How To Write A Novel Outline

How to write a novel outline - featured

To outline or not outline, that is the question! We hear arguments for and against, and I’m assured that many prominent authors have had great success writing as a ‘Pantser’, that is, writing by the seat of their pants.

It could be exciting, I suppose, writing as a stream of conscience, but from my own experience it’s quite easy to write yourself into a corner with no escape in sight. It would seem, for most people, a plan is a definite advantage to their writing. Knowing how to write a novel outline is the first step in creating a story.

Did Shakespeare plan? Was Dickens a Pantser or a Plotter? Even if Charles Dickens didn’t plan as we do, he surely knew all about plot structure and how to keep a reader turning the pages, as he had his first successes writing ‘penny dreadfuls’ for the masses.

It may be reasonable to assume that most new writers would benefit from some kind of novel structure planning, so the only question is – which method should you use? The following video explains how chapters can not only be used to plan a novel, but also used as a submission tool to agents and editors.

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How To Create A Novel Outline Out Of Chapters

Video Transcript:

Media bistro on-demand presents: ‘How to outline your novel’ will show you how to structure, outline and begin writing your novel.

So you have a great idea for a novel. You know basically what it will be about and who the characters will be. You’re ready to sit down and begin but where do you start? If you’re anything like me or most of my friends who have published books, you’ll start with an outline.

You wouldn’t leave home for a cross-country drive without a map or at least a functioning GPS would you? It would be just as unwise to dive into a novel without having an idea of where you’re going, and how you plan to get there. Some writers write without outlines but even they generally have a basic idea of where they’re going.

I just find it easier and much more efficient to have those ideas down on paper. The thing about an outline is that it’s not set in stone. Just like when you’re taking that cross-country drive, you’re free to detour from your planned route but you always know where the road is and you can see the way forward and the way back.

Novel outline template detailsHow do I know? I’ve successfully written six novels published by Random House Warner Books in Grand Central using outlines and I’m in the midst of writing my seventh. I sold all but my first novel using only an outline in sample chapters.

Here’s what we’ll cover. First we’ll talk about how to learn by example and how to teach yourself to be a master of outlining. Then we’ll discuss how to analyze, how things work in the books you love and how you can emulate these patterns and devices to create your own successful novel.

We’ll cover the rules of writing an outline, all the basic tools you’ll need to begin and finally I’ll show you how to write your own outline. Even if you don’t think you’re the type of writer who will need an outline, what can it hurt to sketch out a plot before you begin writing?

A first novel is tremendously hard and I think that every single advantage you can give yourself along the way helps. Having an outline is one such advantage. It’s a road map, a safety blanket and a safeguard against writer’s block.

First, it gives you the ability to plan how you’ll get from point A to point B and eventually all the way to the other side of the map. Second, it’s a psychological security blanket. Even when you’re stuck, you have something to cling to that will lift you out of the mess.

Finally, with an outline writer’s block is impossible. Sure you may have an off day or you may be uncertain about how to get from one scene to the next but you can always jump ahead because you know where you’re going and how to get there.

One more argument in favor of outlining – if you get 2/3 of the way into your outline and realize the story’s not working, you’ve only lost 10 to 20 pages of work or you’ll only have to go back a few pages to make substantial changes.

Novel outline worksheet outlineBut what if you’re working without an outline? You’ll be 250 pages into your novel before you realize your plot is going nowhere. Outlining is therefore a valuable tool to save you time later. It’s a way to test drive all the intricacies of your plots before you begin writing chapters in-depth.

They say the best way to learn is by doing, so why not outline someone else’s book, book you’ve liked that is already done well in the market? In fact, choose two or three of your favorite books, books you’ve read before and that you think are somewhat similar structurally to the one you hope to write.

They should be standard books, in other words, not a book that’s written in Diary style or told in a complex series of flashbacks, unless that’s the kind of book you plan to write. These are the books you’re going to pick apart.

Starting from the beginning of the first book read each chapter carefully. Underline important lines and make notes in the margins. Then after you’ve read each chapter, write a one to two page summary of that chapter in a single text document on your computer.

At the end of the book you should have a chapter by chapter summary of the entire book. This is ultimately what your own outline will look like. The more you look at these complete outlines, the more patterns you’ll see.

