While writing a novel is difficult at best, getting started may be the hardest part. Most authors are all too familiar with the struggle of looking at a blank page.
The secret to writing a novel, and writing it without pulling your hair out? An outline.
The time invested upfront to create a compelling outline will save you time (and headaches), giving you a solid roadmap to reference as you watch your masterpiece come to life.
There’s a common misconception that outlines remove any spontaneity and ingenuity in the writing process, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Outlines are simply roadmaps, after all—and you’re not bound to stick with every idea on them.
And if novel outlines have the approval of Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, and Joseph Heller, it’s clear that these blueprints are anything but a creativity killer.
If you’re ready to get to work and take the first step in bringing your own novel to life, let’s get started.
Learn how to write an effective and powerful novel outline in 5 easy steps
Upon completion, your novel outline will provide a skeleton around which to structure your writing: topics, details, plot, characters, and scenes.
The length can vary depending on how detailed you’d like it to be. It can be as short as one page, or as long as a dozen or more.
You can also write your outline on your computer or by hand on paper or index cards, depending on what works best for your taste.
Overall, your outline will give you a clear path forward. It can help you visualize the big picture, keep your writing on track, create character arcs, and act as a guide when you’re hitting the dreaded writer’s block.
While there’s no one hard rule when it comes to writing your novel outline, there are a few key steps that will help guide you along the way.
1. Identify the Premise
What’s the underlying idea for your book? Without the premise being established, it will be impossible to build the plot, characters, and scenes around it.
During this step, you’ll want to answer some key questions, like:
- Who is the main protagonist?
- What is their objective?
- What situation are they facing?
- Is there an opposing force?
- What is the central theme, moral, or takeaway?
Answering these questions will allow you to expand on your premise and begin to build the idea. Think of this stage as setting the foundation for the novel. It should be able to carry all of the other elements on top of it.
Think of it this way: what will your answer be when someone asks you what your novel is about? Formulate this initial step of your outline around your response.
2. Select a Setting
What place in time will your story happen? Is it a period piece that takes place in 1300 AD, or will it be during modern times?
What is the primary location? In Santa Barbara, California, or faraway on Mars?
These elements will determine your novel’s setting, and they’re equally as important as your characters. Identifying the specifics of your story’s time and place in advance will give you an opportunity to really bring your setting to life.
This is also a great opportunity to begin performing research, particularly if your novel takes place in a location or time that you haven’t experienced for yourself firsthand.
If your story takes place in the real world, this is when you can begin pulling photos, articles, and other materials to begin imagining the world that your characters will live in.
In this stage, write down as many details as you can. Call on all of your senses to really get in touch with the settings. What do you see? Smell? Hear? Touch? Knowing the answers to all of these prompts will give you the gift of creating undeniably descriptive stories.
3. Cast Your Characters
If your setting is the stage, your characters are what bring your stage to life. Character development is essential to any great story.
During this step, you’ll intimately get to know your characters. Imagine them in your mind:
- What do they look like? What are their dreams? Hopes? Fears?
- What does their past look like?
- How will they interact with the other characters in your novel?
- What will their journey in the story look like over time?
- Are they a background character, or are they central to your plot?
- How do they handle various scenarios? Conflict? Joy?
Run through some of the projected scenes you may have in mind, and take note of what feels natural for each character. Iron out all of these details as you create your novel outline.
If you don’t understand your character, neither will the reader.
4. Create Your Plot
Next, construct a timeline of events. You’ll want to make note of everything that happens in your story, from the first page to the closing scene:
- Where will each event take place?
- Which characters appear?
- How do each of these events affect the plot?
This is where you’ll begin breaking down your story into the three main parts: beginning, middle, and end.
Beginning: Introduce your protagonist, the conflict, and the world in which it all takes place. The goal? To grab the reader’s attention. Many a-book have been abandoned due to a less than compelling start.
Middle: What pathway will connect the start of your story with the finish? Consider everything that needs to happen in order to achieve the desired ending. It’s easy to lose sight of the novel’s purpose during this part, so keep your eye on the prize and remain focused on the purpose of your story.
End: While you don’t need to nail down the exact ending in your outline, it will be useful to have an idea of what the ending might look like. Because the ending will generally drive a large part of the climax and conflict resolution, it’s certainly a part of your novel you don’t want to neglect. By the end of the book, the reader should have a key question answered. What question will that be?
5. Write the Scenes
Finally, it’s time to write your scenes.
While there are many ways to write scenes, including:
- The tent pole method—where you list a few key plot points which act like poles holding up a tent. The action in between is not laid out, but this provides structure for bridging one 'tentpole' to the next.
- The chronological method—, which is self-explanatory), the idea is the same: this is where you will place each scene where it needs to go.
You can get into as much detail as you’d like while writing out your novel’s scenes:
- What dialogue will happen during each event, and where?
- Which characters will engage with one another?
- What action will accompany each scene?
- How will things move from one scene to the next?
Your scenes don’t need to be perfect or complete. The point is to get everything out in front of you so you can have a clearer idea of the plot and movement throughout your story.
Once this step is complete, you’re ready to begin working on your first draft.
Intimidated? Don’t be.
You’ll soon have a solid novel outline to help guide you along the way!
Don’t Fear the Outline
As a writer, it’s common to feel intimidated about beginning the journey of writing a novel. However, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—and writing your novel can easily feel like walking such a distance.
When you take that first single step and begin your novel outline, you’ll be equipped with a powerful tool to develop your story.
With a small upfront investment, your novel outline can prevent wasted time, prevent writer’s block, and also instill confidence in your story. And once it comes time to write your novel, you’ll feel more prepared than ever for the task at hand.
Outlines offer guidance, a place to flush out creative ideas, and act as a resource to refer back to when you feel like you’re getting lost.
Once your novel is complete? Then, it’s time to get it out into the world. With Author Builder, you can create an engaging website to promote and support your brand, grow your email list, sell your books, and more—all in one simple-to-use platform.
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