Outlining a novel might seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be! This post features an outline template and will walk you through the outlining process. Whether you're writing your first draft or just want to get organized, this guide will help you figure out how to outline a novel and what needs to happen next.
If you've never used a novel outline template before, don't worry. This template works with almost any writing process, writing style, or genre, including romance, children's literature, historical, and speculative fiction.
If terms like “inciting incident” or “rising action” leave you confused, don't worry about that either. I'll keep it simple.
Unless you're a super-speed reader, I think it will take you longer to read this article than to outline your novel. So let's get started!
How do you outline a novel? Start with the key plot points
You don't need to know all the scenes in your book yet. You don't need to know the main character arc, or the main character's name. You might just have a central theme or a vibe.
Or maybe you started writing and got completely lost. Maybe your story's plot is a complete tangle, and it has more plot holes than a soap opera in its 70th season. Or your last plot outline looked so ridiculous, you nearly threw your computer out the window.
None of that is unsolvable. Put the computer down. A big picture outline of the key plot points will give you a great road map to guide your writing process. It will save you a lot of time.
Some novelists and screenwriters call these outlines “beat sheets,” because they cover every “beat” in the story arc from beginning to end. They use a little bit of jargon, which I'll explain below.
How to Understand Basic Story Structure
Here's an image of the book outline template we're going to use:
This outline template features all the major plot points without any fluff. It naturally lends itself to character development, and you can use it multiple times for different characters in your story. If you've never done a detailed outline, start by filling this out.
You can download this template as a TXT, RTF, and PDF file here.
If you can't see the template, or don't really know what you're looking at, let's break it down, going from left (the beginning) to right (the end).
PART 1 – also known as Act I
Beginning/Hook: The first image, scene, or sequence in the novel. Often made to “hook” the reader into the world of the story. Good hooks include: chases, mysteries, and unexpected images.
Inciting Incident: The event that sets the story into motion and changes the protagonist's life. Often a challenge to the established story world. The inciting incident could be an invitation, a discovery, an unexpected guest, or a surprising event, among many, many other things.
2nd Thoughts: The protagonist isn't sure if they're going to accept the invitation, go on the journey, or answer the challenge offered by the inciting incident. There are often really good reasons for them not to accept, and yet…
Key Incident/Climax of Part I: The protagonist accepts the invitation offered in the inciting incident. They will answer the challenge. Sometimes they go forth happily, sometimes reluctantly, and occasionally they don't really have a choice. However it happens, the key incident ends Part I/Act I and sends us into Part/Act II.
PART 2 – also known as Act II, First Half
Obstacles 1, 2, 3: This part of the story is all about obstacles faced by the protagonist. They are often physical, mental, or emotional challenges. There are usually 2-4 major obstacles in Part II. Some books can have more, but be careful putting too many obstacles here.
These obstacles aren't necessarily booby traps, puzzles, or other external problems. They can spring from internal feelings like doubt or lack of confidence.
MIDPOINT: A big twist, change, discovery, or revelation usually happens about halfway through the story. Sometimes the ultimate goal is reached, e.g. the treasure is discovered, and the second half of the story is about the consequences of that, e.g. getting the treasure away from the guards, back onto the ship, and back home.
Here are a few classic midpoint tropes: something lost is found, a secret is revealed, a disaster wipes out all progress, or the main character makes a big decision. Many romances have the first kiss or first sex scene around the story's midpoint. I like to start outlining from the midpoint and work my way forward and backward from there.
PART 3 – also known as Act III, Second Half
Obstacle 4: The first post-midpoint obstacle often relates to what just happened at the midpoint, since it's one of the major turning points in the story.
For example, if the midpoint was the first kiss between the hero and heroine, the next obstacle might be both characters reflecting on what happened.
If the midpoint involved the protagonist discovering something, the next obstacle is usually about dealing with the consequences of their discovery, emotional or otherwise. If you just discovered your brother-in-law was a drug kingpin right under your nose, you might have a panic attack and crash your car, for example.
It’s Bad: Just what it sounds like. Nothing is going according to plan. Your characters are stumbling forward. And just when things look like they can't get any worse…
Now It’s Worse: …they do. Usually in the most dramatic way possible. This is a great time to turn up the heat and slam the lid shut. Force your characters to find their own way out, by any means necessary.
Climax of Part III: They escape the imminent threat from the It's Bad/Now It's Worse sequence, but they're not yet out of the fire. Sometimes the peril is worse on the other side; sometimes they think they're safe, but they're anything but. This often, but not always, involves a location change. In most of the Harry Potter books, for example, the third act starts with a dramatic location change: through a trap door, into the Chamber of Secrets, dragged into the Shrieking Shack, transported via portkey to Godric's Hollow, etc.
