How to Write the Best Novel Outline of 2021: 6 Easy Steps

By Dave Chesson
Last updated on July 19th, 2021

Here’s how to write the best novel outline: Write something.

Any outline is better than no outline.

But for more guidance, I outlined 6 easy steps in glorious detail.

Should you write an outline for a novel? You should write an outline when writing your book.

Even if it isn’t the most detailed outline, outlining your story has many benefits:

  • Better pacing
  • No plot holes
  • Improved character arcs
  • Scenes in order
  • Direction and focus when you write
  • Time saved in the editing phase
  • Less writer’s block

Don’t feel trapped by an outline. Your novel outline is meant as a guide, a map. You can veer from it any time you want… change your mind… be spontaneous.

No matter what — you need an outline for your novel. It will make you a better writer.

You'll need to choose a software to write it as well, and I've got a video all about that too.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What a novel outline is
  2. Novel outline templates
  3. Pros and cons of outlining
  4. 6 types of novel outlines
  5. Best software for outlining a novel
  6. 6 steps to outline a book

Links in this article may give me a small commission if you use them to purchase a product. And there’s no extra cost to you!

Chapter 1

What is a novel outline?

A novel outline is a document or series of documents that plan out your novel’s structure, plot, character arcs, spatial relationships, the order of sequences, and so much more.

You need a novel outline to avoid problems with pacing, plot holes, directionless writing, and writer’s block.

Some of my favorite novel outline templates include:

Also, you can find novel outline templates in popular book writing software like Scrivener, MS Word, Ulysses, and bibisco.

Every good outline should answer these 3 questions:

  1. What is the “main contract” of the story? You must fulfill the promises you made to your reader by the end of the novel. If you promised dragons, deliver dragons. If you promised steamy romance, deliver steamy romance. If you promised a thought-provoking mystery, you better deliver it! Make sure you deliver on the contract within the outline.
  2. What sort of time pressure is working on your characters? The ticking time bomb is a famous Alfred Hitchcock analogy. The time pressure gets readers engaged and ups the story’s intensity. Work out what time pressure works against your character within the outline.
  3. What is at stake for the protagonist of the novel? Your protagonist cannot be a passive observer or someone to whom the story’s conflict does not matter at all. If the antagonist were to win, the protagonist has to lose something… possibly everything. An outline is a perfect place to clarify what is at stake for the protagonist.

Be sure to check out this video about Alfred Hitchcock On Mastering Cinematic Tension too.

Chapter 2

Why is a novel outline important?

A novel outline is essential because it gives your story direction, avoids a “mid-novel slump,” saves time in the editing process, and so many other reasons.

Once you’ve written many books, maybe you can write less of a physical novel outline because you have so much of the outline in your head.

But new writers need to write a novel outline. In the next section, I tell you all about the benefits of writing a novel outline. Read all those reasons to write an outline, and then tell me you don’t want to reap any of the benefits.

I hear the outline deniers ask, “Did you know Stephen King doesn’t outline his novels? He sells one million books every day, or something like that. So that means I don’t have to outline.”

Well, Stephen King has also said that you need to write 12 full-length books before you can sell one. (Maybe he should have used an outline when he began as a writer.)
Also, Stephen King does outline — only it’s in his head because he’s a master storyteller.

And doesn’t Stephen King get flack all the time for writing bad endings to his great books? Maybe an outline would help him build to better conclusions…

Benefits of Creating a Novel Outline

What are the pros of creating a novel outline?

  • Visualizes the big picture
  • Improves pacing
  • Removes plot holes
  • Tracks character arcs
  • Orders scenes
  • Keeps the storyline on track
  • Gives your writing direction
  • Avoids “sagging middle” or “mid-novel slump”
  • Helps you set up late-book payoffs in the beginning chapters
  • Identifies foreshadowing opportunities
  • Saves time editing after the fact
  • Can get you over writer’s block

In almost every case, you need a novel outline. Some authors are supposedly born with the “gift” of knowing everything about their story in their heads. In my experience, these writers simply go through a more extended editing phase without an outline.

Downsides of Creating a Novel Outline

What are the cons of creating a novel outline?

