Having an idea for a story is just step one. When you have a great idea that you’d like to develop into a full story, the best thing to do is to write a story or novel outline. This will enable you to organize plot points, work out story structure, and start writing a short story or novel that hits all of the key elements of a story, including character development and character arcs.
Why Create an Outline?
Some writers are apprehensive about or completely against learning how to write a story outline because they think having a story outline will hamper their creativity and limit where they can go as far as plot points. They think that having a story idea is the only important thing, and they don’t want to feel “restricted” by the outlining process.
The opposite is actually true of a story outline. Novel writing without a plot outline only lets you see the big picture, while having a novel outline will allow you to think of anything and everything you may want to include. You can get very creative and even change things as you go along.
Outlines are developed to make sure that you hit every key element needed in your short story or novel. It ensures that you have conflict, a climax, and complex characters, or at the very least, not one-dimensional. It’s a way to organize your story and organize your mind to create a story that others will want to read, and you can be proud of.
Plotters and Pantsers
There are two generally known groups of writers when it comes to outlines. Nicknamed plotters and pantsers, these are two very different ends of the spectrum.
If you haven’t guessed, Plotters use a novel outline of some sort before they start writing to organize their stories and help spark their creative writing process. Ernest Hemingway, author of The Old Man and the Sea, and J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, are two such writers who are pro-outline.
Pantsers, on the other hand, like to fly by the seat of their pants, as the nickname suggests. They feel restricted by an outline and claim not to use one. They develop a big picture idea and let the main character and general plot idea lead the way.
Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Stephen King, author of The Stand, are famously against using an outline. Bestselling author Stephen King says that he simply creates a character, throws him or her into a difficult situation, and then writes down whatever happens organically.
Everyone Creates an Outline at Some Point
Here’s the thing: regardless of whether King or Atwood use a story outline before they start writing, they most certainly are at the mercy of the novel outline before publication at some point.
Even writers who don’t write outlines before they write novels still go back and read their work during the revision stage. When they do this, they take notes. Those notes always seem to look a whole lot like (you guessed it) an outline. Every single writer of every single story has to go back and make sure that there aren’t plot holes, that character development took place as it should, and that the critical elements of the story are present and accounted for. If they don’t, their editors certainly do, and then send the work, along with the notes, back to the author for the author to fix (aka to follow the outline).
Story Outlines for Fiction Writing
There are many ways that you can create a story outline and develop plot points. Which type of outline you use depends on preference, what type of writing you’re doing, and your writing style. You can create your own story outline or even download a book outline template to act as your guide in this endeavor.
When teaching writing, it’s imperative to teach many different methods of the outlining process, from simple book outline templates to a detailed outline process that includes all the scenes in as much detail as you can.
However, the essential thing, and the main point of an outline, is to make sure you have all of the right parts in all of the right places. This means having an introduction, conflict, well-developed main characters, a climax, and a resolution. Plotting each of these points before you begin writing your first draft will help you to ensure a complete and understandable story. This is the basic premise of outline writing.
Basic Structure of a Novel or Story
Different writing coaches call the parts of a story by different names. Still, regardless of terminology, the basic elements are identifiable parts that need to be in every piece of fiction writing. If you want to write something that anyone will want to read, you need to have these elements arranged in a meaningful way that makes sense and goes in-depth enough to make the reader care about the plot.
1. Story Goal
Story goal refers to what you want to happen overall in your writing. For example, you can develop a plot that has a goal where a lost child finds his way home when his family accidentally abandons him. You can put that child through all sorts of turmoil and throw conflict after conflict at him, but if, in the end, he makes his way home, then that’s your goal.
2. Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the first thing that happens in a book that throws the characters into action. For example, using the lost child idea from the previous paragraph, let’s say that a wealthy family goes on a vacation, and because they’re so wealthy, they assume that their child, who they rarely have any interaction, is in the care of the nanny. The nanny thinks that the child is enjoying the trip with his parents since it is a family vacation. So the nanny doesn’t have the child. Instead, the child gets left behind.
In this particular setup, the incident that set everything off is simple. The adult characters assume that the child is with other adult characters, and there isn’t proper communication. Therefore, the child ends up abandoned.
Many writers think that this needs to be a huge event, but it really doesn’t. It just has to be the one thing that happens that sets the story in motion. Without it, we end up writing or reading a book about a person who goes through their normal routine of the day, the same as always.
3. Central Conflict
The central conflict is the main conflict in your fiction piece. It occurs when the protagonist finally faces the antagonist. It’s also when things eventually come to a head. Everything you’ve written in your outline has built up to this moment, and everything you write after this moment in your outline will come down from this moment.
This is usually included in the elevator pitch of your novel. The central conflict is also one of the critical questions anyone will ask you. “What is your book about?” What they are really asking you to explain is the precise conflict.
