a mix of curious play and significant efforts. Ideally, the central idea should be limited to an enthralling logline, a summary that indicates the main conflict for the story to arouse the interest of the audience.

2. Include the main characters

Use your central novel’s idea to develop the main characters of the plot. Brainstorm people who might emerge from the starting point. Use the “5 W’s” (who, what, why, when, and where) as helpful questions to create original characters.

3. Draft the rise and fall of the core plot of the story

As soon as you can imagine some of the leading characters, think of situations you could put them through. There is one technique that makes the task easier. Consider looking at your story’s plot in terms of rising action (events that grow in tension, uncertainty, or conflict) and falling (those reducing these elements).

4. Create original settings

No good story is all plot and character development. Exciting chains of reasons and effects are no less significant. You can bring your imaginary world to life by anchoring the story with a sense of place, in visual detail and time. Think carefully about every separate location image. Describe the way your characters feel about it,  interact with it, and so on. By filling specific places with feelings like happiness, fear, and others will provide each setting with its own unique character.

5. Come back to your main idea and expand it

As soon as you feel you have a more in-depth view of your novel, its leading characters, and settings, you may have new ideas and subplots to include in the initial plot. Start by carefully expanding your brief logline summary with more detail into a page-long narrative summary of the development of the story. Do not forget that the outline is just a guide, not a last will, and you should feel free to make any alterations.

6. Jot down the ideas for the scenes

As you brainstorm ideas for the actions, events, and scenes in general, it is crucial to create connections between them, and the reasons for each. Consider drafting ideas for scenes in succinct these one or two chapters ahead. This way, you will have some sense of purpose and focus for each scene. If you do this, you realize that some particular event must happen during a specific chapter. Such knowledge will be a comfort if you feel lost while extending the story.

7. Add details to the outline as you draft

Treat your outline as a working document. Once you discover new characters, brainstorm new settings, create new subplots, add everything you consider necessary to the outline in a summary form.