How to Outline a Novel: Your Complete Guide

If you’re a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of your pants), outlining a novel can appear impossible. Trust me, I know.

I’ve written nearly 200 books, had 21 New York Times bestsellers, and sold over 71 million copies—and guess what?

I’m not an Outliner.

I’m a Pantser.

The truth is, about half of all novelists—including a few you’ve heard of—are Pantsers. (Does the name Stephen King ring a bell?)

Outliners tend to determine everything in advance—every detail researched and the story plotted with precision.

Pantsers begin with the germ of a premise, maybe with a strong lead character in mind, and an idea where they think it’ll end.

Then they write by process of discovery—or, as King puts it, they “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”

Regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser, you need an idea where you’re headed before you begin.

So, Which Are You: Outliner or Pantser?

How to outline a novelHow to outline a novel

There’s no right or wrong answer—neither better or worse. One will simply feel most natural to you.

You may even be a hybrid— one who needs the security of an outline and the freedom to let the story take you where it will. (In truth, most of us are hybrids to a point.)

Whichever you are, at some point during the writing you’ll likely wish you were the other.

When I hit the wall at the halfway to three-quarter mark of just about every novel, an outline sounds like a great security blanket. Especially when I’m wondering where to go next.

Deep down, I know better. Outlines just don’t work for me. Every time I plot a story in advance, things get predictable.

No idea which you are? Try outlining, and if you get antsy to just start writing, you’re probably a Pantser.

Try just diving in, and if you’re soon lost and feel as if you don’t even know your characters, you may be an Outliner who needs to back up and think things through before you start.

A Winning Strategy For Your Plot Outline

Don’t mistake a story structure for an outline, because regardless whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser, you need a structure.

The Classic Story Structure, created by bestselling author Dean Koontz, changed my career and catapulted me from a mid-list genre novelist to a bestselling author.

It’s simple. He advises you:

  1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. (That trouble will look different depending on your genre. For a thriller it might be life-or-death. For a romance it might mean a heroine choosing between two suitors.) It must be the worst trouble you can imagine for your lead character and carry stakes dire enough to justify a book-length story.
  2. Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only worse.
  3. Eventually things reach a point of apparent hopelessness.
  4. Finally, everything your character has learned through all that trouble gives him what he needs to win the day—or fail (occasionally, not often, a sad ending resonates with readers).

Whether you use this, or one of the other six story structures I explain in novel outline step #2 below, find a strategy that helps keep you—and your readers—engaged to the very end.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.

How to Outline a Novel in 6 Steps

How to Outline a Novel Even If You Aren't an OutlinerHow to Outline a Novel Even If You Aren't an Outliner

Even though I’m not an Outliner, I never write a novel without a structure in mind.

The story outline process (whatever that looks like for you) should be fluid. It’s designed to keep you on track, keep you from stalling, and gives you a safety net—a good thing, especially for procrastinators.

For the Pantser, it may be as simple as a single sheet of paper that ends up looking more like a roadmap than an outline.

For the Outliner, it may be a 20+ page detailed list. Whichever it is, it can help narrow your focus so you can get on with writing your novel.

Follow this basic format:

1. Distill your novel idea into one sentence.

This is called your Elevator Pitch: what you’d share with a publishing professional between the time you meet him on the elevator and the time he gets off.

I once wrote a novel about a judge who tries a man for a murder that the judge committed.

That was my Elevator Pitch..

Simple, short, and concise—it was that germ of an idea that became Margo, my very first novel.

2. Decide on a story structure.

Various writing coaches use varying terms for common fiction elements, but they’re largely similar. Every effective story will include some version of:

  • An opener
  • An inciting incident that changes everything
  • A series of crises that build tension
  • A climax
  • An end

There’s no end to suggested story structures, but here are seven popular ones:

  1. Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
  2. In Medias Res
  3. The Hero’s Journey
  4. The 7-Point Story Structure
  5. Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method
  6. The Three-Act Structure
  7. James Scott Bell’s a Disturbance and Two Doorways

For a more in-depth explanation on these points, visit my post on story structure here.

3. Map out your characters.

Character development will make or break your story. Outliners have an advantage here, and Pantsers do well to learn from this.

Outliners tend to map out the backstory of each character, getting to know them. They conduct imaginary interviews and simply ask the characters about themselves. Readers won’t likely see most of this information, but it does inform your writing.

Whether you get to know your characters in advance or allow them to reveal themselves to you as you write, make them human, vulnerable, and flawed—eventually heroic and inspiring, but not perfect.

4. Flesh out your plot.

The plot of a story is the sequence of events that makes up your novel—the beginning, middle, and end—the what of the story. Plot compels your reader to either keep turning the pages or set your book aside.

Using a story structure like one of the above, map out your story using one of these plot types:

  1. Adventure — a person goes to new places, experiences new things, and faces myriad obstacles.
  2. Change — a person undergoes a dramatic transformation.
  3. Romance — jealousy and misunderstandings threaten lovers’ happiness.
  4. Mistake — an innocent person caught in a situation he doesn’t understand must overcome foes and dodge danger.
  5. Lure — a person must decide whether to give in to temptation, revenge, rage, or some other passion. He grows from discovering things about himself.
  6. Race — characters chase wealth or fame but must overcome others to succeed.
  7. Gift — an ordinary person sacrifices to aid someone else. The lead may not be aware of his own heroism until he rises to the occasion.

5. Decide on your setting.

The setting of a story is one of the most important elements of writing a novel. (Show, don’t tell.)

Setting may include location, time, or era, but it should also include how something looks, smells, feels, and sounds.

Thoroughly research details about your setting, but remember this is seasoning, not the main course. The main course is the story itself.

6. Synopsize your chapters.

Write a few sentences in present tense about what happens in each chapter.

Sample: Jack discovers his fiancee is cheating on him and confronts her.

The Ultimate Novel Outline Method

If you’re an Outliner and want to jump in with both feet, tap into the mind of Dr. Randy Ingermanson—the Sheldon Cooper of novelists.

On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon has a Master’s Degree and two doctoral degrees.

Randy got his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics, specializing in elementary particle theory. He also did two years of post-graduate work on superstring theory.

He now applies that intellect to novel writing and teaching writing and has become the story outliner extraordinaire.

Visit his site and check out his Snowflake Method for outlining your novel.

You may want to invest in his Writing Fiction for Dummies, as well. 

If you’re a Pantser, Randy would tell you to stay far from his method—he says Outliners are Outliners and Pantsers are Pantsers, and never the twain shall meet.

Just remember, Outliners and Pansters have a lot to learn from each other. Determine which approach works best for you, and then have fun with it. Keep your structure fluid. Let it work for you.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.

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