How to outline a novel

How to Outline a Novel in 6 Steps: Your Complete Guide

3 Jun 2020 Fiction

If you’re a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of your pants), you’re not interested in outlining a novel. Trust me, I’m a Pantser myself.

I’ve written nearly 200 books, two-thirds of those novels — and guess what?

I don’t outline.

Oh, I’m not saying I don’t have an idea where I’m going. I don’t just sit in front of a blank screen and hope a plot magically appears.

I have a main character in mind, as well as his or her challenge, problem, quest, or journey, and how I think things will play out.

But I write as a process of discovery, so I just want to get at it. The serendipity that results motivates me, enthuses me, sometimes thrills me.

The truth is, about half of all novelists — including a few you’ve heard of — are Pantsers. (Does the name Stephen King ring a bell?)

So, why a blog about outlining a novel?

Because if you’re an Outliner, there are things you need to know.

Whether you tend to determine everything in advance — each detail researched and the story plotted with precision — or you simply want a rough synopsized roadmap, you might enjoy knowing you have lots of options.

We Pantsers begin with the germ of a premise, a strong lead character, and an idea where we think things will end.

Then we, as King puts it, “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”

So, regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser, you need an idea where you’re headed before you begin. And even if you can’t imagine ever outlining, don’t assume there’s nothing in this post for you.

How to outline a novel

Pantsing or Outlining, neither is better or worse. One will simply feel most natural to you — and once you determine which you are, you’ll likely write better with that approach.

You may even be a hybrid — one who needs the security of an outline and the freedom to let the story take you where it will. (In truth, most of us are hybrids to a point.)

Whichever you are, at some point during the writing you’ll likely wish you were the other.

When I hit the wall at the halfway to three-quarter mark of just about every novel, a story outline sounds like a great security blanket.

Deep down, I know better. Outlines just don’t work for me. Somehow, when I try to plot a story in advance — telling myself I’ll write more confidently, things get predictable.

No idea whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser? Try outlining your novel. If you’re overcome with an urge to just start writing, you’re probably a Pantser.

Try just diving in, and if you’re soon lost and feel you don’t even know your characters, you may be an Outliner who needs to back up and think things through before you start.

A Winning Strategy For Your Novel Outline

Don’t mistake a story structure for an outline, because regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser, you need a structure.

The Classic Story Structure, created by bestselling author Dean Koontz, changed my career and catapulted me from a mid-list genre novelist to a bestselling author.

It’s simple. He advises you:

  1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. (That trouble will look different depending on your genre. For a thriller it might be life-or-death. For a romance it might mean a heroine choosing between two suitors.) It must be the worst trouble you can imagine for your lead character and carry stakes dire enough to justify a book-length story.
  2. Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only worse. Avoid the temptation to make life easy for your protagonist. Every complication must be logical (not the result of coincidence), and things must grow progressively worse.
  3. Eventually things reach a point of apparent hopelessness. Even you should wonder how you’re ever going to write your character out of this. Make the predicament so hopeless it forces your lead to take action, to use every new muscle and technique gained from facing all that trouble to become heroic and prove that things only appeared beyond repair.
  4. Finally, everything your character has learned through all that struggle and failure gives him what he needs to win the day — or fail (occasionally, not often, a sad ending resonates with readers). Reward readers with the payoff they expected by keeping your hero on stage, taking action. Give them a finish worthy of their investment of time and money in your novel.

Whether you use this, or one of the other six story structures I explain in novel outline step #2 below, find a strategy that helps keep you — and your readers — engaged to the end.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.

How to Outline a Novel in 6 Steps

How to Outline a Novel Even If You Aren't an Outliner

Even though I’m not an Outliner, I never write a novel without a structure in mind.

The story outline (whatever that looks like for you — even if you’re a Pantser and it’s simply the basic structure) should be fluid — able to be changed as you write and your plot develops.

It’s purpose is to keep you on track, keep you from stalling, and to give you a safety net.

For the Pantser, your structure may be as simple as a list of anticipated plot points — more of a roadmap.

For the Outliner, it may be an ambitious 20+ page detailed list in classic outline format — filled with Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters followed by Arabic numerals.

Whatever form it takes, it should help narrow your focus so you can get on with writing your novel.

So, my suggested steps:

1. Distill your novel idea into one sentence.

This might also serve as your Elevator Pitch — what you’d share with a publishing professional between the time you meet him on the elevator and the time he gets off.

I once wrote a novel about a judge who tries a man for a murder that the judge committed.

That was the extent of my Elevator Pitch.

Simple, short, and concise — it was that germ of an idea that became Margo, my very first novel.

2. Decide on a story structure for your novel.

Various writing coaches use varying terms for common fiction elements, but they’re largely similar. Every effective story will include some version of:

  • An opener
  • An inciting incident that changes everything
  • A series of crises that build tension
  • A climax
  • An end

There’s no end to suggested story structures, but here are seven popular ones:

  1. Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
  2. In Medias Res
  3. The Hero’s Journey
  4. The 7-Point Story Structure
  5. Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method
  6. The Three-Act Structure
  7. James Scott Bell’s “Disturbance and Two Doorways”

For a more in-depth explanation of each, follow the links above or visit my post on story structure here.

Keep in mind, what works for me may not work for you. Peruse these and try a few on for size. Something is bound to make sense and give you a leg up on crafting your novel.

