How to Outline a Novel

Updated on October 13, 2019
LisaKoski profile image

I have had a lifelong passion for reading and writing and graduated with a bachelor's in English literature.

Novel outline writing
Novel outline writing | Source
Whether you use storyboards or just write out details, outlines can really help make writing novels easier.
Whether you use storyboards or just write out details, outlines can really help make writing novels easier. | Source

Novel Writing TIps

Reading a variety of books and paying attention to their structure can help give you an idea of how you would like to outline your own novel. Take notes on how the story is developed and try to create an outline of a novel to get an idea of how it was put together.

Writing Tips From Anne Rice

Novel Outline

Plenty of writers out there prefer to let their fingers dance freely along the keyboard without a clue as to where they might go, rather than start with an outline to map out their novel. While that technique may work for many an author out there, understanding how to outline a novel can really help get those in need of a bit more direction to get started. One of the most essential aspects to outline-writing for a novel is that there is no end to the way that you may choose to create your own. Here, I have provided just a couple of techniques to give you an idea of what is out there and perhaps inspire you to start your very own outline for your novel that works best for you.

The problem many authors find with the idea of outlining a novel is the fact that it may impede creativity as you are stuck on a set direction for the story. This is why I beg you to remember that an outline is not a contract that must be followed exactly in order for a quality novel to be produced. Think of it as more of a guide in case you get lost or wander too far from the right path. Things may change in the story as you go along, but an outline can keep you from straying too far from what you had in mind at the get-go and keep you focused as you produce each chapter.

As I already mentioned, there is no end to the ways in which you can outline a novel. Some writers choose to create just a general outline of the plot for their story, others may draw up an outline for each scene they plan to have within the books, and there are even some authors who choose to create detailed outlines and other documents for each character, location, and other aspects within their story before writing a single word down in chapter one. What you choose to outline and how detailed you are about it all depends on you and your own needs, so your decision should be based on what you feel comfortable working with.

How to Storyboard For a Novel

Storyboards are one of the best ways to outline a novel, especially if you are a very visual person. They can be written on a large poster, a small piece of paper, a whiteboard, or saved on your computer, whatever fits you best. Storyboards are basically set up like a checkerboard, with squares filling up the paper or other media of your choice that each represents a chapter within the novel. The size of the squares and amount that you have are all dependent on how long your novel is and how much detail you are planning outline for that novel.

Another great part about storyboards is that they can be really fun. Really large storyboards can be found on walls or boards that have been divided into big squares to fit any amount of sticky notes, pictures, and any other bits of inspiration that are relevant to that portion of the novel. Sticky notes are especially helpful as they can be stuck together within a single square and represent each scene within that chapter. When you have a storyboard finished and laid out before you, it makes it easier to see where your novel is going and how every piece fits into the larger picture of your story. Just remember that as you write, you never know when a scene or other detail may unexpectedly change due to sudden inspiration.

The many varieties that can be found in storyboards show how an outline for a novel can come in all shapes and sizes. Just make sure you have enough room to keep them safe from harm if you choose to go really big.

How you decide to outline a novel is all up to you.
How you decide to outline a novel is all up to you. | Source

Novel Outline Writing Tips

Using different colors within your outline can make it a little more fun to look at and a lot more organized. Experiment with different color pencils or other media and assign meanings to each color. For example, if there is a detail in one chapter foreshadowing something later one, use a color such as red to mark it so that you remember to include it in that chapter as you write.

Writing a Novel Outline

The more basic form of writing an outline for a novel is to just answer a few general questions and write them all out on sheets of paper for you to follow. There is no end to the amount of outlines you can write for your novel, which can be about the entire novel as a whole, or you can break it up into separate outlines each for characters, scenes, chapters, and for the plotline. This type of outline can be tedious and involves a lot of drafting, but it is worth it in the end to have a solid outline to follow as you write your novel.

The process for this type of outline for a novel is to start off brainstorming. Just sit down and write out anything off of the top of your head that you are thinking for your novel. Usually, this comes from days, weeks, or even months of thinking through different aspects of your novel, from the basic story to the names of each character. Once you have as much information as you feel is necessary, you can really begin outlining your novel.

Now that you have these ideas down, it is time to put them together into an outline to guide you through the writing process. There are many questions you will have to answer as you create your novel's outline, which begins very broad and narrows down into more specific aspects essential to the plot. First, I suggest you attempt to write a summary for your novel that would be worthy of that spot at the back of a book or inside the jacket. If you cannot keep your summary focused enough for one to two sentences, that may mean that your ideas are not focused enough to get started on your outline so if you find yourself in that situation, I would suggest going back to the drawing board and brainstorming more before continuing this process.

Now that you have a summary down, there are a few questions to get you started mapping out an outline. The first questions you want to answer when you begin this form of outline are as follows:

  1. Who is your main character?
  2. What central problem or conflict will they face in the novel?
  3. How will they solve this problem?
  4. What difficulties will they face when trying to achieve their goal?
  5. What are the main events within the novel?
  6. What type of novel will this be?
  7. What is the setting of the novel?

How to Teach Yourself to Outline for a Novel

If you still do not feel comfortable outlining your own novel, practice with a novel or two written by others. As you read a book, take each chapter apart and outline it scene by scene, chapter by chapter, until you are finished. Take a look at what you have created and how each part of the novel fits into the larger picture. With enough practice, you may find writing your own outline for a novel to be much easier.

