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There are different methods of outlining your novel and no method is more correct than the other. I’m well aware that not every writer likes to outline their story beforehand, but I firmly believe that outlining your book is the best way to avoid writer’s block and unnecessary rewrites. But how should you outline a novel for the best results?
The way I like to outline my stories has multiple steps, and you can use all the novel outlining methods or just choose one if you’d like a more loose outline. So let’s get started!
Do you really need a book outline?
I’m not going to tell you what to do, so if you don’t want to write an outline… then don’t. But if you feel like your current methods aren’t working, if you tend to get lost and discouraged in the middle of writing your story and if you keep end up with stories that just don’t work, you should absolutely give outlining a go.
I really think writing an outline for your novel is the best way to eliminate writer’s block as much as possible, to write better stories and to spend less time fixing plot holes and other issues. If you want to write a really good plot twist, you need to plan that in advance as well.
I know your next problem with outlining is “yeah but it takes away the joy of discovery!” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. First of all, you still get to discover everything that happens in your story, it just happens at different times. In addition, knowing where your story is going gives your creativity more space when you don’t have to worry about taking the wrong path in your story.
Remember who wrote your outline
I see a lot of beginner writers rebelling against “writing rules” without realising there aren’t actually rules, just guidelines for writing great stories. Nobody is observing and judging your process from a higher place.
If you feel like your outline isn’t working or you want to change something, guess what? You can do that. There’s no “rule” that says you have to follow your outline to a tee. I love outlines, but have I learned to write a foolproof one that never changes? Maybe in 50 years but not yet. The best way to outline a novel is the way that works for you, and you might have to do a few mistakes to figure it all out.
So let’s finally get into writing your amazing outline.
Brainstorm all the necessary elements when you start outlining your story
Before I start outlining my story, I need to know I have everything I need to make it a full novel. My initial story ideas are often quite vague so I need a lot of brainstorming to get the rest of the characters, settings and plot events. I do this by asking myself a lot of questions and just brain-dumping all my ideas into my notebooks.
I would advise you do as much brainstorming as you can before you start the full outline, but don’t worry too much if you feel like there are gaps that you simply can’t fill right now. Sometimes the best ideas don’t come until the editing process, and that’s just how it is sometimes.
Brainstorm the most important plot events first
A lot of stuff needs to happen in a full-length novel so you’re better off brainstorming more plot events than you actually need. At this point of the process, you shouldn’t be too critical. Just make a list of everything that could possibly happen and cross out anything unusable only after you’ve finished brainstorming.
Surprisingly, the best way to do this isn’t to start from the beginning and proceed until the end, but backwards. Your protagonist should go through some kind of a personal transformation (the size and type of this transformation depend on your genre and your unique story) because of all your plot events. If you’re writing about an insecure accountant who ends up winning the Miss Universe contest, you can work backwards to figure out what helped her win, what needed to happen for her to overcome her insecurities and why on earth would she enter the contest anyway.
We’ll be talking about structuring your story later in this post, so you don’t need to worry yet how to find your most important plot events.
Useful resources for brainstorming story ideas
Get to know your characters
This is actually something I don’t do a lot for any other characters besides my protagonist (and antagonist, if relevant). Not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I’ve always had a good grasp of my characters in my mind without me needing to write it all down. You might feel differently, though, so writing character profiles can be a good idea.
The plot isn’t something that just happens to your protagonist, it happens through your protagonist. This is why it’s absolutely crucial to know your protagonist really well, and I certainly don’t mean knowing their star sign and favourite Beatle. You need to know what they want, what is troubling them, how they respond to conflicts. Those are the things that really matter to your story.
I have written a post about your main character’s wants and needs driving the story, but if you need more help fleshing out your protagonist, I have created The Protagonist Workbook to help writers in any genre create unforgettable protagonists.
The relationships between your characters can also be extremely useful to know before you start writing. You need to know how your characters complement each other (if they don’t, think about eliminating or combining some of the characters to make a tighter story), how they irritate each other and how they are similar but also different. The more connections there are between different characters, the more interesting your story becomes.
