Let me tell you a really tragic story then – a tale of passionate quest and heartbreaking despair!
Once upon a time, there was somebody who wanted to write a novel. They had an idea they adored, and maybe a character or a scene too.
One bright morning they sat down to write it. At first, everything seemed smooth sailing, and it’s very possible it was even fun.
But somewhere along the way, things must have gone terribly wrong because suddenly our main character noticed that their plot was stalling like an old tractor motor.
Maybe plot threads got all messed up, or that whole thing went stale like the last slice of bread found in the bread bag after the weekend. Not very alluring at all.
Or maybe there was a problem with pacing and characters, you know, arcs and subplots making less sense than a librarian playing the Super Bowl.
That plot-stricken person started to wonder if they had enough conflict, if they should re-order the scenes, and did that climax really make sense…? Luckily, by that point, they were already completely stuck in their sagging middle, and it became easy to discard of the entire thing…
Was that person you?
Or did you at least have something in common with them?
Here is the problem: You started without a plan.
You skipped the outline.
And while for some experienced writers that might be the way to go, for the overwhelming majority of writers I do not recommend it at all – for the simple reason that you have to take care of too many moving parts at once.
So in this post, we are going to take a look at a very simple and basic method you can use to create a fully functioning outline; and maybe more importantly, I’m going to show you a system for organizing that outline into a neat list or table that will massively help with the writing of your first draft.
So dear pantsers, cover your ears, because you won’t like this (but whom am I talking to!? You probably didn’t click on that nasty headline anyways.).
And plotters, welcome to paradise!
In this post, learn:
- Which elements your story needs
- How to pack all of these story elements into one enticing unit
- What your outline should include
- How to create an outline that gives you the best possible shot when writing your first draft
- How to organize your scene list
We will do this in two steps:
- BUILD: Put together all the elements of an exciting, fully-functioning plot
- ORGANIZE: Structure that plot into a table or list to support you with your writing process
Separating these two steps will make it much easier for you to get to a useful, well-structured outline.
And of course you will also get a…
Novel Outline Worksheet
Download your complete guide to outlining (it’s free)!
It’s a summary of this post that is turned into a really helpful worksheet, plus a handy timeline template for writing your first draft (for filled out example see below). Never again get confused or caught up in your plot threads like in sticky spiderwebs! Ugggh!!
And now, let’s get right into it:
How to Write a Novel Outline
Outlining your novel might feel confusing. But splitting it up into two parts will make it much easier. Let’s start with step…
1. BUILD: Putting Together All of the Great Story Elements You Need
A. Your Plot in a Nutshell
Let’s create your plot in a nutshell – the simplest possible version!
Here are the very basics of any plot. Answer these questions:
- Who is your main character?
- What do they want?
- What’s the problem?
Let’s look at these questions one by one in detail:
1. Who is your main character?
To give your story focus and direction, you need one (or in rare cases several) main character(s). This is your starting point.
Who shall it be? Dig into the deepest corners of your brain and see if someone is at home. If you have several characters, it’s good to settle on one or two maximum.
Spend a bit of time on describing the personality of your main character. It will serve you well later, when you figure out your plot’s direction and which new twists to insert.
2. What do they want?
What your main character wants will create your entire story. His motive is what sends him on the journey and kicks off the plot.
You can choose between many different types of goals for your character. Here are some examples:
- Materialistic goals: A million dollars; a new car
- Achievement goals: Win the race; pass the exam
- Life goals: Marry that girl; build that business
- Emotional goals: Feeling better about yourself after taking revenge; impressing your friends with your connections
- Goals of avoiding something: Avoiding being captured by the police; avoiding losing power over the kingdom
- Goals of getting rid of something: Escaping a miserable living situation; poisoning the mother-in-law
- Mission goals: Landing on Mars; finding the Holy Grail
- Survival goals: Escaping the burning building; finding the antidote
- Can you think of any more types of goals?
If you have no idea what your main character’s goal could be, then ask her!
Look at it like this: If grandpa asked you to cook him soup, you wouldn’t stand in front of the kitchen cupboard endlessly pondering on which soup to cook, would you?
No way – you would just ask him! (and thanks for caring, you warm-hearted human being you.)
That’s exactly how you should treat your characters: As real people, asking them for their desires. And if they don’t want to tell you, then maybe you need to spend more time with them to get to know them better.
3. What’s the problem?
The third part of the equation (don’t we all just love math?) is the obstacle – the problem. If your character immediately got whatever he wanted, then we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we? So his problem creates our plot.
In many cases, when you describe what he wants, the problem is already included (e.g. you wouldn’t ask yourself for very long what your problem was, if your goal was to escape from a burning building: your steak getting well done within nanoseconds would undeniably let you know).
