When you’re writing a novel, it’s often recommended that you create an outline before you begin. And for good reason: when you start writing your novel, an outline can be your guide. Not only will an outline keep you on track, but it’ll also help things move along smoothly.
The Short Answer Is ‘It Depends on You and Your Story’
The short answer is, it depends on your story and the way you write. A novella will have different outline requirements than a novel, and an outline for a romance novel will look different than one for a young adult or science fiction novel.
There are a variety of book outline lengths, and the method that works best for you when writing fiction will depend on your genre, how you work, the level of detail you need, and the degree of advance planning you do.
Genres that involve extensive world-building, such as fantasy or sci-fi, or that require a complex web of interconnected clues, witness statements, decoys, etc.-for example, mystery, and crime novels-generally require a more detailed outline.
Some authors try to outline only one chapter outline per index card (chapter summaries), while others use a single index card to outline an entire story arc or book.
Detailed outlines can be as long as 10,000 words or more for a novel. JK Rowling famously did this. “Panster” writers, on the other hand, may prefer to have no written story outline at all-perhaps just a clearly stated two- or three-line premise (story idea) – Stephen King advocates this approach.
Some authors manage to outline a novel in a few hours; others take weeks or even months to develop a complete outline, which in the case of fantasy novels often includes much of the world-building.
A Scene-by-Scene List of Events
A novel outline is a scene-by-scene listing of events that unfolds the characters and the world and takes the characters from beginning to end. It usually contains the key plot points and indicates where the rising action, climax, and falling action occur.
An outline isn’t a rigid set of rules, but rather a guide to where you want to go with your story. You may deviate from it or use only parts of it, but an outline gives you direction when you need it most – when you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper and haven’t written anything in days.
Importantly, it helps you sort out your story structure before you step into writing and to avoid plot holes. Character development can become much easier when mapped out in an outline.
Remember, there’s no pressure on you when you write your outline – the only eyes that might see it are your own and perhaps those of your editor! On the other hand, a clear story structure as laid out in an outline can avoid or get past writer’s block.
You might choose to use a novel outline template. There are many different approaches and templates – including Save the Cat (Blake Snyder), Take Off Your Pants (Libbie Hawker), the Snowflake Method (by Randy Ingermanson), and variations of The Hero’s Journey. Some of them are built into outline apps like Plottr or Storyplanner.
Some of them focus on characters, others on plot or major story points (a plot outline). Or it might be a beat sheet.
Tools for Outlining
There are many outline tools, including:
- Mindmapping (iThoughts and TheBrain are good apps).
- Pen and paper
- Plotting software and apps (I use Plottr and Aeon Timeline)
- Writing apps (I use Scrivener and sometimes Ulysses).
Here Are Some Basic Guidelines for How to Make It Work for Your Novel
Writing a novel outline is an important first step in your writing process. It’s often helpful to think of the outline as a kind of road map for the story that you can refer back to when you get stuck or need to know where you stand.
Your outline should start out simple and basic.
You may want to write a rough outline based only on events, motivations, and settings that seem logical, but don’t worry too much about specificity yet; just scribble a few headings on your paper and try not to stop until you’ve written something substantial!
Or think about your main character’s weakness and how it affects her, and then the other important levers in your story – antagonist, triggering event, conflict, and so on. In other words, to handle the character arc first.
There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Approach
When it comes to outlining a novel, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Some writers like to have everything in their head before they start writing, while others prefer to figure everything out as they go.
Some like to have a detailed outline, others a loose one.
The truth is that both extremes have their pros and cons. And if you want your story to be as good as it can be, you should figure out what works best for you – and that means a little experimentation.
Your Novel Outline Might Be as Simple as a Few Bullet Points
About what happens and what you want to happen.
One of the most important things to know when writing a novel outline is that there’s no right length. You may have heard of writers who wrote a 50-page outline before they started writing. But feel free to ignore them.
Your novel’s outline can be as simple as a few bullet points about what’s happening, the main characters, and your genre (fantasy, science fiction, literary). It can be a few pages long. But it can also be several pages long.
The decision is yours – and depends on how detailed you feel you need to be at this stage of the writing process.
Some writers find that too much detail in their outline inhibits their creativity when it comes to actual writing. They get stuck trying to make their first draft match their outline exactly, rather than giving themselves permission to let the story grow organically and change as they write. If this applies to you-and especially if you plan to revise your first draft yourself-try not to overthink your outline right now.
It Might Be a Detailed Roadmap
Your outline could turn out to be a detailed roadmap with character motivations, secondary characters, descriptions of key moments, and settings.
As I mentioned earlier, outlines can be as varied as the writers who create them. There’s no magic formula for outlining a novel or screenplay.
Or Something in Between
This decision should depend on your writing process and how detailed you need to be to move forward.
Discover Ideas That You Hadn’t Previously Considered
If you write something in great detail, for example, you may discover ideas you hadn’t considered before, or focus on one aspect of your story that trumps another.
You may also discover what you don’t already know about the events surrounding your story. For example, if a scene takes place in a specific location, an outline gives you the opportunity to research that location and make sure it fits your story.
It Can Also Overwhelm You
But it can also overwhelm you with details that are too specific before they actually play a role in the story (for example, if you spend too much time describing minor characters who don’t appear until the middle of the story).
- Too many characters can cause your novel plot to become bloated and difficult to follow. (And if you still have to decide on names, even more so).
- Too many ideas can cause you to get lost in a sea of notes and make it difficult to filter out what’s important.
- Too many settings can muddle your story, especially if they’re not crucial to the main plot of the novel.
- Too many plot lines can leave you feeling like each plotline has been shortchanged by the time you’re done writing-or worse, that none of them have been handled as well as they could’ve been.
- Too many issues can make your story feel unfocused or scattered. This is especially true if you haven’t yet decided which theme(s) are most important to the overall narrative of your book.
- Too much conflict – especially internal conflict – can detract from an epic battle between good and evil (or a similar theme). For example, instead of focusing on a single tension between protagonist and antagonist, too much emphasis on internal conflict will only muddy the waters when readers have to take sides on the way to resolution.
Keep in mind that the whole point of outlining is to whittle away any confusion and extraneous ideas before you get to writing your first draft. Remember that you can update your outline as your draft develops.
This Way of Working May Be Ideal
If you’re an incredibly organized writer who likes to plan ahead and explore different options, this way of working in novel writing may be ideal for you. If you fall into this category, you’ll probably also appreciate the ability to work on your story in small sections.
If you are an aspiring writer, definitely take the time to explore the best outlining process for you and your genre.
By breaking your project into sections, you can take some time on each section until it feels complete before moving on to the next. This way, the project can be made more manageable so that it doesn’t feel too daunting. It’s also a way to make sure you don’t forget any important details as you jump back and forth between sections of your novel.