3. Get to know the characters in your novel.

Character development will make or break your story. Outliners have an advantage here, and Pantsers would do well to learn from this.

Outliners tend to get to know each character by mapping out the backstories of each. They conduct imaginary interviews and simply ask the characters about themselves.

Readers won’t likely see most of this information, but it will inform your writing.

Whether you get to know your characters in advance or allow them to reveal themselves to you as you write, make them human, vulnerable, and flawed — eventually heroic and inspiring, but not perfect. Nobody identifies with perfection.

In the end your hero should rise to the occasion and win against all odds. But he must grow into that from a stance of reality, humanity.

Read Your Ultimate Guide to Character Development: 9 Steps to Creating Memorable Heroes and How to Create a Powerful Character Arc for more on the subject.

And if you’re an Outliner, download my Character Development Worksheet. (There might be value there for you too if you’re a Pantser.)

4. Flesh out your novel’s plot.

The plot of a story is the sequence of events that makes up your novel — the beginning, middle, and end — the what of the story. Plot compels your reader to either keep turning the pages or set your book aside.

Using a story structure like one of the above, map out your story using one of these plot types:

  1. Adventure: a person goes to new places, experiences new things, and faces myriad obstacles.
  2. Change: a person undergoes a dramatic transformation.
  3. Romance: jealousy and misunderstandings threaten lovers’ happiness.
  4. Mistake: an innocent person caught in a situation he doesn’t understand must overcome foes and dodge danger.
  5. Lure: a person must decide whether to give in to temptation, revenge, rage, or some other passion. He grows from discovering things about himself.
  6. Race: characters chase wealth or fame but must overcome others to succeed.
  7. Gift: an ordinary person sacrifices to aid someone else. The lead may not be aware of his own heroism until he rises to the occasion.

Regardless which you choose, make every word count. Your primary goal should be to grab your reader by the throat from the get-go and never let go.

5. Decide on the setting for your novel.

The setting of a story is one of the most important elements of writing a novel — an excellent place to practice the ubiquitous adage Show, don’t tell.

Setting may include location, time, or era, but it should also include how something looks, smells, feels, and sounds.

Avoid simply describing the setting — especially as a separate element. Layer it in as part of the narrative, part of the story.

That way it becomes almost invisible, but suggestions of what things look and feel and sound like register in the theater of the readers’ minds while they’re concentrating on the action, the dialogue, the tension and drama and conflict that keep them turning the pages.

Thoroughly research details, but remember, this provides simply the seasoning and should not become the main course, which is the story itself.

6. Synopsize the chapters of your novel.

Write briefly in third person, present tense about what happens in each chapter. Leave no mysteries, teasers, or questions.


Jason learns his daughter has been kidnapped.

At the grocery store, Sally is riveted by the best-looking man she’s ever seen.

Jack discovers his fiancee is cheating on him and confronts her.

Also helpful: Include a brief character sketch: “JON NELSON (38 — a retired mercenary and now a bodyguard) takes a call…”

Synopses can reveal fatal flaws in your story, allowing you to make the fix before you invest months in the writing.

The Complicated Novel Outline Method

If you’re an Outliner and want to jump in with both feet, tap into the mind of Dr. Randy Ingermanson — the Sheldon Cooper of novelists.

On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon has a Master’s Degree and two doctoral degrees.

Randy got his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics, specializing in elementary particle theory. He also did two years of post-graduate work on superstring theory.

He now applies that intellect to novel writing and teaching writing and has become a story outliner extraordinaire.

Visit his site and check out his Snowflake Method for outlining your novel. Fair warning: some find this way too complex to consider. Others are drawn to it like moths to flame.

You may want to invest in his Writing Fiction for Dummies, as well.

If you’re a Pantser, Randy would tell you to stay far from his method — he says Outliners are Outliners and Pantsers are Pantsers, and never the twain shall meet.

Additional Story Outline Methods

If all that detail isn’t your cup of tea, here are alternatives to consider:

  • Reverse Outline: In Outlining Your Novel, writing coach K.M. Weiland recommends this, especially for Pantsers experimenting with outlining. She advises starting at the end of the story. Ask questions to help you discover events that immediately precede each scene as you work backwards. (How was the character injured? Where? Why did the bad guys choose him over another character? Why didn’t they kill him? Will he escape? If so, how?…) Answering such questions will help set up your scenes with necessary plot points.
  • Mind Map: a hierarchical diagram that visually represents the plot points, characters, themes, conflicts, and chapters in your book.

Below is a mind map example shared by Nina Amir from How to Blog a Book. She recommends using a separate mind map for each chapter, each character, each major event, etc.

How to Outline Your Novel

  • Zettelkasten: an index card story outline method many novelists use to write brief descriptions of characters, plot points, scenes, etc., and drag and drop them as they organize their plots and story arcs.
  • Synopsis: an informal approach to outlining that condenses the plot, characters, conflicts, and themes into a brief summary. (For more on this, visit my blog post How to Write a Compelling Synopsis)
  • Beat Sheet: a bullet pointed or numbered list that outlines the main elements of your story.

Choose approaches that help narrow your focus so you can get on with writing your novel.

Outliners and Pansters have much to learn from each other’s methods. Determine which works best for you, and have fun with it.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.