novel outline

How I Outline My Novels in Five Simple-ish Steps

I've always been a heavy outliner. I outline everything, from my short stories to my blog posts and even next week's recipes. The outlining process is a little more complicated when I'm writing a novel, though. In this post, I will show you the outline process that takes me from a vague idea to a novel outline that I can use to write a good first draft.

I say simple-ish, because explaining them is easy, especially when working with an outline template. However, some steps are more challenging than others.

1. Start with a big picture outline, or “beat sheet,” covering all the major plot points.

The first step in outlining my novel is to write a broad outline, or “beat sheet.” A beat sheet is just a list of all the major plot points in my story. It can be as detailed or as vague as I want it to be, but it will become more concrete as the process continues. Here's the beat sheet I use:

To download PDF, RTF, TXT, and image-based versions of these beat sheets, click here.

You don't need to know much of your story to fill this out. Sometimes, I don't even have a name for my main character yet. I never know all the events that will happen, especially in the second half of the story.

If I get stuck, I might write something like “something big happens here that destroys the heroine's trust in the hero” or “The mentor disappears right when the heroine looks to her for guidance.” I have enough confidence in myself to know that these important details will come in time.

I usually start filling this out from the midpoint and working from there. I don't necessarily write the beat sheet in order, and I may try to write several variations before I find one I like. It doesn't take me long to get a novel outline this way; I can often come up with the key plot points in 15 minutes or less.

Once I have this big picture outline ready, it's time to develop it into a list of scenes. This tells me if the story structure is solid or if it needs work.

2. Write a scene list.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.

This is a more detailed novel outline, listing every scene from beginning to end. While the first step deals with major turning points, this outline covers every scene needed to get from the beginning to the end of the story.

I number the scenes and give a brief, 1-2 sentence description of each. Sometimes I'll write a short paragraph underneath describing the scene in detail. Sometimes the description is more like a sentence fragment or a bullet point list. It depends on the project.

I know that some scenes will get cut and I'll have to add others, so I don't worry too much about renumbering the scenes. If I need a new scene between scenes 14 and 15, I label the new scene 15A and keep it moving. If I need to delete Scene 16, I just delete it. There's no point in tediously renumbering everything when I might have to do it again in 2 minutes.

I also treat the scene list as my master outline document. When I want to change something in the outline, I change it in the scene list first. Then I change the beat outline, if necessary, and the subplot spreadsheet (see next step).

The cover of Wolf Cursed by Esme Rome, showing a young woman with red hair kneeling on a rock, surrounded on both sides by wolves.Here's part of my scene list for the start of Wolf Cursed:

ACT I

1. Wolf versus vampire in forest – Red observes

Red watches a wolf and vampire fight in the forest. She says that she came here to see her mother. The vampire threatens her, and she uses holy water to defeat it. she falls to earth and is caught by D’Avalos, who is out there with Blackwood for the same reason.

2. Running back to school–vampires waiting for them, they fight

Red is carried in D’Avalos’s arms as they run to back to the school. Before they get to the school, they encounter three vampires waiting for them. D’Avalos and Blackwood fight two, but Red holds back the third with a little borrowed magic from Hannah, but she’s rescued by Blackwood at the last moment.

-This scene reveals the character of the big three:

-D'Avalos: strong, skilled in human/wolf martial arts

-Blackwood: fast, hybrid powers, huge fangs

-Red: lost her powers, has borrowed magic, can throw, can smell and react.

If you've read Wolf Cursed, you know that this outline leaves out a lot of details. The truth is that I didn't know most of those details when I wrote it; I discovered them while writing the scene. Red's encounter with Lady Crow came relatively late in the writing process, which is funny considering the dramatic changes that event has on the course of the book.

This is why I don't buy the argument that outlining stifles creativity. If anything, it encourages it. Even if you write an incredibly detailed outline, with your novel's plot completely cast in iron, actually writing the novel will always surprise you.