  • Feels formulaic
  • Hinders creativity
  • Leads to more telling rather than showing
  • Character choices may feel inorganic
  • Takes a long time and is tedious

I’m writing these downsides as if I actually believe them. However, I disagree that many of these downsides are correct — only that some authors may feel this way sometimes.

However, when you’re writing the story’s actual words, it is important to “show, don’t tell” and make your characters’ choices seem logical, plausible, and organic.

How long does it take to outline a novel? It can take months to outline a novel. Sometimes, authors start writing the beginning before they’ve outlined the end. Others wait till they have a good idea of the whole book’s story. The outlining process may involve brainstorming before you write a single word of the physical outline.

Chapter 3

Types of Novel Outlines

You can structure an outline for a novel any way you’d like — whatever outlining method works for your novel writing style.

But you should organize your thoughts into a formal structure, or your novel will probably end up an unevenly-paced stream of consciousness that few people enjoy all the way through.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat (can someone please explain what that means?). And there’s more than one way to outline your novel. Pick the type of novel outline that works best for you and your writing process.

Authors may fall anywhere on a spectrum of planners and non-planners, also called plotters and pantsers, or architects and gardeners. (“Pantsing” refers to “by the seat of your pants.”)

Your outline may be meticulous or very vague. The level of detail depends on personal preference, and that's okay.

Here are 6 types of novel outlines you can experiment with:

  1. Mind map
  2. Synopsis
  3. Beat sheet
  4. Skeleton
  5. Character-led
  6. Scenes and sequences

Mind Map Outline

A mind map visually displays the spatial relationship between characters, story beats, and chapters. You can map out any number of story elements.

This is an excellent method for large-scale stories where characters are in different locations throughout the novel. Epic fantasy and sci-fi come to mind, but political thrillers may also benefit from a mind map outline.

Synopsis Outline

A synopsis outline looks the most like an essay. When you write a synopsis, you need to summarize everything that matters to the story.

It will include character arcs, conflicts, resolutions, and background info. A synopsis should be 2 or 3 pages of dense story.

To make that into a full novel, you just take a sentence or a paragraph from the synopsis and add suspense, mystery, character development, world-building, and beautiful prose — all that delicious “filler” that makes reading fun.

Beat Sheet Outline

This type of novel outline lists the “beats” of the story into individual paragraphs or bullet points.

A “beat” is a change in tone, motivation, character, etc. Whenever you switch to a new story beat, this adds emotional weight and importance to your story. Beats also help with pacing and character arcs.

Since story beats are so important, it is natural for some writers to break up their outline by beats.

Skeleton Outline

This is probably the most bare-bones approach. (Forgive the pun, would you?) A skeleton outline lists out the key plot points in a story.

For example, your main character needs to get from her hometown to the capital city, to the enemy hideout, and finally to her wayward father’s hovel. A skeleton outline would remind you what direction your story needs to be going, but it lets you figure out the best way to get there.

Character-Led Outline

If you care about the people in your story, their development, and their arcs more than anything else, focus on your characters.

A character-led outline puts characters first. List out the beats in your character arcs. Instead of overall plot points, you can organize your novel into character development beats.

Or, try free-writing about your character using a stream of consciousness approach, writing whatever comes to mind about your character. See what you discover.

Check out this template for character profiles or this tutorial/cheat sheet.

Scenes and Sequences Outline

List out all the scenes and sequences in your story. This outline can be detailed or vague.

I know authors who outline by chapter, listing each event that needs to occur in a chapter for the story to progress in the right direction. For some chapters, they write down 2 pages of notes. For other chapters, they only write, “Protagonist needs to solve the mystery in an emotional way.”

Some authors may benefit from taking notes on scenes as they pop into their heads. These scenes can be out of order, but you can use a scenes and sequences outline to order them when you get around to it.

Chapter 4

Best Software to Write a Novel Outline

I use Scrivener to write all my fiction books, but it’s not for everyone. There is a myriad of methods you can use to outline your novel.

A lot of authors choose to outline their novel in a different software than their book writing software.

For me, one thing I love about Scrivener is that it offers a bunch of handy built-in templates that help the outlining process. But many authors prefer software designed explicitly for outlining.

