Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • What is a novel outline?
  • Merits and demerits of an outline
  • Classic methods to write a good outline
  • Novel Outline: A Step-by-step Guide
  • Popular novel outline methods
  • Conclusion

Introduction

Do you usually fly by the seat of your pants when you begin a novel, or are you more of the meticulous type? Find out if you’re the ‘pantser’ or the ‘plotter’ and maybe no more of those crumpled-up bits of paper will end up in your trash can.

Plotting an entire novel can be a daunting task. You have had time to think about your characters, their moral grey area, their mindsets, their challenges, their journey and other little things. Now, it’s time to put together everything and turn that into a coherent story which keeps the readers hooked till the end.

An outline should navigate the writer from start to end. It is just an approach through which we can build a foundation for our book. When you hit the wall halfway, an outline will help you sail through. It acts as a security blanket when one reaches a point of apparent hopelessness.

This article will serve as a know-it-all when it comes to learning how to outline a novel.

What is a Novel Outline?

A novel outline is a document that consists of essential information about a novel’s structure, plot, characters, acts, and more. It is the skeleton of your book. An outline can range from a one-page written document to a panoramic visual mind map that requires diagrams to serve as the link between information and ideas.

The purpose behind how to outline a novel should be clear. We are not trying to tell a story, we are just summarizing. One’s outline should be clear, functional and brief. The outline is solely for the writer and not for the readers. Some writers prefer writing a detailed outline for a novel, and some opt for a crisp one-page note. It can also be seen as a roadmap which helps the writers to brainstorm.

Merits and Demerits of a Novel Outline

Some writers believe that how to outline a novel degrades the pleasure of discovering the story along the way. They argue that working from an outline would indicate one is not creating anymore, one is just translating their ideas. The other group of writers think that keeping an outline comes in handy while writing any narrative. Yes, we are referring to ‘pantsers’ vs ‘plotters’.

The merits and demerits of creating an outline for a novel are as follows:

Merits

  1. The outline keeps the story on track
  2. Helps the writers to visualize the big picture
  3. Distinctly brings out different character arcs
  4. Acts as a mentor to ease the infamous ‘writer’s block’
  5. Fleshing out your novel’s plot

Demerits

  1. Can create an artificial narrative
  2. If an outline is followed too closely, it might become very formulaic for the writer
  3. It might lead to an unauthentic choice because one is simply following the plot points. An outline does not produce natural results from narrative action.

Stephen King, being a ‘pantser’ put forward his views regarding an outline. He said that he loves putting interesting characters in difficult situations and leaving it to the narrative action. Keeping that aside, the bottom line is that there is no correct way how to write a book outline. It depends on what kind of writer you are and what works for you.

Classic Methods for Creating a Novel Outline

Indeed, no two outlines can ever be the same. However, there are a few methods to approach an outline. Find the four most classic methods for outlining novels, below:

  1. Synopsis outline: Think of this as any synopsis of a book. It should hit all the major beats: the plot in the beginning, middle and end, major plot points and twists, the climax and the resolution. It is generally a two-page-long document which gives a rough idea of the novel
  2. In-depth outline: This is a more elongated form of an outline. It includes writing chapter summaries and giving major descriptions of different scenes within those chapters. It is more comprehensive and consumes more time. J.K Rowling comes under this type of outline.
  3. Snowflake method: This method was created by Randy Ingermanson, who is an author and a writing instructor. It usually starts with a one-sentence summary of the story one is trying to narrate. The sentence could be like this: “George and Stephen discover a secret cave that contains treasures that few criminals have been searching for”. The method requires one to build that sentence into different paragraphs, which would eventually create a series of storylines.
  4. Bookend method: This method of writing a novel outline involves plotting the start and the end of the story. It might also consist of main characters and their buildup but apart from that nothing much. It is for the writers who have a strong grasp of the characters and the story they want to tell.

Novel Outline: A Step-by-Step Process

The following steps will help you to understand how to outline a novel:

  1. Break down your story outline into one sentence: Consider this as an elevator pitch- what you would share with a publishing professional between the time you meet them and the time they get off the elevator. Yes, it should be short, concise and simple.
  2. Choose a story for your novel: Every effective tale should include – an opener, an exciting and thrilling incident that changes everything, a saga of crises that builds the much-needed tension, a good climax, and an inciting end. There are a few suggested story structures which can give you a rough idea of how to go about it. They are ‘In Medias Res’, ‘The Three-Act Structure’, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ etc.
  3. Getting to know the characters: Character development is very much a necessity. Outliners are well-versed with their characters and map out their characters. They chalk out imaginary conversations with their characters and ask different questions.
  4. Keeping the novel’s plot in mind: The plot is the course of events that makes up the novel- the beginning, middle and the end. Using one of these plot types would enhance your outline:
    1. Adventure: A person hops from one place to another and faces myriad obstacles along the way.
    2. Change: It is a part of a dramatic transformation, maybe a retribution arc.
    3. Romance: Interference, jealousy and misunderstanding serve as threats to the happiness of lovers. What’s a famous example? Romeo and Juliet!
    4. Mistake: An innocent person who is caught in a tough situation.
    5. Lure: One must choose whether to give in to temptation, rage, revenge or some other passion.
    6. Race: Characters go after wealth or fame but must overcome social discrimination and other obstacles to succeed.
    7. Gift: An ordinary person compromises themselves in the plot for others. This is the act of heroism in the novel.
  5. Figure out the setting for your novel: A setting may include location and time and it should also explore how something looks, smells and sounds. One should avoid simply giving a description. The layers must be such that the setting becomes a part of the plot and enhances the narrative.

Popular Novel Outline Methods

An example from JRR Tolkien would serve well to elucidate how to outline a novel. He has used the ‘The Hero’s Journey’ structure for The Hobbit.

Step 1: Bilbo is put to bargain and leaves his ordinary world: The wizard Gandalf pushes Bilbo to accept the call which can also be seen as the ‘call to adventure’ in the story structure. Initially, he refuses, but eventually he agrees. He leaves behind the comfort of his Hobbit life and embarks on an adventurous quest.

Step 2: Bilbo undergoes various trials and challenges: Biblo faces various challenges in the journey, and he is put to the test every day. He builds a team of dwarves and elves to defeat enemies, dragons and orcs. He is under a transformation which forms the most important part of the story structure.

Step 3: Bilbo makes an effort to return to his life in the Shire: The hobbit returns to his own life after defeating his enemies. Towards the end, we witness how Bilbo is presumed to be dead but he lives and gets to return to his abode. He has changed magnificently and he no longer hates adventures.

Conclusion

As discussed before, writing your scenes beforehand always helps. Once your outline is ready, you will have a better idea of the sequence. Adding to the outline is the next step. It includes everything from where the action takes place to which character does what, even the dialogue should be involved here. All in all, compiling everything that comes to your mind produces a good outline for your novel. Good luck!