PART 4 – also known as Act III
Obstacle: This obstacle separates the climaxes of Part III and Part IV. This is a good place for an internal struggle, for an unbreakable obstacle, or to highlight a different kind of struggle. For example, if your main character has just been running everywhere, maybe it's time to bind them so they can't move, even if they try.
Climax of Part IV/the book: This is it. The big showdown between the protagonist and whatever they're fighting. This can take many different forms, but it's always epic.
Obstacle: The post-climax obstacle is usually related to the climax. If there's just been a huge battle, both sides will have to bury their dead and tend to the wounded. If
Denouement: The denouement wraps up the loose ends. Show how things have changed with your central characters, and with the world at large.
End: What's the last scene or image in your novel? Whatever it is, don't let it end with a whimper or something forgettable.
Download Your Novel Outline Template
Feel free to copy and paste the image and template below:
Key Incident/Climax of Act I:
Now It’s Worse:
Climax of Part III:
Climax of Part IV/the book:
You can download this template as a TXT, RTF, and PDF file here.
If you're familiar with Kate Hall's work, this template might look familiar to you. This is based on the ones she uses in A Book a Week and Write to Market. I've changed these templates to fit my own needs as a writer. You can change them to fit your needs as well.
That's as it should be. This outline is a tool to help you write a novel, much like an artist's reference is a tool to help an artist draw a picture.
And ultimately, your novel's plot may not perfectly follow your outline. Do you know who will care?
Nobody. Not even you.
The novel outline process varies from writer to writer, and often from book to book. Some authors create a loose outline, some use mind maps or spreadsheets, and others simply write by the seats of their pants. (Which I've done, and do not recommend.)
The Wizard of Oz Beat Sheet
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume you've seen The Wizard of Oz at least once, if only as a kid. Don't worry about rewatching it or refreshing your memory right now. We're going to quickly run through the story outline template we just used, with The Wizard of Oz as a case study.
You'll notice that The Wizard of Oz doesn't perfectly follow the outline template we used above. So don't worry if your story idea doesn't completely match the outline template I've given you.
Beginning/Hook: The first shot in the movie is Dorothy and Toto running away from the camera, with Dorothy looking back and picking up Toto in fear. Instant interest. A girl and a dog are both vulnerable, and they're both running away from something. What is it? Who is chasing them?
Inciting Incident: Dorothy hits her head, lands in Oz, and literally goes from sepia to technicolor. When she goes through her front door, everything changes.
2nd Thoughts: Throughout the Munchkinland sequence, Dorothy is overwhelmed, apologetic, and terrified, especially when the Wicked Witch of the West appears. She wants to give the ruby slippers back, but Glinda won't let her do it. She also neglects to tell Dorothy that she can use those slippers to leave Oz at any time. (Are you sure you're a good witch, Glenda?)
Key Incident/Climax of Act I: “We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!” Glinda basically stage-manages the key incident here, sending Dorothy on her journey. By the end, Dorothy is smiling as she follows the Yellow Brick Road. Oh, Dorothy…
Obstacle 1: Dorothy is scared and doesn't know which way to go. She meets the Scarecrow, who has a similar problem: he has no brain, and he wants to see the Wizard about getting one.
Obstacle 2: Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man, who's stuck in place and missing a heart.
Obstacle 3: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man are frightened in the forest. They meet a lion who seems like a threat, but it turns out that he's just a coward, and needs courage.
MIDPOINT: You're out of the woods! Dorothy and her friends leave the forest and see the Emerald City for the first time.
Obstacle 4: The witch sends a sleeping snow over the party to make them fall asleep and not reach their goal. But Glinda the Good Witch saves them from the snow and they wake up again.
It’s Bad: The guard won't let them into the city! How will they get in to see the Wizard if they can't even get inside?
Fun and Games: “That's a horse of a different color!” Here we have a break as all four of the main characters get refreshed within Emerald City: the scarecrow gets re-stuffed, the Tin Man gets polished, etc.
Now It’s Worse: The Wizard of Oz is terrifying! He is a huge booming face behind smoke and fire. Who dares seek the great and powerful Oz?!
Climax of Part III: The Wizard of Oz says: bring me the witch's broomstick, and I'll give you what you seek!
Obstacle: The witch kidnaps Dorothy and puts her in danger, but also puts her closer to her “ticket” home (the broomstick). The witch realizes the slippers will only come off if Dorothy is dead, so she puts Dorothy under a “ticking clock” (or in this case, an hourglass) that will kill her when her time runs out.
Climax of Part IV/the book: The Scarcrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion appear to rescue Dorothy. They fight the Wicked Witch, who sets the Scarecrow on fire. Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch with a tub of water, vanquishing the main threat.
