How to Make a Novel Outline
Here you'll find easy novel outline techniques to plan your book step by step, along with worksheets for planning characters and scenes. This is just one of many pages on this website with creative writing worksheets and advice. At the bottom, you'll find links to related pages on how to write a novel.
An outline for your novel
A novel outline is a plan for a novel. If you are doing this for yourself and not for an editor, then the good news is there are no rights or wrongs. You can type up your outline with Roman numerals, or you can paint it on the carpet in lipstick if that works for you. Every author has his or her own system.
Why outline your novel?
- It can make it less intimidating to start writing.
- You have a roadmap as you're writing your novel. You know what you have to write next.
- You can avoid writing yourself into a dead end. You can solve story problems before you've wasted a lot of time writing scenes that you would only change or cut later.
- You can set up your ending because you know what is coming. You can prepare the reader for scenes that are coming later in the book.
- For certain kinds of novels such as mysteries, some kind of outline or plan is almost necessary because there are many small details that have to fit together at the end.
There are authors who never outline at all. They just sit down and write. But then they usually rewrite the whole book again afterwards. Instead of planning their novels, they prefer to write a lot of drafts, discovering new aspects of the story each time. This is a fine method, but keep in mind that the less planning you put in ahead of time, the more rewriting you will likely need to do.
Dangers of a novel outline
A reason some writers prefer not to work with a detailed outline is that they feel that the outline stifles their creativity and makes them less spontaneous. Other writers do make an outline, but only after a lot of freeform brainstorming. Some writers do the outlining and detailed planning and then choose not to look at their notes a lot while they're actually writing. If you outline, it's important not to get too locked in to your original plan. You may discover that some part of it doesn't fit naturally in your story, or you may get a better idea part way through. Your outline is a guide to help you; it's not an exact recipe you have to follow.
Top tips for your novel outline
Our online course Story Structure will take you step by step through planning your story.
- Know yourself, and figure out the method that works best for you.
- Don't waste time choosing the perfect words for your outline or color-coding your note cards in seventy-two colors. The outline is just for you. What the reader cares about is the novel, so put the loving attention there instead.
- Don't become a prisoner of your outline. I know one author who spent a whole year trying to get from Chapter 6 to Chapter 7 of her book because the outline said a certain event was supposed to happen. And she couldn't find a way to make it work. In the end, she removed this event from her outline, and the problem was solved.
A simple way to outline
Here is an easy system you can use to outline your novel if you find it helpful. Remember: there's no right
way to make a novel outline -- this is just one option!
1) Before you start your actual novel outline, spend some time brainstorming freely, letting your imagination run, generating ideas, and writing them down. Carry a notebook around with you. The writer Linda Leopold Strauss
likes to take walks during this brainstorming phase and uses a voice recorder on her cell phone to save her ideas.
2) When you feel that you're getting ready to move beyond the brainstorming phase, then write down answers to these questions:
- Who will be your main character? Write some information about him or her. (It's possible to have more than one main character, but this will make your novel more complicated to write. If you plan to have several main characters, write information about each of them.)
- Normally, your novel will be about an important problem that your main character has to solve, or an important goal that he or she wants to achieve. What is this problem or goal? Write it down. Why is it the most important thing in the world to your character right now? (If it isn't that important to your character, look for another problem or goal to be of your story. If your character doesn't care a lot that he or she resolves the problem, your readers won't either.)
- What terrible difficulties are there between the character and his/her goal or the solution to his/her problem? (If it's too easy for your character to get out of trouble or get what he/she wants, then there will be less of a story). Make a list.
- Where and when (in general) will your story take place? In Miami in the early 1980's? On the planet Fiz in the year 2044?
- In general, what type of novel are you writing? Is it mainly comedy? Drama? A thriller? Read more about types of novels here.
- What are the main events that will move your character toward (or away from) solving the novel's central problem or achieving the central goal? Make a list.
3) For each of the main events in the list you've just made, imagine a scene or scenes. For each scene, briefly write the answers to these questions.
- What characters are in the scene?
- Who is the viewpoint character/s (the character through whose eyes the readers will see the scene)?
- Where does the scene happen?
- What happens?
- What does the scene accomplish in the novel? Does it move the character forward toward his/her objective or further away from it?
Every scene should have a purpose. It should either move the character forward or backward toward or away from his/her goal or solving the novel's central problem (novels are more exciting if you play with the reader’s emotions by moving the character back and forth a bit), or else it should deepen the reader's understanding of the characters or situation in the novel. If the scene doesn't fulfil one of these two purposes, consider getting rid of it.
4) Write a summary in 1-2 sentences of your novel's main idea. You can imagine that you're writing the blurb for the book jacket. This summary should include a character or characters and an important problem or goal. If you find that you can't pin your novel down to just 1-2 sentences, then your idea probably isn't focused enough yet, and you should keep working on it.
- Boy learns he is actually a wizard and is sent to a wizarding school, where he has to battle the most evil dark wizard of all time.
- Detective has to solve a series of brutal murders in a convent.
- Woman discovers that her husband has a second family and has to choose whether to leave him.
5) Look at the scenes you've planned so far. Are they in the right order? What other scenes are needed to tell the story of your character's battle with the problem or his/her work toward the goal? Fill in the missing pieces. Take out any scenes that don't belong. Put everything into the best order for telling the story. This is your novel outline! Use it to help you, but don't hesitate to keep changing and improving it as you write. The story might take you in unexpected directions, so stay open to surprises!
Our online course Story Structure will help you build a successful story.
Our online course Irresistible Fiction will show you how to turn your story into a page-turner.
Photo credit: Johannes Plenio @ Unsplash
Novel Outline Worksheets
Here are some printable PDF worksheets you can use for your novel outline. Follow the instructions above to fill out the Summary Page. Then print as many Character Worksheets as you need to cover your most important characters. Print out a number of Scene Worksheets. You can use one worksheet per scene, then put the pages in the best order, reorganizing, adding, and subtracting pages as needed.
Click here to get the Novel Outline Summary Worksheet
Click here to get the Character Outline Worksheet
Click here to get the Scene Outline Worksheet
Novel outline - next steps
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