4. Falling Action
Falling action scenes (usually no more than two scenes or so) start to tie up loose ends that occur due to the main conflict. For example, if there’s a fight to the death, what happens to the loser’s body or for the loser’s family? Does the winner get anything? Is the winner arrested? What are the consequences of the main conflict, and how does it affect any remaining characters? These are the key questions you should ask yourself when you write the falling action in your novel.
Tips for Writing a Novel Outline
Your outline may look different depending on the type of outline you want to use, but the story structure will stay the same as it does with all outlines. The following are some tips that fiction writers often swear by when writing a story outline.
One Paragraph Summary
When learning how to write a story outline, start small. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed with the idea of having to come up with every detail of the novel. In fact, writing a one-paragraph summary of the basic plot of your story is a great way to start.
From there, expand each sentence in your paragraph to its own paragraph. Keep doing this, and you’ll end up with not only new ideas along the way but a mostly written story.
Develop Characters Using a Character Interview
A character interview involves deciding on your main characters and then writing a page for each of them, detailing everything you can think of about them. There are templates that you can use online, but you can also just come up with things to use to describe them. We have an article that assists with developing characters here.
Make sure that you include what each character looks like, their personality traits, how the central conflict will affect them, their habits, etc. Also, make sure to add any traits or characteristics that you want to use to catch the reader’s attention.
How to Outline a Chapter
Part of learning how to write a story outline is learning how to outline a chapter. It is done in much the same way, with small differences.
Write a One-Sentence Summary of Each Chapter
Once you have your novel’s plot figured out, you can start to plan out your chapters. Chapter by chapter, write a one-sentence summary of each chapter in chronological order, in third person present tense, regardless of what tense or point of view your novel will be.
If the word “chapters” gives you too much pause, think of it as scenes instead. Each chapter should include a step that gets the reader closer to the story’s conclusion. This follows a practice commonly referred to as a beat sheet, where the critical parts of a book are written step by step in a list.
Create a Chapter Mind Map
Now that you have gone step by step and summarized each chapter with one sentence, it’s time to break the chapters down further. You can do this through a mind map. This is a visual organizer that breaks down each part of a novel and, much like a road map, steers you towards the story’s conclusion.
Ask yourself what happens in each chapter, and write a few single-sentence summaries for each small but important plot advancement that occurs in each.
Types of Outlines
Before you start outlining your novel, you need to decide what type of outline will work best for you. There are several different types, and this article will give a short description of a few below.
The snowflake method is very involved and time-consuming, but what results is basically a written novel. You start by writing one sentence and then expanding it to a paragraph, then further expanding that. And so on until you have all of the critical points outlined, along with some details, such as where you want your story set, how you want to introduce characters, and what order you want the scenes in.
Freytag’s pyramid is one of the simplest methods of writing an outline. This is a basic summary that still frees a writer up to change things easily if they come up with a better idea for a scene, character, etc.
The five parts of a novel are simply summarized in just a few sentences. That’s really all there is to it. You can expand upon it if you want, but it’s not necessary.
Another simple way to outline, you simply start at the beginning and outline according to what happens in the linear order of the story. Make sure to write down or document each key part because leaving characters, events, or scenes out can result in plot holes and a story that doesn’t make sense.
Know What Kind of Writer You Are
The type of outline you write will primarily have to do with what sort of writer you are. This has nothing to do with whether you write fiction or nonfiction or what genre you write. In this context, it refers to your style of writing, as well as how you think up your novel ideas. The following are a few different types of writers. See if you identify with or relate to any of these.
This writer is a planner and will probably need a very detailed outline. The Architect is the sort of author who needs to know what happens, who it happens to, where it happens, and exactly what the results were, down to the finest detail. Like the actual profession, an architect is someone who has plans and does not deviate from them.
These writers typically do better with mind mapping or free writing when it comes to a story outline. A Gardener develops the main idea and then drops the characters into the space with the main idea and stands back to observe what blooms. Most of the time, these writers have a pretty good idea, but they can never be entirely sure. George R. R. Martin describes himself as this sort of author.
A Knitter is an author who writes down random thoughts and plot points when they occur to them. They then go back and fill in the blanks after they’ve had a few brainstorming sessions, free writing sessions, or discussions with peers about ideas.
The Designer is an author who identifies with the designer type and usually has a general idea of all the key parts of the novel they want to write. If you’re a Designer, you probably have a main idea, you have characters in mind, and you know what you want to happen ultimately, but you don’t have every single detail figured out yet. These are often authors who use plot point outlines rather than complete outlines. They fall somewhere in the middle as far as how much they like to have planned.
There are many different types of templates available, some for free, to download on the internet. Using these, developing your own, or even taking a free course online to help you outline is a great way to familiarize yourself with how to write a story outline. You can use any book. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a simple book, such as a child’s book, and outline that.
Outlining is important. Even those “pantser” authors like Atwood and King know how to outline, even if they choose not to before they jump right into writing. It’s also an important skill to have if you’re a student because many writing instructors will assign not only a story for you to craft, but you’ll be expected to turn in an outline for your work, which will be evaluated and graded.