In other cases, you have to add a nice juicy obstacle to the mix. Pick one that will lead your story to scenes you will enjoy!
Here are some types of story problems:
- The antagonist(s) is/are the problem: Supervillain; greedy corporate boss
- Major catastrophe is the problem: Flood; miners trapped under ground
- Personal problem: Character contracts HIV; character loses his job
- Internal problems: Character mourning for her husband; character lost all self-confidence
- Riddle problem: Who is the murderer? (riddle to guess for the main character; or for the audience; or for both)
- Decision problem: Which suitor will she like better?
- Social problem: Intrigue on the royal court; agent playing off other agent against his foes
- Hostile environment problem: War; jungle expedition
- Step-by-step challenge: A series of smaller problems
It’s often fun to combine several of these problems. For example, try a thriller in which we have a powerful secret service for an antagonist, but our main character also has to wonder how that secret service is able to conduct its operations so effortlessly (riddle).
At this point, it’s fun to go into details about your character’s obstacles:
- What/Who creates these problems?
- What’s an unexpected way of resolving them?
- Which detours are necessary to resolve them?
- And which smaller parts could the problem be split up into?
These details will make your plot, so think about them carefully. Think about all of the possibilities where your story could go… Allow yourself to get crazy! You can always scratch ideas later, if you don’t like them.
You now have your plot-in-a-nutshell ready. Please pay attention to this very complex graphic that visualizes your distinguished plot:
B. Adding More Elements to Your Plot
Your character solving one single problem will usually not be enough to fill an entire novel. And that means it’s time to bring in more elements.
At this point, you can really bring in any idea you want. Worry about how to incorporate your ideas into your plot later. This is a very creative stage, the sky is the limit!
Consider these elements:
- Bringing in other characters: Which lovely or odd folks can you think of?
- Bringing in more problems: Look at the list above or create your own problems. That’s right, if you want to have problems, go get your own! *pissed look*
- Bringing in fun locations: Camping ground or castle – choose unconventional sites
- Bringing in odd situations, accidents, incidents, bad weather, whatever…
The next step is important:
C. Make Sure You Have a New Twist Every 25% of the Outline
For your story to stay interesting, you need to give it a new twist every now and then. As a rule of thumb, let’s say a new twist or turn has to happen every 25% along the way.
Look at your plot so far: Does it show some major change of direction every quarter of the plot or so? If not, you now have to come up with something and insert it into your outline. Big moments are what a good story is all about, so don’t be stingy!
Also, make sure to bring in the first one of these problems very early on, within the first couple of pages. Otherwise your readers might close your book right away because you never really hooked them.
And if you have no idea how to continue, do this:
- Ask your characters what they feel like doing or what they want
- Bring in some new element
Now we just have to tie everything up into a neat package:
D. Finally, Connect It All in a Way That Makes Sense
Look at your outline! You should have plenty of material to write about by now: Incidents, twists/problems and characters. However, it might still look more like a loose bunch of scenes than an actual story.
I want you to do these two things to tie it all up neatly:
1. Focus on your main story arc (= on your character’s quest)
With all the elements you have brought in now, it would be easy to go astray like a cat in heat: You could at any point go after your next shiny character or side scene. Don’t do this!
Most of your scenes and situations (let’s say 70%-80%) have to be about the thing your main character wants, the thing that kicked off the entire plot. If that means you have to scratch scenes and elements, then please discharge your duties now.
2. Look for Missing Connections and Missing Logical Links between Scenes
For each scene, ask yourself: Does it make sense for this scene to be in there? Is this scene motivated by the story?
If it doesn’t/isn’t, then you have to insert a trigger for the scene and/or find an earlier scene or connection that could lead to this scene. Otherwise you have to scratch your scene entirely.
Say you are writing a thriller about a war between two mafia gangs.
You have this idea about a shootout scene on top of a moving train. What can you say, you like trains and danger. You can see the jumping from wagon to wagon, masterful gunmen firing over the rattling of the wheels, the quick ducking before tunnels, etc… you love it! But the scene is not connected to your main plot in any way.
What should you do?
You have to focus on your main plot. So you need to find a way to connect your scene to your main plot, if you want to keep your scene in. You need to find a reason, a logical connection, for it to exist.
This is your idea:
The shooting happens on top of a moving train because it’s about a briefcase on the train that’s full of floorplans and information. That briefcase is on the train because our main character was travelling with it. He was travelling with it because he is a courier of one of the two gangs and had to bring that information to his boss. He had to bring that information to his boss because it was key to preparing a hit on their rival gang.
There you have it: You find a first reason for your scene to exist, and then go back the chain of reasons until you land with your main plot. You have seamlessly incorporated an exciting scene into your story.
Your other option, of course, is to scratch your scene altogether.