Denouement: Dorothy et. al return to Oz and find that the Wizard is really a man behind a curtain, pulling levers and putting on a show.
Post-Climax Obstacle: Dorothy wants to leave, but she misses the hot air balloon that carries the Wizard away. How will she get back now?
End: Glinda tells Dorothy that she always had the power: just tap her shoes together and say “There's no place like home.” (Are you really, really sure you're a Good Witch, Glinda?) Dorothy wakes up in her bedroom in Kansas, happy to be home again.
Let's Outline a Novel from (Almost) Scratch
For this post, I'm going to outline an entire novel based on one of my romance writing prompts. Here's the prompt in easy-to-read format:
A high school girl needs an intimidating boyfriend so her creepy, anonymous stalker will leave her alone. She starts fake dating her best friend, the son and heir apparent of the most powerful mafia family in the city, but this causes all sorts of problems with the other mafia families, who want him to marry their daughters instead.
Our heroine is a high school student, a generally good girl with “resting therapist face.” Other people come up and spill their guts to her, and boys in her class tend to develop obsessive crushes on her thanks to her manic pixie dream girl vibe. She believes that she shouldn't make trouble for other people, ever. She should always put others first.
Our hero is the heroine's best friend since childhood, Marco, the son of the biggest mafia family in the country. He wants to get out from under his father's shadow and go straight, but his father keeps undermining him. Marco is not afraid to stand up for himself or for others, which is something our heroine needs to learn.
Opening scene could feature heroine's cell phone going off, which makes her break out in a sweat. She screws up her courage and tells Marco, maybe after her parents ignore her.
This is all I know about the story right now. I haven't written any detailed backstories, created any character arcs, or fleshed out the story world in all its details. I'm going to use the novel outline template from earlier to create a big picture outline of the novel.
Beginning/Hook: Emma's cell phone goes off in class. It's the stalker. She's terrified. Marco asks her what's wrong, and she lies.
Inc Inc: Emma finally screws up her courage and tells her parents…but they blow her off. Or even worse, they start teasing her about him.
2nd Thoughts: Should she tell Marco? If she does, things could get very bad. But then the stalker starts threatening her friends…
Key Incident/Climax of Act I: Emma tells Marco that she's being stalked, and she's scared. He's furious, terrified, absolutely determined to protect her.
Obstacle 1: Marco takes her to the police, but they do nothing. Marco is disgusted, and tells Emma that she has to stay with him from now on, under his protection.
Obstacle 2: Marco announces that he and Emma are together, but the other mafia families are outraged that he'd date an outsider. Now he has family drama.
MIDPOINT: A school dance. Marco takes Emma, they dance, and almost kiss…but then the stalker ruins it. Maybe he shows up, or sends her a message that spooks her. In any event, he spoils the moment.
Obstacle 3: Marco and the stalker get into a fight. Marco wins but leaves the stalker badly injured, maybe near death.
It’s Bad: Marco's father learned that Marco went to the police station. He's furious, says you never go to the police, ever. He doesn't believe Marco when he says that he was trying to save Emma's life.
Now It’s Worse: Marco's father pulls a gun on Marco, right as the police come to arrest Marco for attempted murder. There's a huge scene, both men are arrested.
Climax of Part III: Marco confesses his love for Emma over the jail phone, then breaks up with her, tells her to forget about him. Go live your life.
Obstacle: Marco's defense attorney won't listen to Emma until she convinces her by some dramatic gesture. Perhaps she visits her stalker, alone, and records him saying something damning. If that's too much, maybe she plays audio of the stalker's voicemails, something to that effect.
Climax of Part IV/the book: Emma testifies at Marco's trial. On the stand, she confesses her love for Marco while looking at him.
Obstacle: Marco's waiting for the verdict. His family pressures him to quit college and work for them directly after he leaves. He tells them no, and stands up to his father, who threatens his life.
Denouement: Marco is found not guilty. He walks out of the courtroom, expecting to get shot, and finds Emma waiting there. He's terrified she'll get hurt, but she runs to him and hugs him before he can react.
End: Emma and Marco are both in college, maybe in the same city or general area. He tells her about his new internship at a financial firm.
Are you ready to outline your novel?
Novel writing can be difficult, but it doesn't have to be. Start with this template, and you can write an effective book summary in as little as 15 minutes.
The novel outline template we’ve provided will help you write a summary of your novel in as little as 15 minutes. From here, you can write a scene list, a mind map, or a more specific outline based on one of my genre templates.
If you want help further developing your ideas for a novel, please read on for a complete walkthrough of the novel-writing process, from start to finish.
Thank you, and happy writing!
Feature photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash.