Do you need to outline your novel?

Novel outlines are not a necessity or prerequisite for writing a novel, not every writer engages in this, just like there is no one right way to outline your novel.

So this is only to give you an insight into how you can outline your novel if you choose to.

Authors are believed to fall into two categories, the Pantsers, the ones who dive head-on into their creative minds as they write on, and the Plotters, the ones who take the time to outline every step of their novel before writing begins. James Patterson, and John Grisham are sworn plotters, whereas, Stephen King calls it a lazy form of writing, he is surely a pantser.

So let’s find out why you have to be a plotter for your novel.


A novel outline is a document that serves as a map to guide you through your writing journey. It includes detailed planning of your novel’s plot, structure, scenes, and characters. An outline is a fore-guide to how to embark on your novel journey that can range from a page to several pages. There are no set rules for the number of pages that determine a novel outline.

Novel outlines are not a necessity or prerequisite for writing a novel, not every writer engages in this, just like there is no one right way to outline your novel.

So this is only to give you an insight into how you can outline your novel if you choose to.

Some authors outline every step of their novel before they start writing, while others prefer to dive into it as it flows, creating the story as it goes. Both of these categories have their merits and demerits, and both can make a fantastic novel. Nevertheless, taking the time to outline your novel can save you the grief of deciding what to write next when in the heat of your writing.

Those who usually write their novels from a state of creative flow are usually not beginners, they are mostly writers who have developed an innate creative form of writing, and find it easier to flow as they write.

So, for those who are beginners, outlines help control your wonderful ideas for your story so you don’t miss out on any important detail on the journey. It eases the stress of developing your story world, central conflicts, and your characters.

You can also try an alternative method of outlining with a new book, you must not stick to the same format and rule used in your previous novel. Every story is unique, therefore the outlining process can change to suit the story you are writing.


Before we understand the steps of creating an outline, let’s first highlight the benefits and setbacks of creating novel outlines.


  • It gives a clear picture of your story
  • Keeps your writing on track
  • Determines your scene structure
  • Points out clear character arcs
  • Can reduce the effect of writer’s block
  • Blends the plot sequence
  • Saves writing time


  • It can limit your creativity and narrative flow
  • Gives a feeling of formal writing if followed closely
  • Characters become stoic and nonflexible in their choices based on outlined plots instead of their natural action

There are three basic questions every outline should tackle. Your outline should give you a sense of direction beyond just listing characters and plots for your story structure. It should give you an idea of the primary tensions and conflicts to intrigue your readers. Therefore, these three questions should stand as a guide when creating an outline for your novel.

  • What agreement do you have to deliver of the story? This must be resolved for your readers by the end of the novel.
  • How would you state the time pressure that will work on your characters?
  • Does the pressure on the protagonist get intense as the story progresses? What is at stake for the main characters?


Now, let us get down to the steps for creating a novel outline.


As earlier stated, there is no one rule for a novel outline, so find the right one that fits your writing style and personality. You can try making a list of the following to help you in identifying what works for your novel.

  • Have a mental map of how your plot, characters, conflicts, themes, and chapters relate
  • Make a synopsis with an overview of all elements of the story.
  • Detail the sequence of your scenes.


A premise is an underlying idea for your story that pushes it into objective plots. It is the bedrock of your novel and the central idea.

To determine and expand your premise with new ideas, you should find your main protagonist, the situation revolving around the protagonist, and what he/she wants in his/her objective. You also need to know how the protagonist transforms through the course of the story, from the beginning to the end of the novel.


The setting of a novel holds the same importance as the characters and has to give a sense of what is happening to your readers. Determining your setting can vary depending on the kind of novel you are writing. If your novel is set in an existing place or world, conduct extensive visual and written research to inform your ideas. Have a visual picture of your setting and write down every detail of it.


Yes, you have to meet the characters that make your story and get to know them since they are the greatness or downfall of your novel. The most efficient way to know your characters is to write a character profile. Imagine meeting them, introducing them to people you know, how would you describe them when introducing them? Talk about your characters, what they like, what they want, where they go in your story, and where they end.

Build a character back story for them. Why are their decisions carried out the way they chose? What transpired in their childhood to bring them where they are in your story? This should be the bedrock for what your characters’ goals and motivations are, what obstacles do they face and how do they confront it? Are they strong or weak characters?

Ask yourself questions that develop your characters and their world.


Create a three-tier structure of the beginning, the middle, and the end, that shapes the timeline of events. Detail out everything that happens in your novel, the locations of where your novel happens, the characters involved, the outcomes of the events, if you already have an idea of that, and how all these move the plot of the story forward.