Novel writing is a process of discovery, a bit like going to a cave with a headlamp and an outdated map. If you go in without a map, feeling your way along, you may discover completely uncharted territory that no one else would ever see. Or you might fall down a huge hole and never come out.

That may also happen even with the best map in the world, but it's less likely. And there are still treasures to discover, no matter which way you go. The map is not the territory.

3. Fill out a subplot spreadsheet.

Even the most straightforward romance is likely to develop a subplot or two. I like to create a spreadsheet that lists out every major subplot and where they appear in each chapter, even if it's just a mention here and there.

This shows me any subplots that should be cut or combined. If a subplot doesn't appear at all for most of the book, I can either cut it or include it more in the middle of the book.

I use Plottr for this, but I've known writers who use Excel or Google Sheets. J.K. Rowling used binder paper to make basic spreadsheets for all her plot points. Here's an example spreadsheet she made while writing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

A picture of J.K. Rowling's hand-written spreadsheet of part of her plot outline for Order of the PHoenix. The outline is written in ballpoint pen on notebook paper turned horizontally.

In Rowling's example, every chapter is a separate row, and the different subplots (Dumbledore's Army, Order of the Phoenix, etc.) are in separate columns. Plottr defaults to the opposite orientation, with each chapter as a column and the subplots as rows, but you can change that by pressing the “Flip” button in the upper left-hand corner.

Little inconsistencies always come up between the big picture plot outline, the scene list, and the subplot spreadsheet. I treat the scene list as my master outline, so I don't worry about these too much. If I have a sense that some subplot is being neglected, or there's something snarled in the story, I often return to this spreadsheet for ideas.

4. Create a “folder outline” in Scrivener.

Scrivener is an incredibly powerful piece of writing software, and some of its best features are its simplest ones. In Scrivener you can create chapters (folders) with multiple separate scenes (text files). This lets you group my scenes by chapter even before you've written them. It also gives you an at-a-glance view of how everything fits together in the book.

To do this, I open up my project in Scrivener and go to the Binder (on the left-hand side). The “add scene” and “add folder” buttons are on the bottom left-hand corner. I add folders for each chapter, and add the scenes to each chapter.

When I add the scenes, I just add the titles. I fill out the descriptions after I've finished my folder outline.

5. Fill out the scene descriptions in the “Synopsis” window in Scrivener.

I've learned that it's easier to create the folder outline and then add the scene and chapter descriptions. I don't know why. I suspect it's another ADHD symptom.

Some of the scene descriptions will be incredibly brief. Others will be a step-by-step walkthrough of the scene, from beginning to end. If I have a strong idea for a scene in my mind, I'll continue to Step 6…

6. Create “lecture notes” for some scenes

With some scenes, I can see them in my mind the way you might “see” a movie or a memory. I can see the characters' movements, facial expressions, and feel the emotions they feel as the scene progresses.

It can be hard to hold onto this while writing, especially when I get bogged down by word choice and grammar questions. Sometimes, it's much easier for me to write bullet points or a rough sketch of the scene before filling it in with sentences that actually make sense.

I got this idea from listening to old lectures by Aldous Huxley online. He was an incredibly bright and educated man, but you can tell, when listening to him, that he's not reading word-for-word from a page.

I don't know exactly, but I'm guessing that Huxley referred to lecture notes as he spoke, and these notes gave him the outline of the talk while allowing him to digress or return to different points. So I thought, why not do this for writing fiction as well?

Here's what these “lecture notes” might look like on the page:

-Emma stares at her phone screen

-Number unidentified

-Could feel Marco's eyes > her

-Had to play it cool (Em thot). No cause for alarm.

If I were to turn that into a story, it would look like this:

Emma stared at her phone screen as it vibrated. The number wasn't associated with any of her contacts. The area code was not one she recognized; her phone said it was from Springfield, Missouri. She could feel Marco's eyes on her as the seconds passed.