I recommend creating a character web, either on paper or with an online mind-mapping tool, and drawing connections between different characters. Each character should be connected to your protagonist in some way, and the more connections the characters have with each other, the better. You could also add your different settings to the web to show how your characters are connected to them.
Things that are more important than character appearance when writing a book outline
Although character appearance still matters and is a useful tool for showing what your characters are like, figuring out what your characters look like shouldn’t be your priority. Here are more important things to know about your character than their hair colour:
- How does your character’s social class and education show in the way they act and look?
- How does your character react in difficult situations?
- What is the best way to hurt your character?
- Is there something that makes your character stand out in a crowd?
- What are they ready to fight for?
- What are the habits that your character really wants to stick to?
- How is your character just like everyone? How are they different from everyone?
- What does your character really, really want?
That’s obviously not a comprehensive list, but these kinds of questions help you create a well-rounded character who acts and doesn’t just react. Every new “feature” that you add to your character should have an effect on the story world, other characters or plot events.
Choose and outline your settings
Where and when does your story take place? How many settings are there? How can you choose the most effective setting for each of your scenes? These are just some of the questions you can ask yourself during the outlining process.
Listing my settings is a step that I don’t necessarily do during my outlining process, because like my characters, the settings are something that I can just see inside my head. But if you want to plan your settings when you’re outlining your story, do this:
- Brainstorm interesting locations for your story. You can come up with more than what you need because you’re likely going to scale back anyway when you choose the best setting for each scene.
- What are the most important details of your settings? If someone was going there for the first time, what would they need to know?
- List all the sensory details for each of your settings. What can you see, hear, smell, feel and even taste. (Don’t lick the floor but maybe there’s cake.)
- How is the setting significant to at least one of your characters?
- Choose the best and most effective setting for each of your scenes. Remember, smaller and more specific is usually better than something vast and general.
Blog posts about your setting
Next step: How to write a novel outline with story structure
So now you know what happens in your story, who lives in your story world and what that world is like. It’s time to look at the structure of your story.
Look at your list of important plot events. Then look at story structure – either from a book like Save the Cat or from my own blog post about structuring your novel – and place your plot events in appropriate places. Are you missing something important? Do you know how to get from A to Z? If needed, brainstorm more ideas to fill in the gaps.
If you’re not at all familiar with story structure, you should know that it’s not a formula that makes every story the same. Far from it! Story structure is the underlying structure in almost all stories we love and enjoy that makes them work. It’s like a skeleton that holds it all together, and when you get to know story structure better, you see how much freedom it gives you instead of just making you write what everyone else is writing.
Can you structure your story afterwards?
If you don’t want to use story structure to outline your story beforehand, you can still absolutely use it after you’ve written your first draft.
There are always writers who think planning and outlining is boring and useless, but the reality is, this work needs to be done at some point. Personally, I think it’s a lot easier to do it beforehand. But if you’d rather just spit out a story and then see how it works, you can still use story structure to make sure you’re hitting all the important plot beats and that everything happens in a logical order. You can then move scenes around when needed and add or remove plot events.
If your story takes place in different times or if you’re presenting your scenes in a non-chronological order, it’s especially important to have an outline where everything happens chronologically, even if you write it afterwards. It helps you make sure you’re not forgetting anything, and you can check that everything can really happen in the order that you’re saying they happen.
The 4-step method to structuring your story
If you think most story structures have too many darn steps, you should try this easy outlining method that you can do on just one page. It also works for writing summaries after you’ve already written your story.
- Your protagonist is living life in their normal world until something big happens and disrupts everything.
- They’re reacting to the big event and trying to get back on their feet until another event throws a spanner in the works.
- Things keep getting worse until everything seems lost.
- After a final, desperate push the big problem gets solved and there’s a new normal for your protagonist.
Other story structure resources
Write a scene list
After your story structure is in check, you can start writing a full scene list. A scene list is exactly what it sounds like: a list of all the scenes in your story. All you need to do is describe what happens in the scene with a sentence or two.
If you have multiple POV characters or if your story happens in different time levels, write your scene list in chronological order from each point of view. After that, you can re-order them how you want them to appear in the book.