And don’t forget: If you like using a physical notebook and pencil, more power to you. There is an undoubtable magic when you create a story putting pencil to paper, lead to ledger, graphite to graph paper.

Check out this video where I break down the best story outlining software out there.

Scrivener

Writers love Scrivener because it’s designed for authors. Not only is it the best software for writing books, but it’s also great for outlines.

Check out my full review of Scrivener and watch my video on why I believe Scrivener is better than Word.

Scrivener offers ready-made, built-in templates for all sorts of books, screenplays, and other works. Using these templates, you can organize your thoughts into a novel outline.

There are so many ways to outline in Scrivener:

  • Write scenes and sequences in one text file that represents one chapter.
  • Describe character development by beat. Each beat goes in a different text file on your sidebar, representing one chapter or one part.
  • Use Corkboard View to look at a bunch of text files in a single folder as index cards all on one screen. This can be used for several different types of outlines.
  • Write a synopsis that you will always have available in the sidebar, even when writing your novel proper. You can even view what you’re writing and your synopsis side by side with Toggle Split.

The Binder feature revolutionizes organization, which is great for outlining. It allows you to drag and drop import every PDF, DOCX, JPEG, MOV, WAV, MP3, and TXT file you could want — whether it’s for research, inspiration, or just keeping everything straight — all in one sidebar.

Scrivener costs a one-time fee of $49 or $41.65 for students & academics. Scrivener’s iOS app only costs $19.99.

Don’t forget to use my coupon code KINDLEPRENEUR for 20% off your purchase!

Other Software for Writing Novel Outlines

  • Plottr is a cool outlining tool that offers templates such as 8 Sequences Method, Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, 12 Chapter Mystery Formula, and many more. Read my full review of Plottr or download Plottr today.
  • Plot Factory is a novel outlining software that comes with awesome, straightforward templates, character creation functionality, world-building capabilities, and so much more. Read my full review of Plot Factory or download it now. Use my coupon code KINDLEPRENEUR for 35% the first 12 months!
  • The Novel Factory is a structure-heavy novel outlining software. It is easy to use, includes genre-specific templates, and can export to most other word processors. But it isn’t yet available on Mac. Read my full review of The Novel Factory or download The Novel Factory today. Use my coupon code KINDLEPRENEUR to get 20% off your subscription.
  • Squibler offers lots of superb templates that help the outlining process go smoother. They provide a general novel outline but also templates for specific genres.
  • Microsoft Word is the gold standard word processor for a reason. It offers a bunch of book outline templates that make outlining easier. If you download a novel outline template from the web, chances are you can open it with MS Word.
  • Google Docs is the hero of collaboration. If you work across multiple devices or with another person on your book outline, Google Docs is a fantastic tool that autosaves to the cloud every couple of seconds.
  • Evernote lets you take notes but in a sophisticated, modern way. You can write down your notes in several ways, share notes with others, and access Evernote across multiple devices.
  • Ulysses creates documents out of fragments — a structure that lends itself to outlining in small segments.
  • bibisco is a book writing software that puts emphasis on character development. Before you start writing, bibisco encourages you to fully map out your character beats, which is great for character-led outlining.
Chapter 5

How to Write a Novel Outline in 6 Easy Steps

You can outline a novel with 6 easy steps:

    Create the premise
    Craft the setting
    Construct the characters
    Develop your plot
    Organize the scenes
    Review your outline & make changes

Of course, there are many methods to outlining. Use these step-by-step instructions as a roadmap, not a hard and fast list of must-dos.

1. Create the Premise

The premise of your novel should guide your outline, just like the outline will guide your writing. It follows that step 1 is creating the premise for your novel.

To create a good story, you must have a good premise. To create the premise of your novel, you should start your book outline by writing down the following:

  • The hook (how is this book different than every other book)
  • Main protagonist
  • Main antagonist
  • Important secondary characters
  • Main characters’ motivations
  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict
  • Resolution (can be very vague)
  • Central theme

Now, you can craft a one-sentence premise of your book. Think of it as an elevator pitch.

You’re able to tell anyone in 30 seconds what your story is about.

When someone asks what your book is about, you should be able to answer with one or two sentences that hook any potential readers, editors, agents, and/or publishers.