“You gonna get that, Em?” Marco said, laughing a little. She met his eyes and then wished she hadn't. He'd already seen how upset she was; now she had to play it off. Be cool, Margo told herself. Act like nothing's wrong. There's no cause for alarm.

“Hey, you okay?” Marco said, getting up out of his seat. “Seriously, who is it?”

“No one,” Emma said, tapping the red icon.

Notice that this adds a lot that wasn't in the lecture notes. None of this was prepared beforehand, and I'm sure if I wrote it a few hours or days later, the result would be a little different. It's not exactly Bill Shakespeare, but it's a serviceable first draft.

And best of all, I spent almost no time staring at the screen. Since I had a rough outline to work with, the rest came pretty easily.

What if the story changes so much that your outline(s) are useless? What do you do?

My novels usually change the most after the midpoint, especially in Part 4/Act III. When I start writing, I often have a very vague idea of how the story will end, and the climax will often not be very clear to me until mid-way through writing the first draft.

When it becomes clear that the outline and the story are consciously uncoupling, I follow a simple process to stay on track. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Here it is in full:

  • I start by changing the outlines, starting with the big picture outline and followed by the scene list and subplot spreadsheet.
  • If I'm still outlining, I go through each chapter and edit the scenes in each folder.
  • Then I edit the scene descriptions for any scenes that will have to change. I may add a note or two for a scene that's now a setup or a payoff for something different.
  • I keep writing as if these changes have already been made throughout the manuscript. I can go back and add or edit the necessary scenes later.

Conclusion

This is the novel outlining process that works for me. It comes from almost two decades of trial and error. In five or ten years, I may have a completely different process. Likewise, the process that works for you may be completely different from mine.

The important thing is to find a process that works and to stick with it. That way, you'll always be moving forward, even when the story changes or veers off in an unexpected direction.

How to Outline Your Novel in 15 Minutes or Less

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

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash.

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

A picture of a dog in midair, leaping above a field of grass. The dog's shadow is on the ground below him.
Photo by Ron Fung on Unsplash.

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

A man climbs a steep hill of barren rock. The background is a deep blue sky.
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash.

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

Two metal boards, with a grid of nodes on their surfaces, face each other. Electric sparks fly between the connected nodes, reflected by eerie blue light on the surface of the boards.
Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash.

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

A black-and-white image of a chessboard. A hand holds a white king piece, which is knocking over the black king piece. The black king is mid-fall.
Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash.

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:

PART I
Beginning/Hook:
Inc Inc:
2nd Thoughts:
Key Incident/Climax of Act I:

PART II
Obstacle 1:
Obstacle 2:
Obstacle 3:
MIDPOINT:

PART III
Obstacle 4:
It’s Bad:
Now It’s Worse:
Climax of Part III:

PART IV
Obstacle:
Climax of Part IV/the book:
Obstacle:
Denouement:
End:

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, probably 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

I've read that The Wizard of Oz is the most commonly-seen movie in North America. More people have seen that movie than any other, at least at some point.

I don't know where you are, but I'm going to assume you've seen this movie, 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.

PART I

Beginning/Hook: The first shot in the movie is Dorothy and Toto running away from the camera, with Dorothy looking back–at the viewer–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?

Inc Inc: 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. (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, but by the end, Dorothy is smiling as she follows the Yellow Brick Road. Oh, Dorothy…

PART II

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 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.

PART III

Obstacle 4: The witch sends a sleeping snow over them 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!

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!

PART IV

Obstacle: The witch kidnaps Dorothy and puts her in danger, but also puts her closer to her “ticket” home (her broomstick). The witch realizes the slippers will only come off if Dorothy is dead, so she puts her 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.

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

A picture of a contemplative woman looking out at the rain at night.
Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsev on Unsplash.

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 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.

PART I

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.

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.

PART II

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.

PART III

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. He doesn't believe Marco when he says that he was trying to save Emma's life.

Now It’s Worse: He pulls a gun on his son, right as the police come to arrest Marco for attempted murder. Huge scene, both men 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.

PART IV

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.