How do you write a novel outline?

Which method would you choose?

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Outline for a Book

At this point in the process, you will have many of the more general aspects of the novel figured out, such as who is the main character and what conflict they will face. Now, you want to decide on scenes to include within the novel. Do not worry about order just yet. Instead, focus on the importance of each scene within the story. You will want to put them all in order in the end, as you divide them up into chapters.

Once again, there are questions to keep in mind as you come up with scenes to include in your outline for a novel. These questions are as follows:

  1. Who is in the scene?
  2. Whose point of view will the scene come from?
  3. How does it fit into the main story?
  4. Why is it important to the story?
  5. What happens?
  6. Where is it?
  7. What does it accomplish? (For example, does the character move closer or further from his/her goal?)

Once you have the scenes written out and in order, your outline is complete. You may decide to include character outlines or other details of the novel if you wish, but that is all up to you. Remember that novel-writing takes time, so do not feel rushed during this process. Although understanding how to outline a novel does not guarantee a novel's success, it is one step toward ensuring success, especially for first-time authors as it gives you direction and focus as you write. Good luck!

© 2013 Lisa


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    • wpcooper profile image


      12 months ago from Barstow

      wow an interesting topic that I've debated myself. I think an outline gives you a good foundation. Some nice tips and inspiration too.

    • DominiqueCM profile image

      Dominique Cantin-Meaney 

      4 years ago from Montreal, Canada

      These are pretty good tips for those writers who want to use an outline. Thanks for sharing.

    • Meggan Dunn profile image

      Meggan Dunn 

      5 years ago from Winnie, TX

      I have always sat down and just started writing. Sometimes I am dedicated to finish but most of the time another idea pops in my mind and offi go onto another project. When I get back to the original idea I forget what I was thinking. I will have to try outlining so it doesn't happen often.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      6 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Very useful hub, for sure. Thanks for sharing. I write family stories in both non-fiction and fiction venues. Always looking for useful advice. ;-)

    • Willsummerdreamer profile image

      Will English 

      7 years ago

      Very useful advice. Good hub *bookmarks, and shares*.

    • BrandonWalker profile image

      Brandon Walker 

      7 years ago from Virginia

      I found this hub extremely useful. Thanks so much for taking the time to put it together it will help me in the future with my short stories and novels!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 

      7 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Interesting perspective and very helpful. I've written ten books and only loosely use an outline. In some, I've started out with one, only to write something completely different. What I find myself doing more of is writing a short one page summary of the book and then creating the entire book. I like the way you said that an outline is not a contract. Kind of takes the pressure off of following it to a T. Also, the storyboard idea is a fabulous one. I might use that for my next book. Great hub!

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      7 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Great Hub, Lisa. Only a genius like Stephen King can do it without an outline, but I think he carries outlines in his head. I agree, outlining a novel is critical. The outline brings me to a chapter or scene. That's when the creative juices start to flow. voted up useful and awesome.

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 

      7 years ago from Long Island, NY

      so helpful as to be inspiring. thanks Lisa. best, Ken

    • thewritingowl profile image

      Mary Kelly Godley 

      7 years ago from Ireland

      Good advice and as you say I tried to follow a structured plan. Just on the last chapter of my first complete novel (but the dreaded editing and polishing has to come now). I did start with a chapter plan and I listed the main points I wanted in each chapter too. It kind of worked i.e. I stuck to it about 70 to 80% of the time which was really good for me. Even though I wasn't able to follow it rigidly in the end it was a great help and when I was losing direction a bit I was able to go back to my plan and veer myself back on track again. Article votes up.

    • Maralexa profile image

      Marilyn Alexander 

      7 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      To think that I might someday write a novel! I have an idea in my mind and this hub of yours inspires me to put an outline together. It seems so overwhelming at the start - perhaps I'm a perfectionist. Thank you for sharing this information. Your advice is extremely timely and worthwhile.

      Voted up, interesting, and sharing. You have a new fan!

    • torrilynn profile image


      7 years ago

      Hi Lisa,

      i feel as an author one should always write an outline in order

      to organize there ideas and thoughts so therefore when they go to make

      a draft everything flows together unless you are one of those people who do

      not feel that you need to then to each its own. thanks for the info.

      voted up

    • carter06 profile image


      7 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      This is really helpful info Lisa & is sure to benefit many of us who write..

      Great job.. VUUAI & shared..Will tweet also.

    • Hawaiian Scribe profile image

      Stephanie Launiu 

      7 years ago from Hawai'i

      How did you know that my to-do list for March has me starting my first book? Finally. I decided that I need to put all those ideas in my head down on paper. Your hub has come along at just the right time. Voted up, useful, interesting, tweeted and pinned. Aloha, Stephanie

    • Pennypines profile image

      Lucille Apcar 

      7 years ago from Mariposa, California, U.S.A.

      I have a life-long fascination with history and enjoy fantasizing about events or people who make it into the history books. And I love to poke a little fun at pomposities. So I just let my imagination run and compose a story about events or people that I make sure is clearly understood as simply a flight of fancy.

      After all, isn't most written history nothing but individual interpretation?


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