How to Write a Novel Outline and Structure a Story
Why Bother with an Outline?
If you outline your novel before you start writing you ensure your story has a sensible structure from the beginning, and you may save yourself from hours of aggravation later on. Your plot, characters and setting will be more vivid, and you’ll get more work done in less time.
Many novelists like the idea of sitting down with their laptops and letting ideas waft over them, then snatching them as they pass and molding them into a story. I know I did, but I learned the hard way that unless you start with a solid plan, you can easily end up writing yourself in circles.
In the before time, prior to this online writing thing I do now, I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel. I sat down and just let the ideas fly, and I was pretty proud of myself when I’d banged out a 100,000-word first draft in under a month.
But there were problems. When I went back to proofread and rewrite some things didn’t quite mesh correctly. I had to rework major parts of the story, rebuild characters, and do a whole lot of editing to make things come together. It was a big headache.
These days, I much prefer to outline a novel before I start. Actually, I prefer to outline anything before I start, including an article like this one. Before I begin writing an article I always open a new Word document and take some time to build an outline of headers which will serve as the skeleton of the piece. It may take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, and it is time well spent. But building an outline for a novel is a much more complex process.
In this article I’ll share the method that has works best for me. It’s a hodgepodge of different advice I’ve heard and read over the years. I picked out what made sense to me from each approach and blended it all together. You’re exact method will probably be different still, but hopefully you’ll get the idea.
Let's get to it!
Creating Your Novel Outline
The first thing you need to understand is that the outline itself is part of the novel writing process. It isn’t a series of scribbled notes to help you remember things, and it isn’t something you can do in an hour or even a day. Building a strong outline takes a lot of thought and time.
In fact, I have found it is a good idea to spend a few weeks just working on your novel outline and structure. During this time you’re basically writing an abbreviated version of your story, figuring out plot twists, developing characters and building your fictional world. Make your mistakes here, and hash them out.
If you build the structure of your story now, by the time you get around to actually writing the meat of the novel you won’t have any surprises, and your work will go smoothly. If your outline makes sense, your story will make sense.
So, what does a novel’s structure look like anyway? The ideas here are as varied as each writer, but here are some ideas that have helped me.
Overall Novel Structure
Many writers like to tell their stories in sections, or “acts”. I think this is a good approach. You can choose to do so in three sections, five sections--whatever you wish. But the point is to decide how many sections your novel will have, and figure out the purpose of each section.
In this example, you’re using the three-act concept: You may want to use the first section (or act) to introduce the main characters, present the problem the protagonist needs to solve and wrench up the tension.
In the second section, you may wish to have a major change to shake things up, such as a big plot twist, revelation or death of a major character.
In the final section, your protagonist begins to turn the tide and starts working toward the final climax, of course battling issues along the way and winning in the end. Or maybe not winning, if you're a Hemingway fan. The choice is yours.
Structure of Each Act or Section
Each section (or act) will have a beginning, middle and end. You want to tell the story of how the protagonist got from point A in the beginning of the section, to point Z at the end. This means figuring out where point A and Z are, for starters.
For instance, in the first act of your novel your protagonist may go from being a mild-mannered gas station attendant, minding her own business, to a brainwashed CIA operative programmed to eliminate a foreign head of state. How does that happen to her? Tell that story in your first act.
In the second act, she may go from a brainwashed CIA operative, to finding out the truth behind her CIA involvement, and realizing it has been going on her whole life and there is no way to stop it. Things just got whole lot worse for her. Tell that story in the second act.
In the third act she goes from hopeless and doomed to learning that the answer to her problem is (insert impossible solution here) and she has to (insert unlikely accomplishment here) before (insert horrible happening here). Of course she wins in the end, but how? Take the reader along that rollercoaster in the third section.
Within the novel, of course you’ll have different chapters. How they are organized is also important to the overall flow of the story.
Just like each act of your novel, each chapter should have a beginning and an end. Think of every chapter as telling a little story of its own. Every chapter needs to have a purpose, and move the story along.
The beginning should pick up where the previous chapter left off. The middle might introduce a problem, a twist, a revelation, or something else important to the plot. The end moves the reader on to the next chapter.
For example, in a two-thousand word chapter you may tell the story of how your gas-station protagonist defeated the rogue assassin, stole a secret document, then crashed her car trying to get away from the assassin who really wasn’t dead at all. The next chapter would pick up from there, and tell its own story.
