How To Outline A Novel And Build A Clear Story Structure

Once you have an idea for a story and have figured out the general direction you want to take, it is time to identify how to outline a novel to keep up with important plot points, character arcs, character development, and many other things. A novel outline is a challenge for almost every writer, but the success of your story structure largely depends upon your story outline.

Novel writing involves many steps. If it were as easy as sitting down and just writing or typing a good story and sending it untouched to a publisher, then there would be a lot more professional writers in the field. Instead, a story outline is needed so that the story’s plot, or at least its major plot point, remains clear throughout your story and keeps the readers engaged and curious.

This article will walk you through the steps on how to outline a novel and making it a part of your writing process. There will be many different types of outlines discussed, but what is important to remember is that you can make any sort of “map” of your book that you want.

What Does a Novel Outline Look Like?

Each novel or story outline may look different depending on the author’s writing style and process. You can have a general story outline that simply lists the main characters and plot points, or you may have an extensive and detailed novel outline that covers everyone, including minor characters, character development points, character arc notes, and more.

Think of a novel outline like a map for you to follow to reach your destination, and that destination is the finished novel. Before you start writing, you should decide what story outline is best for you and your book.

You can find online templates and examples to follow, and you can print out a book outline template that you like.

Because a novel outline can be as detailed as a writer wishes it to be, this article will focus on the parts you can include in a novel outline as part of the novel-writing process.

While you may personally choose not to include some of the elements, others, like the story premise, are important things you should have when you outline a novel to avoid losing sight of what you want to happen in your story.

What Do You Need to Outline a Novel?

A novel outline can be simple, or it can be very involved. It can include details about a character, setting, conflict, background, and many others. While most added things are at the author’s discretion, any outline should include key points, such as the novel’s plot and major turning points.

how to outline a novel

1. The Novel’s Plot

The plot or the main event and point of the novel needs to be included in an outline, whether you plan to have a detailed or high-level overview outline. This is done to avoid plot holes, keep your story arc clear, and help you develop plot ideas when you hit a wall or have issues with the plot.

It also helps you develop your characters, as each of the major characters will have to face, react, and adapt to the things in your story.

2. Major Turning Points

Your main character must constantly grow and react to the plot from the point of character introduction. Plotting the major turning points and how the character will deal with them before starting the outline process is essential to avoid a stagnant protagonist.

While you do not have to include all the scenes of your book, outline templates will enable you to be as detailed as possible to ensure character growth.

Templates like these can be found online, for purchase or free download, and in textbooks and how-to guides for writing. You can also look for template examples online or in books and use them as a base idea to develop a template.

How to Outline a Novel and Build Story Structure?

There are many steps involved in a novel outline, and it can get as detailed as you like—some genres may call for more detailed outlines. For example, a fantasy novel will require inventing a futuristic setting. To keep the scene straight and make sure that it stays the same for the sake of continuity, a more detailed outline is needed.

Once you have decided how detailed your outline is, it is time to plot the story in outline form.

1. The Story’s Beginning

For some authors, the beginning of a story is the most challenging part of writing. When writers get new ideas for a story, they think of the plot and new characters they have come up with, not necessarily how the story begins.

Most stories start with a “what if” question, such as, what if a girl who was bullied everywhere she went discovered that she had telekinetic powers that she could learn to control? (Carrie). The story was probably based on a “what if” question, and the story’s starting scene was not yet defined.

Writing out your beginning scene or introduction is a great way to start an outline. You can add key points that you want to be mentioned right off the bat in your novel, and you can begin to shape the flow and direction you want your story to take by outlining the beginning of your story.

2. A Beat Sheet

A beat sheet is an outline that creates a map of sorts. The story has “beats” events or turning points that the main character has to deal with and grow from along the way. Some writers find that creating a beat sheet is all the outline required.

Giving themselves points on a map helps guide them and gives them plenty of creative space. It can help the writer see the big picture and decide if parts of the story need to be changed, switched around, more dramatic, or less intense.

3. A Mind Map

A mind map is a visual outline that writers use to outline a story loosely.

There are a few ways to do this, but for the most part, it consists of writing down the main point and then drawing lines from that to another point, which connects the two events. This creates ideas for key scenes that someone in the literary world can connect to form one central idea.

You can also start with a central idea and build scenes to get you to that main point. You can have a short opening paragraph and a one-paragraph summary to help you tie it all together neatly if you would like.

The Central Theme and Final Climax

You must keep your story’s central theme or main message accurate to what you set out to write. Having an outline is beneficial in this situation.

A theme is one of the essential elements of any novel or story, and if you change gears halfway through or seem like you do not know what you are trying to say with your writing, you will either confuse, lose, or disappoint your audience.

The climax of your story is the big action that occurs right before the end of the story. Think of it as the final test of your characters, and in published novels, it is vital that the climax refers to or relates to the theme of the writing. You can write an entire book that is very entertaining, but if the climax has nothing to do with the theme, you are dead in the water.

How to Outline Your Novel with Characters

The readers only care about the characters. Sure, the setting and plot are important; conflict, themes, and resolution are also important, but none of it matters nearly as much as good characters. Everything that happens in a novel only matters because it relates to the characters. Having a way to organize and build your characters and character arcs can tremendously help you.

Character Profiles

Character profiles are notes that you take for each character in your writing. The main protagonist, especially, needs to be well defined, described, and grown so that the audience can relate and care. Most novels are character-led, and having characters that are well thought out is important.

Profiles on characters are a great way to keep notes on each character. You can keep index cards, pages in a notebook, sticky notes, or any method you want. Record things like:

  • Who is the character closest to?
  • What does the character look like?
  • What does the character do for a living?
  • What is the character’s background?
  • What are the character’s likes and dislikes?
  • What motivates the character?
  • What is the character afraid of?
  • What is the character passionate about?
  • How does the character dress?