You’ll see how the books progress from start to finish. You’ll see when characters and conflicts are introduced. In fact, you’ll want to mark those in pen. You’ll see when various plot points occur and the way the books are paced. Why is this so important?

Unlike screenwriting, there’s no hard and fast formula to novel writing. You have to learn to do it by feel. Picking apart a few books you like and respect will help you to develop your own feel for building a plot. It will also help you to develop your own intrinsic understanding of pacing.

This is something that I can’t teach you, it’s something you can only teach yourself. It’s why any writing instructor worth his or her salt will tell you that the most important preparation for writing your own book is to read often.

Understanding what works in others we’ll help you to understand how to successfully structure yours, once you’ve outlined a few books. Buy yourself a pack of colored pencils or gather pens in four different colors. Print out each chapter by chapter outline and go through each one with your colored pens and pencils.

Look for four specific things :

  • the introduction of new characters
  • the introduction of conflict
  • examples of foreshadowing
  • and physical descriptions

Novel outline example and templateEach time a new character is introduced underline it in red and then jot down in the margin what role they play – main character, best friend, coworker, love interest, nemesis, family member.

Keep an eye on when various characters appear and look for patterns between the books you’ve outlined. Each time a new conflict is introduced, big or small, underline it in blue and jot down a few words in the margin about what the conflict is. Also note whether it’s a large conflict a small one or something in between.

In addition to characters and conflicts you should also make note of foreshadowing. Each time an event in the outline foreshadow is something that will happen, later mark it in purple. For instance, if a main character will discover halfway through the book that her husband is having an affair but in Chapter three we see him call to tell her that he won’t be home from work until after midnight.

Underline this in purple because it foreshadows is something that will happen in the future. Finally, every time something is described physically in a notable way – a new person, a new setting, something like, that mark this too.

Of course, you don’t have to use the colors I’ve suggested. Those were just examples. Use your own rainbow if you like. Right now you’re writing the outline for yourself to guide your own novel writing process but eventually you’ll revise it and use it as one of your tools to help get agents interested in your completed book and eventually to sell your book to publishers.

Novel Outline Template vs Detailed Novel Outline

So there’s no time like the present to learn the correct submission format for outlines. Outlines first of all are written in the third person present tense. In other words, you write ‘Jane Smith is the 36 year old mother of 13 year old Madeleine’ instead of ‘I was the 36 year old mother of 13 year old Madeleine’.

That stays true no matter what tense and from what viewpoint you’re writing the actual book in. Outlines are always third person present tense. Second, your book should be written in 12-point standard font. The most common is Times New Roman. Arial is another acceptable choice.

Third – your outline and your entire manuscript, once you’ve written it, should be double-spaced. I prefer to outline in single space because I can see more on the page as I’m writing but before I submit it to anyone I always double space it.

Fourth – you should spend no more than a single double-spaced page on what you envision is a chapter. In other words, if you think your book will be about 25 chapters your outline should not be any longer than 25 double-spaced pages at the very most.

How to write a novel outline for beginnersFinally, you don’t need to note chapter numbers or chapter divisions in the outline. Most outlines simply tell a story from beginning to end. Chapter breaks happen naturally later when you’re doing the actual writing. Here’s an example. This is how the top of your page one should look.

Note that it has my name, address, phone number and email address, as well as the title of the book. The estimated word count and the genre. Then I begin with the stage setting summary. Now it’s your turn. First of all come up with the title, if you haven’t already.

Stuck for title ideas? I’d recommend walking into a bookstore and spending 15 minutes jotting down the new release titles that grab your attention. What do they have in common? How many words do they have? Are they action-oriented titles like ‘How to sleep with a movie star’ or ‘Whistling Dixie in a nor’easter’ or are they description heavy titles?

Take that list home. Think about what your book is about and then try brainstorming your own ideas. Next, estimate your final word count. You’re not bound to this but it helps to have an idea of the typical length of books in your genre. I write women’s fiction and I tend to shoot for 90 thousand to 95 thousand words.

Come up with the word counts of several novels in your genre by multiplying the page count by 250, that should get you in the ballpark. Finally, start with a paragraph or two describing your main character in your book, similar to what you’d find on the back of a book or a book flap.

How to write a novel outline PDF