Personally, I don’t strive for perfection when I’m outlining my novel. I do want to get started with writing, too! That’s why it’s okay if there are still some gaps in your story because sometimes it’s difficult to see what needs to happen before you’re really inside the story. I’m currently writing the first draft of my newest novel and there’s a MASSIVE gap in the third act of the story. When I was writing my previous book, I didn’t actually know how I wanted to end it until I had written most of the first draft. It happens sometimes. Just leave a placeholder for any missing scenes and make a note of what needs to happen before and after the scenes.
One of the benefits of writing a scene list, and something I will keep telling you guys over and over again, is that it gives you a bird’s eye view of your story before you’ve actually written it. Do you know how much easier it is to fix a lagging middle or a plot hole BEFORE you’ve written 80 thousand words than AFTER it? There’s no method of outlining that prevents you from making any mistakes at all, but it’s nice to be able to minimise those mistakes as soon as possible.
Outline your scenes
Now that you have all your scenes in order, or at least as many as you can manage right now, you can start outlining your scenes. Is it absolutely necessary? Of course not – none of these steps are. But will it be massively helpful? Absolutely. The goals and decisions in your scenes will help you fill out any empty spaces you have in your scene list. To read more about how to do this, I’ve written an entire post about outlining your scenes. You could also get my printable scene structure template or my scene planner Notion template.
It’s up to you how extensively you want to outline your scenes. Me, I write a sentence or two about the goal, conflict, outcome, reaction and decision of each scene. Those things are part of scene structure, and if you would like to learn more about it, Scene and Structure is a good and comprehensive book about the subject.
You can also choose to include lists of characters and settings that are present in the scene, or you can free-write the most important points of your scene. Do what feels most important and intuitive to you. If your story includes a lot of foreshadowing for future plot twists, you can choose to remind yourself of it in your outline, but you can also “plant the seeds” after you’ve written your first draft.
How to make sure your novel outline actually does its job
It’s all well and good to have an outline, but if it doesn’t do its job properly, you’re still going to be stuck doing all that work afterwards. That’s why you need to take a critical look at your scene list and your scene outlines.
Your protagonist should have one overall goal for the entire story and they should be working towards it throughout the whole story. There will be smaller goals – in each scene, as we saw earlier – but in general, there should be movement towards that single goal. Sometimes your protagonist will get closer and sometimes they will be pushed back, but they need to keep attempting to reach it anyway. Aside from subplots that have their own goal and that mirror the main storyline, do all your scenes move your protagonist towards their ultimate goal? If not, change them or remove them.
“Logic” is something that many writers might not hear about, but it’s an important part of writing an enjoyable story. The way that logic works in stories is that the writer MAKES the story logical from the inside instead of forcing it from the outside. It might not sound logical that a little girl would set her school on fire when she enjoys going there, but if we already know that she’s only doing it to protect everyone from vampires, we will accept it. Have you injected this logic into your story or are there still gaping plot holes? Now is the best time to fix them. (Additional reading: How to write a plot twist that surprises your readers.)
One more thing to watch out for is unnecessary repetition. There certainly can be similar scenes in your story, but you have to make sure they don’t make your reader feel like they’re reading the same thing over and over again. Is it obvious that the scenes happen at different points in time? Do the scenes have different goals and different problems? Redundant scenes can be deleted during the editing process, too, but doing this work during the outlining process saves you time and grey hairs.
What happens after your outline is finished?
It’s usually a good idea to take a break between different phases of the novel-writing process, like between drafts or after you’ve written your outline. Even a day or two can help you gain some new perspective, even if you think it won’t.
After you’ve mulled over your outline long enough, I’m happy to tell you you’re ready to start working on your first draft. Such an exciting moment, isn’t it?
Would you like to outline your next novel in just 30 days?
Writing a great novel simply can’t be done fast, but having a good outline helps you write one efficiently. And how much would it speed up your writing process if you could outline your novel in 30 days?
When you get Outline Your Novel in 30 Days, you don’t just get the steps and the schedule to creating your book outline in just a month, but you also get a 29-page guide to important storytelling elements that every outline needs. You can stop procrastinating on your writing dreams ASAP and start writing your amazing novel outline today.