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Writing

How to Choose a Plot Outline Method: 4 Techniques for Outlining Novels

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 27, 2019 • 5 min read

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Unless you’re conducting an exercise in the art of freewriting, you’re going to want to work from an outline when drafting your novel. By outlining in advance, you’ll be able to control the pacing of your narrative, make sure characters evolve at a fluid pace, and balance the various story threads that may run concurrently through your book. While the vast majority of novelists work from outlines, they do so in different ways.

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Dan Brown Teaches Writing ThrillersDan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

In his first-ever online class, best-selling author Dan Brown teaches you his step-by-step process for turning ideas into page-turning novels.

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What Is a Novel Outline?

A novel outline is a document that includes important planning information about your novel’s structure, plot, characters, scenes, and more. It is the skeleton of your novel.

An outline can be anything from a one-page written document to a comprehensive visual mind map that uses diagrams to represent the link between information and ideas. If you have the space, you can write your sentences on index cards and post them on a wall to make it easier to view and manipulate the parts.

3 Basic Questions Every Outline Should Answer

Besides listing characters and plot structure and plot points, your outline should give you a general sense of the direction of your story as well as the primary conflicts and tensions that will make it intriguing for readers. Keep the following questions in mind while creating your outline to get ahead of the novel writing process:

  1. What is the main contract of the story? You must resolve the promises you made to your reader by the end of the novel.
  2. What sort of time pressure is working on your characters?
  3. What is at stake for the protagonist of the novel? Does the pressure on the main characters grow more intense as the story progresses?
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4 Classic Methods of Creating a Novel Outline

Here are four different outlining methods for creating story outlines.

  1. Synopsis outline. This involves the creation of a short document, usually one or two pages long, that gives you a rough idea of the novel’s structure but also leaves room for flexibility. Think of this as a synopsis of the book, hitting all the major beats: what happens in the beginning, middle, and end? What are the major plot points and twists? What is the climax? What is the resolution? Learn more about writing a synopsis here.
  2. In-depth outline. This is a more evolved outline that usually involves writing chapter summaries and outlining the different scenes within those chapters. This is more comprehensive and can take a lot more time. However, some writers swear by this method to stay on track. Some in-depth outlines can almost be mini-novels themselves, hitting around the 10,000-word mark. J.K. Rowling is a famous in-depth outliner. Her preferred method, which she used while writing the Harry Potter series (1997-2007), involves pages and pages of handwritten notes with the plot written out in columns representing the book’s timeline and tracking each scene, character, main plot, and subplot. Learn more about how to outline a novel in our guide here.
  3. Snowflake method. This method was created by author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson. It begins with a one-sentence summary of the story you’re trying to tell. For example, the sentence could be something like: “Two teenagers discover a secret cave that contains treasures that a group of criminals has been hunting for.” The snowflake method would then require you to build that sentence into a paragraph, and then use that paragraph to create a series of character descriptions, and from there a series of storylines that involve those characters. The process spans outward until you have a fully outlined novel. Learn more about the snowflake method here.
  4. Bookend method. This method is for writers who prefer to leave some things to chance. It involves plotting the start and end of the story, as well as each of the main characters—but nothing more. This method is usually recommended for writers who already have a strong grasp of the characters and the kind of story they want to tell.

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5 Tips for Outlining Your Novel

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In his first-ever online class, best-selling author Dan Brown teaches you his step-by-step process for turning ideas into page-turning novels.

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Creating your first outline is a major undertaking. For most writers, this is a multi-day, or even multi-week, endeavor. Here are some tips to make sure your time is well used.

  1. Make sure you have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Your story needs to be well paced. If all of the action is front-loaded in one section, your reader’s attention will wane during the duller parts. So whether you’ve set out to write a bestselling blockbuster or the next literary classic, make sure your story structure is well-paced throughout.
  2. Identify multiple storylines, and make sure all are adequately serviced. Your novel will contain an A-story: the primary plot involving your main character. The best novels tend to also have ancillary storylines that are also serviced throughout the book. Perhaps these also involve your main character, or perhaps they focus on supporting characters. No matter what, make sure that your B-story, C-story, and D-story are paced with the same care you give your A-story.
  3. Confirm that your main character undergoes change. Readers want to invest in characters, and nothing helps them do this quite like the character going through a series of changes. How does your storyline suit the evolution of your protagonist, both inwardly and outwardly? Make sure you can answer these questions before you start writing the first page of your actual novel.
  4. Is the ending worthy of the whole book? Endings are hard. Many otherwise great books become somewhat forgettable if they have a feeble ending. But books with memorable endings—from Anna Karenina to The Great Gatsby to Native Son—are nearly indelible from a reader’s mind. So make sure your ending is worthy of your narrative. And if it isn’t, make changes to any and all parts of the book until they lead up to a satisfying and duly earned conclusion.
  5. Confirm that you have enough story to sustain a full novel. Sometimes authors get great ideas, but when they begin outlining, they realize that an idea might not go deep enough to inspire an entire novel. If this is the case, it’s time to consider whether you need to concoct additional story lines or whether your idea would be better realized as a short story.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re writing as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft a good mystery takes time and patience. Master of suspense and bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has spent decades honing his craft. In Dan Brown’s MasterClass on the art of the thriller, he unveils his step-by-step process for turning ideas into gripping narratives and reveals his methods for researching like a pro, crafting characters, and sustaining suspense all the way to a dramatic surprise ending.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Dan Brown, R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

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