These are only a few of the questions you can ask of each character in your book. Keeping profiles on each will make it easier for you to adjust and make changes after writing your first draft. You will have those notes to look back on, update, and change if necessary.

The Snowflake Method

Most writers know that the point of a story is to make it lead up to a climax that the protagonist must deal with. What happens when all you have to go off is the one great central idea for a story?

That is where the snowflake method can help you. This method starts with just one central idea—a one-sentence summary of what you want to make your book about. Once that is finished, expand that one sentence into one paragraph.

how to outline a novel

Next, move on to the characters. Write a one-page summary that gives you a road map for each of the characters in your story—the good guys, the bad guys, the guys who play small parts. Think of it as having beat sheets for characters.

From there, you keep expanding. Turn single sentences into paragraphs. Keep growing the story outwards until you have an entire novel.

How to Outline a Chapter

Below are the steps involved in outlining the chapter of a novel:

  1. List down all the characters that will appear in the chapter you are about to write – Since your novel has different chapters, each chapter is more likely to have a set of new characters. Completing this step will help you avoid confusion and guide you in sticking with the types of characters you have, which will also aid in the plot development.
  2. Decide on the chapter’s point of view – Your novel may have different points of view across chapters. Planning for a point of view for each chapter helps you weave the plot points in a precise and realistic manner. For instance, a specific chapter may need a first-person point of view of a character who witnessed a crime. However, if you chose a third-person point of view, there would be a slight difference in reliability or emotional response. In this case, the point of view would come from a character who is a friend of the victim or the witness. Assigning a point of view makes it easier for the reader to determine how deep or credible the perspective is. 
  3. Describe the setting of the chapter – As parts of your novel may occur in different places and times, the scenes become more vivid if each chapter has a unique description of the setting. The setting affects the chapter’s mood, so it is easier to visualize what the place and time feel like when your reader is situated there.
  4. Identify the objectives of the chapter – What does this chapter have to do with the narrative and character arcs? If you have concrete goals and objectives for each chapter, it allows the chapter to stay on point and flow well. For instance, the first chapter needs to introduce the villain’s backstory. So, the reader at the end of the chapter should understand what has happened to the villain to enable them to become who they are now.

Practice with Books You Have Read

If you are having trouble grasping the outline process, try to outline a book that you have already read, written by another author. It could be Gone with the Wind, The Hunger Games, or Harry Potter. It does not matter what the book is—just try to write an outline for it.

Practicing like this can help you become comfortable with the idea and process of outlining. Once you can outline books you have read, do the same thing with your story ideas. Start with a plot or a theme, and outline from there.

Stephen King: The Best Selling Author Who Does Not Outline

With a career in writing that spans decades and over fifty bestselling novels under his belt, you would think that the writer who has been dubbed the “Master of Horror” would also be a master of the outline. However, he has never outlined a novel—he refuses to do so, and while he does not put down authors who choose to outline, he has spoken out against the practice on several occasions.

King asserts that he creates the “what if” and he comes up with characters, but he does not plan anything further than that. He lets the characters tell him where the story is going, and he often does not know how a story ends until it is over. Somehow, each novel he writes still has all the main elements necessary in a work of fiction, with fluid scenes, grown characters with arcs, memorable conflicts, and references back to the theme.

Stephen King is an example that not all writers need an outline, but he is an exception. While you can certainly attempt to write a novel without an outline, you may find, especially if you are a new writer, that it only makes the task of writing scenes, conflict, plot, and characters much harder.

Do I Really Need to Learn How to Outline a Novel?

Maybe you think that you can follow in Stephen King’s footsteps and avoid the process of outlining. You might figure that you can do the same thing and just sit down and write the story you have in your head. Margaret Atwood is another successful author who is a “pantser”, the term used to describe an author who does not outline.

While it works for these two writers and several others, there is nothing wrong, especially when you are a newer writer, with having the security of an outline at your disposal.

Think of it this way. If you were an experienced architect or carpenter, you might not need a blueprint to build your son a treehouse. However, if you have minimal experience in woodwork and building, having plans and blueprints are the smarter way to go.

Recipes give you step-by-step directions on how to prepare a dish. If you have never made lasagna, you will likely need a recipe. If you have made lasagna but still like to have the comfort and security of the recipe at your disposal, that is fine, too.

Do Not Let Your Pride Stand in Your Way

Not using an outline does not make you a stronger or superior writer. Telling yourself that you do not need a tool that helps bestselling authors write their books because you are better than that is a fool’s idea. Do not let pride or overconfidence get in the way of your chances of writing a truly great novel.

Make The Outline Your Own

Many methods have been discussed at length in this article. Many, if not all of them, are worth a try if you are new to the process and want to write a book.

However, keep in mind that you do not have to have a fancy template that you have pointed out. There does not need to be a specific format or a set of concrete rules.

You are creating a map for your story, and much like geographical maps, there are many ways to draw them.

You can focus on character development. You can immerse in your plot points and conflict. You can document your research for a story and include that in an outline.

A Place to Keep Your Research

For example, suppose you wanted to write a murder mystery in a boarding school. In that case, you could look into boarding schools’ common practices and policies, what sort of child usually attends such a school and the socio-economic situation for the students and their families.

Keeping this research close at hand in a novel outline will save you from looking at the same things numerous times.

It does not matter what your novel outline looks like. You can write it on a ten-foot length of butcher’s paper, a cocktail napkin, a notebook, or scraps of paper. As long as you have a way to map out your idea, thoughts, and characters, that is all that matters in your writing journey.

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