10 Must-Know Tips For Outlining Your Novel

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the road to a finished novel is dotted with false starts. So many aspiring writers think they’ve landed upon a brilliant idea for a novel. That’s great! But when they sit to actually put the story down in words, they soon discover they have no idea where to start with it.

The good news is there’s a potential cure — and it’s called an outline. If you’re a writer who’s struggling to get their book off the ground right now, this post has 10 tips that can lay the groundwork for creating an outline that’s actually productive.


1. Don’t think of an outline as a prison.

For outlining to work, you need to first believe in the process. Skeptics, for example, are probably thinking this all the time while outlining:

  1. “This is going to stifle all the creativity out of my story.”
  2. "This is a waste of time!”
  3. “Why can’t I just start writing already?”

That’s where they’re wrong. In truth, an outline is more like a map than a jail: you have landmarks you know you want to see at some point in the future — but you also have all the freedom in the world to figure out the route you want to take to get there. That's the real beauty of an outline all writers should understand before they start one themselves. 

2. Every writer is different. So find the outlining process that works for you.

Zadie Smith’s mind doesn’t work the same way as Stephen King’s. Kurt Vonnegut’s prose is wildly distinct from Maya Angelou’s. It’s only natural for authors to be different: that’s the joy of seeing all of these unique voices down on paper. That also means writers shouldn’t all be using the same outline.

It's therefore time to chuck the standard high school outline into the trash, as a vast multitude of outlines exist for you to try out. If you think about your story linearly, for instance, you might want to go for a beat sheet. Or if you find you're the kind of person who comes up with random ideas at random moments in time, a more freeform mind map might be the outline for you. It all depends on the type of writer you are.

For lists of potential outlines, check out:

3. Look at how other writers outlined for inspiration.

Sometimes the writers that came before us set the brightest examples. Luckily, some established authors were even generous enough to peel back the curtains and share their outlines with the Internet at large. If you’d like a peek at their processes, here’s J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22.

Most of all, it’s also a fascinating look at how they thought about their stories — and what they wanted to highlight in their plots.

4. Understand story structure before you start outlining.

You should feel free to simply splatter all of your thoughts onto the blank sheet of paper in front of you — in fact, that’s ideal! And it’s exactly why outlines exist: to be the messy first draft you didn’t realize you needed.

However, at some point, you’re going to want to turn those jumbled ideas into something that resembles a cohesive story. To do that, you’re probably going to rely on story structure. This is what is going to give your story a solid beginning, middle, and end, and I recommend using your outline to figure this out before you start writing your actual novel.

For more resources that can help you lay down your structures, see:

5. You can use the outline to map out internal character arcs.

Characters make up the heart and soul of your story, so it’s always good to have a firm idea of them before you start writing your story. This is where an outline can come into play again. Along with character profile templates, outlining can help you visualize how your characters change over the course of a story.

Now, you should be able to track the protagonist’s growth through the “stress points” (i.e. the major turning points) of your outline. But some writers create a secondary outline to map out the internal character arc. This is useful in tracking the character’s emotions, parallel to the events that are occurring in the main outline. 

6. Leave room to move things around. 

Give your outline space to breathe. You don’t need to have every single scene locked in to maximize an outline’s potential. In fact, it might even be better not to pursue that and just aim to figure out the broad strokes of your story through your outline.

Of course, if you’re the kind of writer who likes to really get down in the weeds and nail everything down to the nitty-gritty, feel free to plan out your novel beat-by-beat. But don’t get married to anything, because…

7. Experiment, experiment, experiment.

An outline is a fluid, flexible being. One of the most important things to remember when you sit down to outline is that nothing you put down is set in stone. You can move scenes around and adjust your “stress points" as you see fit, and at any point in time. Perhaps you notice that the pacing is quite slow in the beginning of your story? Tighten it up. Does the climax of your story seem too soon? Shift it back and add more scenes in the lead-up to it in your outline. That’s the beauty of the outline: you can tinker with it as much as you want until you see a solid path forward. 

8. Consider using tools to help you outline.

The good thing about not living in the Stone Age is you don’t need to rely on pencil and stone tablet to create your outline. You don’t even necessarily need to rely on Microsoft Word! There are plenty of more sophisticated tools that can help you outline, such as:

  • Trello
  • Coggle
  • Scrivener (Note: Scrivener costs money to purchase, but comes decked out with additional features that might interest you as a writer.)

That said, you don’t even need to turn to fancy tools to outline — Post-Its or notecards would work just fine, if that’s what you like. Again, refer back to point #2: whatever outline is best is whatever works for you.

9. Use a template if you’re struggling.

If you’re struggling to come up with the format of your outline (or if you just want a headstart), a downloadable template never hurts. You can go here to find three ready-made novel outline templates. They all open in Excel, and what magic you create with them is all up to you.  

Which brings me to my final point…

10. Don’t forget that your outline is for your eyes only. 

Which is to say: don’t stress too much about making sure your outline is pitch-perfect. 

It can be easy to get stuck in a rut in which you’re just going over your outline again and again, trying to make sure it’s as flawless as it can be before you start writing. However, that defeats the whole purpose of outlining, which is to give you a springboard into your story. If you never manage to spring off of the springboard, how will you manage to get anywhere real at all?

At some point, you’ll need to plunge into the waters. But this way, at least you know that you’ve got a trusty outline to help you stay afloat as you make your way towards your final destination.

Image of Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
Author: Joseph Heller
Price: $11.98
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 544 pages

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voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Tana French! February 7, 2019 - 2:19am

Great column, Emmanuel! Very helpful :)