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Writing

How to Outline Your Novel

Written by MasterClass

Jan 18, 2019 • 9 min read

Plotting your novel can be an enormous challenge. You’ve had some time to begin developing your world and your characters, your moral gray area, and central conflicts, and now you face the daunting task of putting it all together into a coherent story—and making it interesting enough to get a reader hooked.

This road map is otherwise called an outline.

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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. Each event should be a single, short sentence (e.g. Danny gets shot in the leg).

What Are the Pros and Cons of Creating an Outline?

Some writers are comfortable creating a detailed outline for a novel. New writers in particular find it helpful to have a road map. Others feel that writing an outline diminishes the pleasure of discovering the story along the way. They argue that working from an outline means you’re not creating anymore, you’re translating your ideas.

In the literary world, novelists who use outlines are referred to as “plotters.” Those who don’t are known as “pantsers” — a reference to flying by the seat of their pants. Famous pantsers include Margaret Atwood and Stephen King. In the plotting camp? Ernest Hemingway and J.K. Rowling.

While every writer is different, there are some general pros and cons to consider before creating your novel outline:

The benefits of creating an outline:

  • Helps visualize the big picture
  • Keeps the story on track
  • Logs which scenes go where
  • Clearly presents character arcs
  • Acts as a guide to ease writer’s block when you’re stuck
  • Clarifies the middle, to avoid the “muddle”

The drawbacks of creating an outline:

  • Can create a stilted narrative
  • If followed too closely, can feel formulaic
  • May lead to more showing rather than telling in the actual writing
  • Characters may seem to make inauthentic choices, solely based on plot points instead of natural results from narrative action

Stephen King supposedly swears by putting interesting characters in difficult situations and just seeing what happens. He famously said: “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

That aside, both plotters and pantsers agree on one thing: there is no correct way. It simply depends on what kind of writer you are, and what works for you.

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Four Classic Methods for Creating Novel Outlines

Here are four different outlining methods.

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?

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.

3) Snowflake method.

This method was created by author Randy Ingermanson and begins with a one-sentence summary of the story you’re trying to tell. For example, the sentence could be something like: “It was snowing in Harlem.” The snowflake method would then require you to build that sentence into a paragraph, and then expand that paragraph into four paragraphs, and so on. The goal is to learn more about the characters involved and their situation with each step. This continues until you have sketched out a comprehensive plot.

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.

The 3 Basic Questions Every Outline Should Answer

Besides listing characters 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:

  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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How to Create an Outline in 5 Easy Steps

Now that you know what needs to go into an outline, grab your notebook (or index cards) and follow these simple steps:

1) Craft your premise.

This is the underlying idea for your story. A good way to find the premise is to ask yourself, “What would happen if…?” For example: What would happen if a young man who survives a shipwreck spends months in a lifeboat with a large Bengal tiger? (Life of Pi, 2001) Or: What would happen if four strangers met in an Italian villa during World War II? (The English Patient, 1992).

Next, it might help to try and answer a few key questions to help expand on the premise. Things like:

  • Who is the main protagonist?
  • What is the situation?
  • How will the protagonist change from the beginning of the novel to the end?
  • What is her/her objective?
  • What does he/she want?
  • How does he/she get or not get what they want?
  • Is there an opposing force that is stopping the protagonist from achieving this objective?
  • What is the central conflict of the novel?
  • What about the central theme—what are you trying to say?

Once you’ve worked out the answers to these questions, write a one-paragraph summary of the novel. Think of it as an elevator pitch.

2) Determine your setting

In a novel, the setting (time, place) can be just as important as the characters. Readers need to feel a sense of where things are happening, just as much as why they’re happening.

Planning setting can depend on a number of things, depending on what kind of novel you’re writing. Get to know your setting intimately. Do as much research as you can. If your novel is set in the real world, find photos, descriptions, and other materials to inform your ideas.

Is your novel set in a boarding school? During a particular period in time? Find as much information, both written and visual, about boarding schools in that time. Picture your settings in your mind, and write down as much detail as you can: everything from how something looks and sounds to how it might smell, taste, or feel.

3) Get to know your characters

Write character profiles. Visualize them. Pretend you’re introducing these characters to your friends. What would you say about them? What details would you include, and what details would you omit—and why? What kind of journey will each character undertake in the novel? Where will they start, and where will they end up? Who will be central to the novel’s plot, and who will just serve as color and background?

Develop character backstories. Think of the moments in each character’s life that have led them to the point where they are introduced in the novel. What elements have shaped their personality and progression as characters? Do they have unresolved issues crucial to the plot?

One method is to conduct a Q&A with the most important characters, as a way of finding out more about them. Ask your characters a series of questions (get as personal as you want) and have him/her answer in his/her own words.

4) Construct your plot

Construct a timeline of events. Write down everything that happens in the novel, from the beginning to the end. Include details where you can, such as where the events take place, and who is involved. If you know the outcome of the events, and how they will impact the novel’s overall plot, include this as well.

  • Beginning: The beginning of your novel has to accomplish a lot. It must introduce the hero, the villain, and the world of the story, as well as the story’s sole dramatic question, and it must do this with enough energy to grab your reader’s interest right away. A prologue can be useful for seizing the reader’s attention.
  • Middle: Often, tension evaporates in the middle of a novel, so it’s a good idea to figure out your ending first. It may not be perfect, and you can always change it later, but it’s useful to know the climax to which your characters are headed. Having that destination will help you stay focused during the “middle muddle.” Write as many short sentences as you need to describe the pathway your characters will take to reach the climax.
  • End: While it may seem daunting to figure out the ending so early, just return to your sole dramatic question, which already has your ending hidden within it. For example, if your question is: Will Ahab catch the whale? Then your story’s finale will be the moment when he does.

5) Write your scenes

Once your plot outline is in place, you’ll have a better idea of what scenes will need to be placed where. Add them to the outline. Flesh them out as much as you want—everything from where the action takes place to who is involved, even dialogue if you already know what you want your characters to say. Don’t worry about things making sense at this point, you’ll have time later to go back and highlight anything that feels out of place. Just focus on getting everything down so you can see it in front of you.

Once your outline is complete, you’ll be free to start your first draft with the knowledge that if you falter, you can always turn back to the outline to see the big picture. As you begin writing, watch out for gaps in logic. Refer back to the outline, and update plot points and the timeline as you go along.

While it’s necessary to have a basic grasp of your characters and your world when you begin writing, it’s not essential to know everything up front. In fact, even with the most meticulous outlines, you may still find that your characters do things to upset your plans. When this happens, follow your instincts. Don’t be afraid to toss your outline or significantly revise it mid-way through your novel. A good rule to remember is that outlines involve plotting what will happen to your characters, but in the end, your characters should determine your plot.