8 Ways to Outline a Novel


There are countless ways to outline a novel. Ultimately, the "right way to outline" is whatever way works best for you.To give you a few options to explore, this article will introduce you to a few of my favorite outlining methods. But first ...

Why bother outlining?

Outlining isn't a moral imperative, and it doesn't work for everyone. But even if you are a “pantser” (a.k.a. “a discovery writer”), there are some noteworthy advantages worth exploring.

  • You reduce the amount of work you'll need to do during writing. By planning out ideas first, you can trim down the amount of time spent in writing the novel itself. This is especially beneficial for those of you looking to do some last-hour preparation for NaNoWriMo.
  • You give yourself a chance to spot potential roadblocks and plot holes. Since outlining gives you a broader view of the work, you may be able to identify story problems or areas that will require creative solutions. Even if outlining doesn't automatically solve these problems, it gives you some time to mull your solutions over prior to hitting the roadblocks.
  • You can save yourself some hassle. When writing off the cuff, it's entirely possible to paint yourself into a corner. While this isn't a problem per se, it does require that you spend time painting yourself back out again. Outlining can help you eliminate this issue.
  • You get the creative juices flowing. By starting to think about the various aspects of your story, you're jump-starting the creative processes. Even if you never refer to your outline again, your mind will be primed for writing.
  • You get the chance to thread ideas through your piece. Outlining helps you choose ways to foreshadow, drop hints, or unify the theme in earlier parts of your work.

For these and other reasons, outlines are often worthwhile. So, what are some possible ways to outline your novel?

1. The Expanding "Snowflake" Outline

The snowflake method is one highly specific form of what I call the “expanding outline.” In any expanding outline, you start with the simplest form of the story:

Jack/Jill get injured while climbing a hill trying to get water.

Then you expand on it:

Jack, the mayor's son, is sent to fetch water. Jill comes with him. They get injured while climbing the hill where the well is.

Then you expand on it more:

Jack, who is the mayor's son, is sent to fetch water for the town. His girlfriend Jill comes with him. At the top of the hill where the well is, the two are attacked. They attempt to escape but trip and fall down the hill. They are both injured.

This process continues until every part of the story has the level of detail you want. The “snowflake method” advocates a specific way of getting to that level and can be rather intensive; you can find the specifics of the "snowflake method" here. Whether you use the precise methodology of the snowflake or simply expand an idea repeatedly until you're satisfied, this method is a good way to identify when some of your ideas could still use development.

2. Pure Summary

Basically, the idea here is to write your story from beginning to end but replace all scenes and dialogue with summaries. It's your entire story, just laid out while still at the maximum level of compression.

Jack and Jill are called in for a royal audience. The king tells them they need to get water. They leave. They talk about the consequences of disobeying the king, deciding that they had better obey. They climb the hill, which is very steep. At the top of the hill, they look around for a while. They talk about the tyranny of the kingdom, deciding that they hate the king and would rather die than serve him. Jack commits suicide by throwing himself down the mountain. Jill then does the same. When the people see this, they start a revolt. The revolt rages through the streets for a while. They overthrow the king.

This method helps give a cohesive sense of the story and gives a good road-map for you to follow during the writing process itself.

3. The Skeletal Outline

You've probably used skeletal outlines for academic papers before. The notion here is to lay out your core points (or, in this case, narrative points) in the order you feel will best aid the flow of your argument (or, in this case, storytelling). It gives a good birds-eye view of your structure and can help you re-form your story for maximum impact.

I. Exposition
----The story takes place in a village named Hillside
----We are introduced to Jack, who is a paladin.
----We are introduced to Jill, who is a thief.
II. Inciting Incident
----Jack catches Jill stealing a crown. While he's arresting her ...
----Goblins sneak into the village and light buildings on fire.
III. Rising Action
----Jack/Jill both decide they must climb the hill to get the magical Pail of Endless Water.
----On the way up the hill, J/J encounter and fight goblins.
----At the top of the hill, J/J find that a dark priest named Ravimag has been controlling the goblins.
IV. Climax
----Jack/Jill fight Ravimag
----Jack is flung from the hill by Ravimag
----In anger, Jill stabs Ravimag and retrieves the Pail of Endless Water, then leaps down the hill
V. Falling action
VI. Resolution
----Flash forward to a time when Jack is discovered, still healthy
----Jack/Jill have saved the town from the fire and Ravimag
----Jack/Jill are celebrated by the people
----Jack lets Jill go, even though she stole the crown

If you're struggling to form a plot, you can even use the hero's journey or Freytag's Pyramid as your base-line (as I did above) and then graft your own characters and ideas to the appropriate points.

4. Flashlight Outlining

Just like a flashlight gives great illumination to what's near and only a small amount to what's far, the "flashlight method" of outlining is all about letting yourself discover the story gradually while still doing enough planning that you can anticipate any walls you're about to crash into. 

Chapter 1. Jack/Jill are on opposing teams for a boys vs girls basketball game. Jack is charming and flirtatious, but arrogantly thinks that the boys will have no trouble winning. When he taunts Jill, she pushes past him and breaks his nose.
Chapter 2. Jack/Jill meet again in a park, and after bickering for a bit, they decide they need to have a set of challenges to see who is really the better athlete. They start with a javelin throw, which Jack wins.
Chapter 3. For the second challenge, Jack and Jill do some sort of gymnastic event, which Jill wins. 
Other chapters: Jack/Jill go back and forth winning events. Eventually, Jack/Jill decide to have a final challenge of having a race up the hill to the well. Jack is ahead but falls and gets injured, and Jill decides to help him instead of winning.

