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A Beginner’s Guide to the Novel Outline

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Riding off the coattails of my last blog post, Why You Should Outline Your Novel, I'm going to show you how you can get started on creating your own outline.

Outlines, in my opinion, are the secret ingredient to novel completion. If you’re interested in learning more in depth about the various methods of outlining, join me in my novel-outlining workshop!

Before I begin, I want to start by saying that there’s no “correct” way to outline your novel. I can’t presume what will work best for your creative process. I want to show you what has worked best for other writers (including me) to give you a good starting point.

The Visual Outline

Outlines are visual. Some writers scratch scenes on cue cards and tape them to their walls. Others use whiteboards or fax paper (yes, they still exist) to stretch out their outline on one continuous page. Most writers, however, find that a simple Word document will suffice. However you decide to outline, remember one thing: You have to be able to move your plot around.

One thing you will soon notice while outlining your novel is that you’ll want to start rearranging scenes or removing them altogether. Once you start to physically see the story laid out in front of you, you won’t be able to stop yourself from rearranging.

Rule #1: You have to be able to rearrange your outline

Throw It All on the Wall and See What Sticks

Now is your chance to get everything out of your system to find out what really works. Write out everything you want in your story. Don’t put too much thought into it—purge your mind of everything until you feel thoroughly exhausted. Let your creative muse wring you out like a sponge.

Then, give yourself a break so you can come back to your outline with a fresh pair of eyes. I bet you’ll immediately start to notice things that weren’t so obvious before. You might recognize a character doesn’t belong in your story or your world-building needs serious work. You might even realize that the secondary character was the hero of the story all along.

Now, you can go into your outline and remove the parts that don’t work. If you have cue cards, unstick them from the wall. If you’ve been using a pencil, erase them. If you’re outlining in a Word doc, delete them (or cut and paste them onto a new file). Whatever you’re left with is the bare bones of your novel. It might be bare, but at least what you’re left with is solid gold.

Rule #2: If it doesn’t work, kill it.

Build Your Structure

If your plot is now reduced to just a few key points, it’s now a great time to decide your story’s structure. Remember, nothing is set in stone. You don’t have to stick with the original plot structure you chose if another one is working out for you. Some types of stories pair better with specific structures; for instance, the traditional epic journey of an unlikely hero is the Quest or Hero’s Journey plot, which typically features a call to arms, the hero’s adventure, rising action, an epic, drawn-out battle, and finally, victory and rebirth.

All stories ever told are thought to fall into just seven categories.

If you’re interested in finding out which one suits your story, take a look at The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. In case you’re wondering, the seven basic plots are Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

But you don’t need to worry about that now. As a beginner, I recommend starting with the three-act plot structure.

Rule #3: All stories need structure. Not all stories need the same structure.

The Three-Point Plot Structure

It’s just like it sounds—it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And if you keep your plot elements in their designated acts, it’ll be (relatively) easy to fill in the rest. There are, of course, some basic rules about story-writing that I presume you already know, such as using act one for exposition and act two for character development. If you have a passion for storytelling but aren’t sure about the basics, give me a shout!

The more you fill in your outline, the more your three-point structure might begin to look like a 7 or 10 or 12-point plot structure. The more complex your story is, the more difficult it will be to keep within this very basic arrangement. And, hey, that’s okay! As I said, the three points are your starting point, meaning that you could end up somewhere else entirely.

On the other hand, this simple structure can simplify what could have been an unnavigable spider’s web. Because this plot structure is broken down into just three plot points, it forces you to do a little spring cleaning of unnecessary clutter.

Rule #4: Start with a basic sauce. Then add the spice.

Novel outlining isn’t an exact science, but it does require some organization, dedication, and time commitment. But trust me, I know for a fact that outlining is well worth it. If you’re interested in taking your outline to the next level, be sure to sign up for my spring 2019 workshop, “Outline Your Novel.” To learn more about my upcoming workshops, contact me for more details.