By the way, you can look at my guide on how to write action scenes or fight scenes in general, if you need guidance on that topic.
You have now connected all the gaps in your plotline and scratched everything that doesn’t fit in. Your story has become a smooth and compact unit.
Now how do you structure that plot into an outline that makes writing your first draft a breeze?
2. ORGANIZE: How to Write a Novel Outline
Let me quickly outline for you how to outline. Many writers seem to be confused about what a structured outline should look like, but it’s really very simple.
Let’s go step-by-step again, because we like steps:
A. Create a Full Scene List
At this point, you have your full sequence of events ready. You know exactly what is happening in your story. Now you have to clearly split up your story into single scenes or chapters.
Remember, a new scene starts whenever the characters involved, or the time or the place change – whichever one of these happens first.
Number your scenes for better overview. Just go ahead with your first scene, and put numbers on your scenes all throughout to the end, with clear marks where one scene ends and where the next one starts.
You might still discover holes or spots where your story moves too slowly or where something doesn’t fit. No problem, just change this now! Having a full, accurately marked scene list often makes one see one’s story much more clearly.
B. Create a Table, Timeline or Other Simple Graphic that Lets You Identify Scenes at One Glance
You need to know at one glance what the scene you are writing is all about, how it begins, how it ends, what you need to include, what its purpose is for the plot, and so on… That’s what your tabled outline is for!
A tabular outline could look like this, as seen in my Plottinator course (you can find it on the “Products & Coaching” page):
Some very useful columns you can include are (again):
- Scene number
- Scene title or chapter title (“Discussion in kitchen”)
- Scene location
- Short scene description (“Marta tries to persuade Henry to give her his car keys”)
- What the purpose of your scene is for the plotline and for the story in general (“set up Marta’s car accident + show readers that Marta is a bit jealous of Henry”)
- How your scene starts
- How your scene ends
- Characters involved
- Goals of the characters for the scene
- What the characters had for breakfast
Ok, that was a joke, you don’t have to do that last one… But seriously, you can include whatever you think will help you during writing your first draft. These are just suggestions. Different authors handle this very differently.
C. The Timeline (Print it!)
Another enticing way of graphically preparing your plot is a timeline. On the timeline, you mark each of your scenes in just a couple of words so you immediately know what the scene is about (“Robbery in forest”). It helps to keep the big picture in mind at all times and also where each scene fits in.
If you need a timeline template, I got you covered. You get a summary of this post too that will be very helpful when plotting your next novel.
Insta-download this and print it! Fill it in!! Celebrate it!! If you have a lot of scenes, just use two or three timeline sheets and stick them together.
Make Your Next Outline Easy: Download This Helpful Worksheet with Timeline
And in case you are wondering, here is an example of what a filled out timeline could look like:
D. Congrats, You Have Just Created a Powerful Outline!
And that’s it – you are now the proud owner of a brand-new, shiny, fully loaded outline with lifetime return guarantee. Well done!
What I love about the outline you just created is that you can now calmly go on to write your first draft – fully aware that you are in complete control of your plot and not the other way around.
You know you won’t encounter a dead end, nor a minor character taking over, nor a sagging middle. You are fully prepared and can now focus on making your single scenes shine!
Instead of challenging you to outline a full plot (which none of you would do anyways because it takes way too long), I want to ask you for your personal take on outlining: What does your outline look like? Is it a table, a timeline, a bubbly tree or something entirely different?
Have you found your personal way of outlining that works best for you? Was this a long process of trial and error? What do you like, what do you hate about outlining? Do you love it as much as me to go into your first draft knowing what’s up? Does it free you to focus on your single scenes? Can you hang up laundry on an outline?
Let me know in the comments section!
How to Outline a Novel (Summary)
A solid outline is the foundation of a tight and interesting first draft. Lay down who your main character is, what they want, and what their problem or obstacle is. Be creative and add some more elements, then make sure you bring in a new twist every 25% of the way. Focus on your main story and look out for missing connections.
Finally, in a second step, split up your outline into single scenes and organize it in the visual way that helps you best: Use a table or timeline or anything else that supports you!
You will see that with the rock-solid outlines you have created with this guide, writing your first draft is surprisingly worry-free. No distractions, no plot problems, no re-writes! Feels like flying. Plus your single scenes will thank you.
And once you are done with your first draft, lean back and enjoy the editing process… because that one will take even less effort, now everything is in its place. Aaaaah, cheers on that!
Image Credits: Crime Scene Outline: Joseph Belanger/123rf; Crying Woman: Igor Sapozhkov/123rf; Dancing Couple: Валерий Качаев/123rf; Mafia Kit: Stasyuk Stanislav/123rf; Evil Plotter: Daniel Villeneuve/123rf