Outlining is an effective way of structuring your writing process to allow your creativity to flow with new ideas.
You may believe an outline is a creative limit, but it’s far from it. With a well-structured outline, you have room to explore main characters, settings, and themes on a deeper level without worrying about losing track of the overall story.
Writer’s block is common and often happens when a writer loses focus on the story, unsure of how to move the story forward.
Outlining helps you overcome writer’s block by keeping you on track through the writing process. An outline creates scaffolding on which you build the story structure through each scene, character, or plot point, so even if you get lost, you can return to your frame of reference for direction.
In this article, we’ll offer tips and advice on how to create an outline for writing a story with maximum benefit.
How to Create an Outline for Writing a Story
You can craft a compelling story outline in these four simple steps:
- Craft your premise
- Flesh out strong characters
- Create your setting
- Identify your critical plot points
Below we’ll guide you through each step to make your outlining process as smooth as possible.
Understand that you don’t necessarily need to take these steps in order – story outlining is an opportunity for you to be messy and scattered in your creative process and shows you your ideas for further development later.
Before we get to the steps, let’s better understand why outlines are crucial in story writing.
Understand the importance of an outline
The outline serves as a roadmap. It allows you to track character arcs, theme development, and plot points. It also helps you in the editing process by avoiding too many detours and losing yourself in the story.
Remember that as deep or ‘out there’ as you can take the story, you still need to offer a coherent narrative to the reader. The outline helps you create a well-structured story that is easy for the reader to follow and digest.
Overall, an outline helps you craft a great story by:
- Identifying essential and basic plot points and stages of development – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution
- Fleshing out characters, including their motivations, backgrounds, and strengths and weaknesses
- Unraveling themes, moods, and messages and how to include them in the story
- Offering checkpoints or a frame of reference to which you can return and continue writing after a trajectory or detour from the main story
1. Craft your premise
The premise is the idea for your story. It is a good story outline step because the premise is the foundation on which you’ll create your story. You should be able to sum it up in a couple of sentences or a one paragraph summary.
The premise is essentially a brief, basic synopsis.
To help you craft a story with a strong premise for the entire book, ask yourself the following:
- Where is the story set?
- Who is your main character(s), and what do they want?
- In what situation do they find themselves at the beginning of the book?
- What stands in the way of them achieving their goals?
Consider the premises of some famous novels.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future, where two volunteers are selected from each of the 12 districts of Panem to enter a survival game and fight to the death, with one victor. A young woman, Katniss Everdeen of District 12, the poorest district of Panem, takes her younger sister’s place as a volunteer.
Moby Dick by Ernest Hemingway
Moby Dick is about the only survivor of a lost whaling ship and tells the story of the ship captain’s obsessive vengeful quest to hunt an elusive White Whale.
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
In The Wizard of Oz, a tornado sweeps Dorothy and her dog Toto from their Kansas farmhouse to the Land of Oz, where she meets three friends, a lion, a tin man, and a scarecrow, who join her on a journey to find the mysterious Wizard who may be able to return her home and fulfill her friends’ wishes.
2. Flesh out your characters
Strong character development is the foundation of great storytelling.
Regardless of your writing style, themes, and story format, it’s wise to dedicate time to fleshing out strong characters. Readers often get hooked by a character, which is why a reader may recommend the book to a friend.
So, as part of your story outlines, create character profiles or bios. Visualize your characters as real, living beings with hopes, dreams, goals, motivations, fears, strengths, and a background.
What is the purpose of a given character in your story? Are they the protagonist or a supporting character? How can readers relate to them? If supporting, in what ways are they the protagonist of their own story?
What is the journey or character arc throughout the narrative? What are they like at the beginning of the story, and how is that different from what they’re like at the end? What challenges do they face, and how do those challenges shape them?
One effective way to flesh out strong characters is to conduct an in-depth character interview with each one of them. Create a list of ten, twenty, or even thirty or more questions and interview each character in your story with them.
Some characters may require more fleshing out than others, but each character should still have a rich background and life story, even if those details are not included in your final draft. With seamless character development, you can provide your readers a connection with the entire story.
3. Create your setting
Setting plays a key role in your story.
Consider the significance of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Middle Earth and Mount Doom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the bustling heart of 19th century London in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
These settings are as powerful and influential as the characters that inhabit them in telling the entire story arc.