Examples of 5 effective premises:

  1. The What If premise: “What if children thought they were being tested with simulations of interstellar wars, but the battles were actually real?”
  2. The Inciting Incident premise: “When Frodo finds the evil One Ring, he must fight Orcs, sneak past Uruk-hai, survive epic battles, and traverse Mordor to destroy it.”
  3. The Ticking Clock premise: “Finn and Rose have to find a master codebreaker to disable the First Order’s hyperspace tracking before the Resistance runs out of fuel and the First Order exterminates the galaxy’s only hope.”
  4. The Mistaken Belief premise: “Andrea Sachs believes she wants to work in the fashion industry more than anything until she realizes that the fashion industry will destroy her life in an instant if it means the editor gets her coffee.”
  5. The Character-Driven premise: “A mild-mannered chemistry teacher finds out he has cancer, so he slowly becomes a sociopathic drug kingpin to pay for his chemo.”

Craft the Setting

After you’ve created the premise, it’s time to craft the setting of your story. The setting is the “where?” of the story.

The setting should be:

  • Logical
  • Interesting/creative
  • Evocative of emotion
  • Important to the central theme
  • Important to your character(s)
  • Well-researched and/or well-fleshed out

When crafting your setting, consider the time of year, the seasons, the time of day for individual scenes, and how your character views the setting vs. how it is in reality.

Brainstorm how the characters’ introductions, midpoints, turning points, and conclusions can be improved by the setting.

WikiHow has a fun article I recommend on this topic: How to Write a Setting for a Book: 9 Steps (with Pictures).

3. Construct the Characters

The currency of novels is character.

Readers relate to your characters and cheer when the good guy gets what they want. If you want an effective novel outline, you should construct your characters at this stage.

Since the most satisfying part of a book for most readers is a great character arc, you should know the basics of character development.

Give each central character:

  • Goals and motivations
  • External and internal conflict
  • Backstory
  • Strengths and weaknesses (character flaws are critical!)
  • Distinctive traits, including physical and personality traits
  • Relationships with other characters

Yes, you can source your characters from real life. For instance, you may base your character’s looks on a woman you used to work with. You might even base your character’s mannerisms on a celebrity.

However, do not base one character entirely off of one person. Take inspiration from multiple real people.

Now that you’ve got a handle on your characters, 2 things need to happen:

  1. Your characters need to make choices that advance the story. You don’t want your main character to be an observer. They need to take an active role in the plot progression.
  2. You need to write tough situations for them to endure. Writers have to be cruel to their characters. Break their leg, throw them off a cliff, end their marriage, close their favorite hangout spot — the story’s conflicts need to directly affect your main characters. That’s what makes ordinary books into page-turners.

Pro tip: Though some criticize Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book for its oversimplification of storytelling, its central story idea is still sound. For any character you want to be likable, have their first action in the story be to “save the cat” — or do good for someone else, preferably in a weaker position than them.

When a character saves a cat from a tree, buys a homeless orphan a meal, protects a woman from an abusive husband, blows the whistle on a corrupt politician, etc., the reader immediately roots for them.

4. Develop Your Plot

Now that you have your premise, setting, and characters, you can start to develop a plot outline. It helps to have a plot structure (templates included below), especially if you’re a new author.

You can develop your plot by making index cards, drawing a rough timeline on a sheet of paper, or using many awesome novel outlining tools. Many authors find it useful to write down their beginning at one end of some notebook paper and their conclusion at the other end. Then they fill in the blanks of how their characters get there.

For complicated stories, a sprawling cast, multiple point of view characters, and huge worlds, you may want to organize your plots and subplots by time and location — as J.K. Rowling did with Order of the Phoenix.

For this step, you can use any of these templates (or none of them):

Below, I’ve included questions to answer for the beginning, middle, and end of your story’s plot — a fundamental version of the 3-act structure.

Beginning of the Plot

  • What happens on the first pages?
  • What is the setting?
  • What is the exposition? As in, how do you introduce the setting, characters, etc.?
  • How will readers care about your main character in the first few pages?
  • What is essential to set up for later payoffs?

Pro tip: Do not start your book off with a cliche. Some readers — and most editors — will put down your book if they read the first page and it contains waking up, looking in a mirror, lots of dialogue, a big block of exposition, or a dream sequence.

