How to outline a novel in three steps

It was Yogi Berra who said something to the effect of if you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there. This rings especially true when embarking on the great task of writing a book, especially a novel. The entire process of developing characters and plot lines, writing, and editing can be incredibly daunting—particularly without a plan. A well-developed outline will offer you the structure you need at the outset. It will also give you an opportunity to determine if anything is missing—important characters, pivotal plot devices, or an overarching narrative arc. Perhaps most critically, it will keep you focused on what to write next if and when writer’s block strikes. Learn how to outline a novel with these simple steps.

1. Do a brain dump

As you think about the novel you’re going to write and begin to envision the final product, there are likely a million details running through your mind—everything from a central conflict to a character’s middle name. No detail is too small, and it’s critical to make sure your plot and subplots, characters, and scenes match up. Do yourself a favor and get everything on paper in front of you. Jot down every single detail you have in your mind, and organize as best you can. One approach might be to use index cards and create piles⎯character names, scenes, lines of dialogue, locations, etc.

2. Choose your outline format

Design your outline around the way you work best. Here are four novel formats that we’re partial to.

Mind mapping

Creating a mind map is the most visual way to set about outlining your novel. The idea is to get paper and colored pens or pencils crayons, and free flow your ideas to create something that looks like a growing tree or plant. You’ll want to start in the middle of the page with a picture of your main idea. If you were writing a children’s book about a young pianist, you could start with a piano, or a musical note, or the place where your main character learns music, such as a school or friend’s home. Then connect your main idea to sub-ideas using different colored lines to meet the sub-idea images. Let the lines (branches) curve and flow and be sure to use images throughout. You’ll end up with a visual map of the different ways your story flows. You may make more connections as you begin writing and developing your story. Keep your mind map posted in your home office or near your writing space for daily direction on where your story’s headed.

Snowflake method

The most in-depth of the bunch, the snowflake method novel outline is best for the writer who has done all the upfront thinking and planning and wants a detailed outline to follow. You’ll start out small by writing your one-sentence description of the book. You’ll then get more detailed and write a paragraph about the book. Then you’ll list your protagonist’s name, their motivation, goals, conflict, and epiphany. You’ll then write a summary of the character’s storyline. Then you’ll do all of the above for every single character in your story. Next, you’ll move on to describing the story setup, major plot turns, and how the book ends⎯tidy resolution or not. Randy Ingermanson’s article on the snowflake method offers even more detailed steps on how to get this novel outline off the ground.

Fill in the blanks has put together an easy fill-in-the-blank novel outline, which can help you get the basics down on paper quickly and easily, helping you get to the fun stuff—writing—as soon as possible. This is a great way to start for those impatient writers out there.

Traditional outline

You can create a document identifying your three acts (the most common narrative structure), main characters, and what each chapter will accomplish. This method may be less inspiring than the more creative novel outline formats out there, however.

3. Review, revise, and update along the way

The whole raison d’être for a novel outline is to have a writing map that you can follow and go back to as your story unfolds. But don’t be afraid to make changes and updates along the way. It’s a guide, not your writing bible; the key thing is to keep your creative juices flowing through the process. Having a solid outline—in whatever format you decide is best for you—does make it easier to adjust when you start changing elements of your story. Even a small change in character development or plot construction can have a domino effect in other areas, so ensure you keep your novel outline updated as you progress with the actual writing.


Are you ready to start your novel? Check out our blog post for tips for planning and writing your next novel.


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