This act focuses on your central conflict and how each plot rises and falls, and  transcends to the next.

  1. Beginning: This part of your novel should be the introduction of the antagonist and the protagonist, the world of your story, and the core of your end result. It should have your reader’s attention on the journey you are about to drive them through.
  • Middle: This is the point where the tension in your story reaches its apex, therefore have your ending figured out before getting to your middle, even if it’s a sketchy idea. This helps in guiding the progression of your climax.
  • End: It may seem early in the novel to determine how it is going to end, usually the end of stories form and develop as the writing progresses, but, if you can focus on the idea of your story, you can have an ending that fits into your reader’s expectations.


Once you have your plot outlined, it becomes easy to break it down into scenes. Outline the scenes from when and where the action begins and passes through, and who goes through them. If you have snippets of dialogues, write them down under the scenes, it reminds you how that story flows in that scene. Plus you may not remember that dialogue when you are fully submerged into the novel writing.

Writing out your scenes should be built on how the scenes fit into your narrative, how the scenes reveal your characters and develop them in the course of the story, and how the scenes advance the premise of the story.


Story outlines are there to allow you to spot loopholes ahead of time. Leave some time between when you write your outline and when you highlight it for blind spots.

  • Check your outline for any idea hanging in a scene
  • If a scene is redundant and doesn’t align with the previous and following scenes
  • Two scenes need a bridge to blend them.

In the course of outlining your novel, if you encounter difficulties, it could be an indication of underlying holes in your story that should be checked and worked on. An outline helps you see the outcome of your novel.

To highlight the benefits of novel outlines,

  • Helps the writer stay focused
  • Define novel goals
  • Avoid plot holes
  • Puts the beginning and end of your novel in view
  • Keeps writer motivated
  • Speed in finishing a manuscript
  • Creates a cohesive plan


There are different formats of outline structures that can work for different writers, let’s go through a few.

  • The Snowflake Method

This method of outlining for fiction writing was created by Randy Ingermanson with the phrase, “Good fiction doesn’t just happen, it’s designed.”

The snowflake method focuses on starting small with a one central story idea from your novel, into a paragraph, then expanding to a chapter.

  • Mind Map

This is a visual way of creating your story outline. It involves brainstorming your story ideas, and writing down your title at a center, and then drawing lines around it that focus on the characters, conflicts, sequence, and their relationships.

This helps in breaking ideas into smaller bits of different categories of information that can be connected in scenes. Marking out a novel-worthy ideas on your mind map becomes easier, and gives room for flexibility.

  • Scrivener Outline

For writers who like things in organized ways, this is the outline for you. It allows writers to upload their research and ideas, organize it, and file it into folders.

  • The Reverse Outline

Have you tried starting your novel from the ending? Well, that’s how the reverse outline works. Write down how you envisage the ending of your novel, then start your outline backward. Authors like George R.R Martin have used this method to line up plots.

  • The Skeletal Outline

This outline feels like writing a term paper. You write out your narrative points in order of appearance in your novel. This gives a broader picture of the flow of your idea in your story and leaves room for story adjustments with the addition of subplots.

  • Basic Document

The goal with this form of outline is to use an excel or word table that gives structure to the theme of your novel.  Organize and summarize your plots on a table and on a second table list your characters and themes.

  • Novel Outline Template

Yes, there is a template for a novel writing outline. If you do not want to jump right into writing your novel, or you are uncertain how to begin your outline, then you can use the pre-formatted novel writing outline template.

This can help you develop your plot, characters, and ideas.

  • Post-it Wall

This form of outlining has to do with creativity. Have a blank wall where you can stick post-it notes that you have scribbled ideas and inspiration on as it comes. After posting on the wall, give perhaps a week, and then organize these words into a novel outline form.

  • Simple Book Outline

Just as it sounds, this outline form starts with writing out the title of your novel, then lists all the key points that your book needs for its overall theme and message.

And don’t forget, keep it basic and brief.

  •   Chapter-by-Chapter Outline

Create a temporary or working title for every chapter of your novel, list them in a logical order, and then fill in key points of each chapter you have outlined.

There are several ways for outlining your novel, and there is no one approach for all writers. If you do not know what method of outlining suits you, or you would like to try other methods, then you need to experiment with any of the methods listed above. This may take a period of trial and errors to get the method that best suits your writing and creativity. Writing is a journey of continual experimentation, redefining, and perfection, so don’t be afraid to try something new. It just might be the best for your novel.

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