Middle of the Plot

  • What is the inciting incident? What single event starts the central conflict of the book?
  • What twists and turns occur that lead to the climax?
  • How are you delivering on the premise?
  • How are you avoiding the mid-novel slump? Hint: Have the character continue to make choices and continue to put your main character through hardships.
  • What is the climax?

End of the Plot

  • How does the climax resolve?
  • What needs to happen after the climax to get you to your ending?
  • What questions still need to be answered? What setups still demand payoffs?
  • Which character arcs still require resolution?
  • What is the denouement? As in, what is the very last thing that happens in your story?

5. Organize the Scenes

After you develop your plot, you can organize plot points into acts, then into chapters, and even into scenes.

This might get too specific for some authors who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. But organizing your plot into individual chapters or scenes can prevent writer’s block before it even strikes.

Scenes are critical to your story. They should determine pacing, transition smoothly into one another, prevent timeline problems or plot holes, build on your central premise or theme, and organize your plot into digestible chunks.

8 Tips for Creating Scenes

  1. In media res is your friend. This is the concept of starting in the middle of a scene to instantly engage the reader and provide mini-mysteries that your reader will quickly learn the answer to.
  2. Write something. If you’re not confident, you can change it later. It’s usually better to have something to edit than nothing, triggering writer’s block.
  3. Identify the scene’s purpose. Ensure the scene doesn’t outstay its welcome.
  4. Make sure every scene transitions smoothly into the next. Readers shouldn’t be able to recognize the seams of your scene organization — at least not on the first read-through.
  5. Switch up the order of scenes to see if they work better in different sequences.
  6. Each scene or chapter should end in a cliffhanger, disaster, or twist — however small — to keep the reader engaged and wanting more.
  7. Have your characters make decisions. I can’t say it enough. Your main characters should never be just observing the plot. They should make bold decisions that advance the plot.
  8. Keep scene synopses brief. For example, you don’t have to write suspense into the outline. A 4,000-word chapter about your main character being hunted can have a short description: “She gets hunted by the lizard men in the woods. It’s suspenseful.” In other words, you don’t have to write in the suspense until you type out the actual chapter.
Chapter 6

Review Your Outline & Make Changes

Your story isn’t perfect. Your outline is flexible. Remember that your story outline is a living document. You’ll review your outline and make changes along the way. Don’t be afraid to alter your outline.

Bestselling author George R.R. Martin isn’t the biggest outliner. However, it’s still notable that in a novel as intricate as The Winds of Winter, he famously came up with a twist years into writing it, long after he would have made his general outline.

As you learn more about your characters, your world, and what is most interesting about your story, your outline will change in small ways all the time. There will even be some big changes.

When you review your outline, you may want to consider adding specific dates to your scenes and chapters. You may not write these dates in the text, but your readers must trust you to make logical decisions about the timeline.

One of the magical things about novel outlines is that an outline is you can review it frequently and make small and big changes as needed. When reviewing your outline, pay attention to:

  • Two scenes that need more transition or connection
  • A setup you never pay off
  • Plot holes
  • Timeline problems
  • Long stretches of no character development
  • No conclusion to a character arc
  • Scenes that do not advance both the plot and central theme
Chapter 7

Real Novel Outlines

These beautiful handwritten outlines are examples of actual novel outlines by authors you may have heard of…

Outline for James Salter's Light Years
James Salter’s Handwritten Outline for Light Years
JK Rowling outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling’s Handwritten Outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Outline for Fable by William Faulkner
The Outline for Fable by William Faulkner (written on his bedroom walls)
Jennifer Egan’s Black Box outline
One of the outlined pages for Jennifer Egan’s Black Box
Chapter 8

Are you ready to write your outline?

After reading this article, you should be more than ready to write your novel outline! Once you’ve written your outline, onto the first draft.

How do you write a proper outline? You write a proper outline how you want — you can plan meticulous details or give yourself a vague direction to aim for. There are different types of outlines for different types of fiction writers, such as the mind map, the scenes and sequences, the skeleton, and synopsis.

I’ve provided you with templates, screenshots, and lists of outline types to help get you on track to write an extraordinary story.



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