While it may not provide all the time-savings advantages of other outline methods (especially for the NaNites out there), it does help you shape your story more consciously than if you just go off the cuff.

5. Free Writing

Free-writing is the most pantser-friendly way to approach your story, and it's my personal favorite method for outlining a longer piece. The advantage of this method is that you can bring whatever level of detail and thought you happen to have available, make notes on your goals, and ask yourself questions as you go. For example:

This story is about Jack and Jill, who are going to fetch some water. They're doing this for their town, because the town was built on top of some ancient ruins that contain a monster. This monster is paralyzed by water. The water has to come from a special well, which was blessed by a shaman a long time ago. Jill is the descendant of this shaman, and she has some magical abilities, but she doesn't know that at the beginning of the story. Jill has the obligation to get the water as part of the ceremony to paralyze the monster, but she doesn't believe that the monster really exists, because she's never seen it before and it's been gone for so long. Jack is Jill's guardian, and he uses a giant axe to fight the monsters that live on “the hill.”

When going up the hill, Jack and Jill have to fight their way through multiple enemies. Maybe evil llamas of some sort. And lizards. At the top of the hill, Jack is injured and Jill chooses to stay with him. She finds she can magically control the elements, which she has to do to defend him. However, because she hasn't returned with the water for the ceremony, the monster begins to wake up and there is an earthquake while Jack and Jill are coming down the hill. They both fall down and are injured again.

For me, free-writing isn't so much about giving myself a road-map as it is about spontaneous idea generation and giving myself enough content that I can start to really daydream about my story.

6. The Visual Map

This is my second-favorite way to look at a story, partially because it gives you the freedom to draw in connections and expand on concepts on the fly.

I won't share my example of this, partially because every person's approach will differ but mostly because I took a picture of my sketch and realized that my handwriting is completely illegible. To summarize, I started with blocks for the core plot and character points and then branched off from these as I asked myself more questions. What was Jack's motivation? He was the son of the mayor. Why did they need water? There was a drought. Why did they fall? There was a cougar. Why was there a cougar? Because of the drought, maybe? You get the idea.

7. Contextual Preparation

Even if you choose not to write out your plot, there's a lot of advantage to writing about the context in which the story takes place. That means developing your setting, systems (e.g., technology, deities, magic, politics, etc.), and thinking about the questions you want your reader to be asking. For discovery writers, having a well-developed sense of character is especially important (take a look at this in-depth character questionnaire for more help on that front).

Jack/Jill live in the land of Fulululu. Fulululu is a fairy kingdom where all plant-life serves as the homes of the fairy creatures. All the fairies cast spells through the use of magical mushrooms. These mushrooms allow them to control time and space. The Kingdom of Fulululu is ruled by King Bakon, who is a pure-blooded fairy. Jack is half fairy and half dandelion. This has raised some controversy, as there are those in the kingdom who oppose fairies marrying dandelions. Jill is Jack's best friend. She is a dragonfly.

With a sense of the world and characters, you can more easily launch into the story and get a stronger sense that characters are finding their own plot—all while keeping the tone and rules of your world consistent.

8. Outlining Software

I've never used any software myself, so I can't personally testify to the effectiveness of any one option. That said, there are several popular programs for writers, with the most notable being Scrivener. A quick Google search will show you dozens of other options, and there are even those who advocate using non-traditional tools like Excel and Trello for your outline.

These are just a few of the methods that have been recommended to me, that I've been exposed to, or that I've experimented with. Hopefully at least one proves useful to you. Meanwhile, do you have any specific methods of your own? We'd love to hear your preferred approach in the comments, below.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Matt Oddfield's picture
Matt Oddfield from nowhere in particular is reading Embassytown October 28, 2014 - 9:41am

Great post. I've never heard of this many variations for outlining. I guess the snowflake method is the most famous one, at least on my part of Internet. The funny thing is, whenever I try it, my snowflakes gradually drift into freestyle sketches. Oh, and I do love Excel.

Another thing I like doing is compiling a playlist for each chapter/character/whatever I feel is necessary. Gets me right in the mood.

Michele Puddu's picture
Michele Puddu October 28, 2014 - 12:15pm

Before I read this, I only knew the snowflake method. Thanks, these tips were really useful, I think I'll combine the skeleton outline with the snowflake method from now on. Using playlist for different parts is also an awesome idea, Matt!

Jason Oliver Taylor's picture
Jason Oliver Taylor October 29, 2014 - 5:07am

I begin with Pure Summary and Contextual Preparation as I collect ideas, do research, randomly think of something lying in bed, etc. and collect it all in a book with no particular order. Once I'm satisfied I have enough material, I use a hybrid of the Skeletal and Flashlight Outlining to give my ideas a sequence that will shape the story and finally when I'm ready to draft, I'll take those ordered ideas and begin the Snowflake method before committing to a draft of a chapter.

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 29, 2014 - 8:15am

Thank you so much for this. Helped a lot. Good advice, not only for novel-writing, but story-writing in general.

Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories November 3, 2014 - 6:00pm

Thanks for taking the time to gather up and explain these outlining methods. I've used many of them intuitively but haven't ever seen them separated and broken down like this. Looking at my workflow as of late I would say I've been caught in a sort of Flashlight Outlining, Free Writing, Pure Summary, Contextual Prep loop. I think having a grasp of each technique and its benefits could help me be more productive. Not saying you can't combine these methods but sometimes it's helpful to keep it simple.

In fact, I think I have identified Contextual Preparation as the culprit for grinding my creative process to a halt in my current work. I've been getting way too caught up in the minutiae. May be time to step away from CP for a while and focus on the other techniques.

Keep up the good work, Robbie.

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Rodney_McLaughlin's picture
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