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How to outline a novel in four easy steps

Outlining a novel might not be everyone’s favourite part of the writing process but it doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. As much as I love writing a scene outline for every scene in my stories, you might want to choose something simpler. A detailed outline will also be a lot easier to create after you’ve already written the short and more general outline.

That’s why every writer needs to learn how to outline a novel in these four easy steps.

The great thing about this process is that it divides your story into four parts which should all be roughly equal in length. That’s really going to help you figure out your word count and make sure different parts of your story are balanced. If you also want to use the three-act structure for your story, the 1st quarter is Act 1, 2nd and 3rd quarters are Act 2 and the final quarter is Act 3.

Four easy steps to outline a novel

Use story structure to outline your novel

What we’re talking about here is, of course, a very simplified version of story structure. Learning about structure really changed everything for me and it’s a tremendous help in plotting a story that simply works.

Remember, structure isn’t the same thing as formula. It doesn’t make every story the same any more than having a skeleton makes every person look the same. If you would like to learn more about it, I’ve written a post about story structure and I also offer this novel structure workshop.

1 / Life is normal until something big changes everything

Because every story (at least in Western storytelling) is about some kind of a problem, you need to start by showing us what your protagonist’s world is like before the problem comes in and ruins everything. Yes, the problem can have originated before your story starts, but your story is about how your protagonist gets involved with it. Perhaps the war has started years ago but your main character doesn’t get drafted until now, for example.

Mind you, don’t start too far before things change, we probably don’t need to hear the country’s five thousand years old history. Your protagonist should already be at a crossroads about something and we should have a feeling that something big is about to happen. If the ice is going to break from underneath us and plunge us into cold water, we should already be hearing the ice crack and creak.

When the big problem – or a big opportunity – comes, your readers should be saying “yup, that really is a big deal, I wonder how the protagonist will make it through”. If the problem is something that most people could solve in five minutes, you either need to change the problem, change the protagonist or make sure we know WHY your protagonist would struggle with such a thing. Sometimes the big problem is a big opportunity, like a job offer abroad or a proposal, but it still needs to have the power to change everything and pull the rug from under your main character. And sometimes a problem can later turn out to be an opportunity.

2 / Reacting to the change until another problem arrives

This is where you set up your biggest plot events

In the second quarter of your story, your protagonist should be mainly reacting to the problem. They should be trying to get back on their feet, learning new things about this changed world and figuring out a game plan for dealing with the problem. If you’re writing romance, you should show your two characters falling in love during this part of the story.

Whatever happens in your novel and whatever genre you’re writing in, this is where you set up everything that happens later. This is especially important if you’re writing a plot twist.

Although your characters should be experiencing both wins and setbacks, there should be an overall sense of “things are going right” or “oh f#ck things really are going badly”. Your protagonist might even think they’ve got a handle on things now until another big event throws a spanner in the works somewhere around the middle of your story. They’re going to have to evaluate everything again. They could also learn important information that changes everything and makes all their previous plans useless.

3 / Things get even more difficult and eventually it all seems lost

What happens when your protagonist's mistakes catch up to them

If your protagonist thought they were in trouble before, things are really going awry now. However, your protagonist is no longer reacting to the big problem – they have become proactive. The big kerfuffle at the midpoint of your story changed things and it needs to lead to a complete change of tactics.

This is always the tensest part of a book or movie and your readers should be biting their nails worrying about your hero. Eventually, things should be going so badly that it all seems lost and it really looks like all the problems have beaten your protagonist despite all their best efforts.

Your hero should always be equipped with some kinds of flaws and misconceptions, and at least some of the problems need to be caused by them. If all your problems are coming from the outside, you’re missing out on true depth and impact for your story. Remember, they were doing a lot of stuff in the previous quarter of your story, and here you’re reaping the results. Your protagonist was doing their best, but they never got things quite right, and this is where they pay for their mistakes.

Although everything seems hopeless, there’s one more thing your protagonist can do, but it’s going to require a huge sacrifice and they will risk losing everything. But because they finally learn to overcome their personal problems and flaws, they’re okay with the risk. They know now that they’re doing the right thing.

4 / Finally, all the problems get solved and there’s a new normal

This is how you end a story

Because of your protagonist’s final push, the big problem gets solved, even if it doesn’t work out the way they thought. Even if your protagonist doesn’t get what they wanted, they’ll get what they need. During the last quarter of your story, the loose ends get tied, the remaining set-ups pay off and the storyline winds down.

Remember, you can’t pull a solution out of nothing. Just like the problems that preceeded it, your need to set up the solution the right way. Maybe your protagonist learned a new skill earlier in the story, maybe they’ve learned to trust themselves or maybe a mistake they made taught them something important. Whatever the solution to the big problem is, your protagonist needs to have learned it somehow.

Because of the big problem and how it has been dealt with, things will never be the same again. Your hero has also changed after the crisis they suffered because of the big problem. Things have fundamentally changed and there is a new normal, and we get a glimpse of what life looks like for your protagonist after the events of your story.

If you want to write an epilogue, it would come after your final glimpse of the new normal.

Would you like to learn all my methods of outlining, and more?

We’re all different, so what works for one writer might not work for someone else. Because I genuinely believe a good outline solves most of the problems you might have during the writing process, I give you a variety of options inside my beginner writer online course Writing Your First Novel 2.0.

What if you could stop reading blog posts and writing tips and you could have your first draft written in less than six months? I can show you all the steps you need to write your first novel from start to finish, including actually writing it and even editing it. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Of course, you totally can DIY the whole writing process, but how long can you afford to spend being confused and writing barely readable drafts you don’t have the skills to fix?

When you join us today, it won’t take you too long to actually use that amazing outline. Your future readers are just waiting to buy your book – don’t let them down.

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