If you look at your novel as a monolithic 100,000-word monster it can be very daunting, but if you think of it as a series of little 2,000-word chapters (stories) it doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating.
So, how do you turn all that mumbo jumbo into an outline? Here’s how, and it’s pretty easy.
First, ask yourself how long your novel needs to be. Maybe you decide 100,000 words are enough.
Based on that, decide how many chapters you need to have. For 100k words, I would think 50 is a good number, but pick whatever you like.
Maybe you’re thinking these two numbers will be determined by how the story ends up flowing, and you can’t possibly predict the number of chapters or words you’ll end up with before you start writing. You can, and this is the idea behind building a good outline.
Don’t look at this process as robbing you of your creativity. The purpose of the outline is to help you stay organized and focused, so you can be more creative when it counts. You’d rather spend your time writing awesome prose than editing and rewriting, right?
So a 100,000-word novel, with 50 chapters, will be about 2,000 words per chapter. It doesn’t have to be exact. Some will be 2,200, some 1,800. The point is that’s your goal.
Now you know how long your book will be, how many chapters it will have, and how long those chapters will be.
Putting Your Outline Together
The first thing you’re going to do is divide your book into sections as discussed above. Three sections, five sections, whatever. Then, you’re going to figure out the purpose of each section, and what happens in each.
Take as long as you need to figure this out, think about it hard, and write it down on paper or in a Word document. Do not leave loose ends and assume you’ll figure it out as you write. Now is the time to figure it out. What you’ll have when you’re done is a very broad telling of your story, from beginning to end.
Next, divide the number of chapters in your book by the number of sections you’ve decided on. If you’ve decided on 50 chapters and three sections, this mean you need to tell the story of each section in 16 chapters. You’ll have a couple left over, to plug where they are needed.
Finally, figure out the purpose of each chapter within each section. List your chapters on a piece of paper or Word doc in the order they’ll appear in your book. For each you need to come up with a short summary, which you will write next to each chapter number or name. One to three sentences is enough.
Like the novel itself, and each section in the novel, to be effective your chapters should take the reader through a beginning, a middle where the story moves along, and an end that sets up the next chapter. Your chapter endings don’t have to be cliff-hangers, but they should at least make the reader curious about what happens next.
As you work ask yourself the important questions. Does the story make sense? Do the chapters flow together logically? Could it be better? Think about it. Sleep on it. Edit, revise and rewrite your chapter summaries until you have them exactly how you want them.
When you’re done with this process, which can take days or weeks, you’ve got 50 chapters, each summarized with a sentence or two, which move logically and tell your story from beginning to end.
Congratulations. You’ve made a solid outline!
Sample Chapter Summaries
Protagonist is walking to work when a car comes from out of nowhere and almost hits him. Someone in the car throws a crumpled up sheet of paper out the window as it speeds away. When the protagonist reads it, it has an address with the words "Be here at midnight tonight or else!"
Protagonist arrives at work and finds the place closed. Another note is on the door. This time it reads "Do not enter. Bomb inside. Midnight tonight. I have your coworkers. No cops or you'll regret it."
Protagonist ponders what could have brought on this madness, and who are these people? Considers options (calling police, contacting friends, etc) then decides to go home and wait until midnight. When he arrives home, firetrucks are in the street and his house is ablaze.
When it is time to start writing, for real, all you need to do is look at your chapter summaries and build the story of the chapter. Think of the outline of your novel as like the outline of a picture, and the writing of your novel as like coloring that picture.
So what if you decide you want to change something, or kill off a character, or make some other major edit you hadn’t considered while making the outline? You can make any changes you want. You’re a writer, not an accountant! You’ll have your outline to refer to so you can determine how these changes impact the overall book.
And, if you novel ends up being 110,000 words instead of 100,000, or has 49 chapters instead of 50, it’s no big deal. Remember, the purpose of the outline is to boost your creativity, not stifle it.
Anyway, this is the method I use when I write, and it’s worked well for me. I hope it works for you too. If nothing else, hopefully you’re convinced of the importance of spending a significant amount of time in the outlining process before you begin writing. It really is worth it when you realize how much less time you’ll spend editing, and how many mistakes you’ll avoid while figuring out your story.
Thanks for reading and good luck with your novel outline!