As an author, you have a responsibility to the reader to create an immersive and tangible setting.
You want the reader to delve into your story, and the way to do that is to offer a world that makes sense. ‘Makes sense’ in this context does not mean realistic as per the standard of the world we live in, especially if you’re a fantasy writer.
Still, the world should have its own consistent rules and laws and play a role in how the story moves the plot forward.
If you’ve decided on a particular setting (many stories have several), conduct diligent research by finding out as much about that setting as possible. Even if it’s fictional, seek reference.
If your story is set in a high school, research as much as possible about high school settings. If your story is set on a fictional mountain, understand as much as you can about topography, altitude, etc.
Even when you make up your setting, it should stand on its own against scrutiny.
- In what country or city (or planet) is the story set?
- In what year or time period does the story take place?
- What season is it?
- What is the cultural, economic, and political background of the setting?
- What mood do I want to create with the setting, and does this setting portray the mood successfully?
- If indoors, what type of room does the story take place in? What is the significance of each area or room in the building?
4. Identify your major plot points
All great stories have a beginning, middle, and end. In terms of plot outline and structure, we can break these three stages into five plot points, known as Freytag’s Pyramid.
- Rising action
- Falling action
How does the story begin? Who are the characters we meet at the story’s beginning, and in what situation do they find themselves? What are their goals and motivations? What conflicts or obstacles (inciting incidents) do they face regarding their goals?
b. Rising action
What action does a given character initially take to deal with those obstacles? What further obstacles are discovered, and how do the characters decide to move forward and equip themselves to better deal with the conflict?
The climax of the conflict is the major turning point in the story. What happens to the character and their obstacles? How are challenges faced, and who or what succeeds or fails?
d. Falling action
The post-climax or aftermath. What happens to the character and setting after the significant climax? What loose ends still need to be tied up?
How is the story resolved? What realizations or changes happen to your characters?
You don’t need to flesh out the entire story in your outline. Use the critical plot points above to help you build your story’s scaffolding.
Remember that your outline is not even your first draft, so you only need to write a few lines on each plot point first.
Story outline examples (templates)
Mind mapping is a great way to outline your story visually.
To create a mind map, write your central idea (premise or character) down in the middle of a blank sheet, then branch lines out from the center detailing relevant points, arcs, and conflicts.
What does the character want? What obstacles do they face? What skills do they possess that will help them, and what skills do they need to develop?
These branches from the center will help you visualize the story’s basic elements and development.
2. Bullet points
Use bullet points for each beat of your story to help you move through it. Bullet pointing is a simple method of outlining that allows you to move your story from one moment, plot point, or scene to the next.
Consider the following basic structure with bullets. You may use index cards for each plot point or scene.
- Steve needs to pay rent but doesn’t have any money.
- He shares his problems with his friend Evan who also struggles financially.
- Evan suggests that they rob a gas station, and Steve agrees.
- They forget to fill the car with gas first.
- They make a run for it.
- Even though Steve gets away, Steve gets caught.
3. Storyboard your scenes
Storyboarding is another visual means of outlining your story.
Use a big board, post notes, and place ideas for scenes across the board.
Join two scenes or more together in different orders and decide on the order that makes for the most engaging story to keep the reader’s attention.
Again, your outline is not even your first draft, so feel free to alter the story structure as you see fit.
Keep your storyboard for reference but don’t be afraid to deviate throughout the draft writing process if you develop a better idea later.
Do I need an outline?
It’s wise to create a novel outline, but it’s not always necessary.
Some writers prefer writing ‘by the seat of their pants’, whereby the story unfolds through the writing process rather than through a detailed outline.
Still, doing so can lead to frustration if you lose track of the original story idea when you begin writing.
In novel writing, outlining helps you keep the big picture in mind, assess the story for plot holes, include all the important events, and keep your story structure consistent.
Outlining helps you create a solid foundation for the big picture, a story structure on which you can build a compelling narrative to keep the reader’s interest.
Remember that this early stage of the writing process is an opportunity for you to explore different story arcs, character arcs, key scenes and themes, so don’t forget to play.
If you have time, explore the different methods of the story-outlining mentioned above when you start outlining, and see what works best for you.