3 Ways to Outline Your Novel


Outlining. Do you need it?

That depends on you, the individual writer.

But it takes some time to figure out what works best for you.

I personally found I need some sort of outline to be able to keep myself on track when writing a novel. So I wanted to share with you the three different ways I’ve tried to outline, and the one I eventually settled on. Hopefully one (or more) of these techniques will be helpful to you.

1. The super-organized, super-detailed outline. With my first novel (the YA mystery, or “chateau story”), I decided I needed a PLAN. So I did an old-school style outline, chapter by chapter, that went something like this:

  1. Chapter 1: Train scene
    1. Setting: train from Paris to Normandy. It’s storming out.
    2. ISABELLE and JOE talking about how they got here
      1. Include info about FIRE and MISSING BROTHER TOMMY
      2. Include PHOTOGRAPH with HIDDEN CLUES
    3. First glimpse of ANTAGONIST

… and so on and so forth. I wrote down every little thing that was supposed to happen in every little scene, capitalizing IMPORTANT THINGS so I would know they were IMPORTANT. I also used the word “Include” far, far too often.

This didn’t work for me because: My story changed as I went along. The moment I deviated from my outline, I’d stop everything, and go back and try and re-outline. Before I knew it I was spending more time outlining than I was writing the story. And the outlines was really long, and really complicated. Which is why that book is still not finished.

2. The copy-someone-else’s outline: When I got infinitely frustrated with my WIP, I decided to learn from the masters, and I outlined a few of my favorite/the most popular YA books out there, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (because that is one of the most perfectly-plotted books ever) and Twilight (because this was back in ’08 and it was all anyone was talking about, YA-wise). I reread those books and I made detailed outlines of each one, taking note of Act I, Act II, climax and conclusion and all of that.

This sort of worked for me because: I learned things, as you do when you read any good (or bad) book. My main takeaway was that it’s pretty hard to make a POV character the keeper of the secrets, because then you’re just obnoxiously keeping secrets from the reader. There’s also a lot to be learned about continually upping the stakes, instead of having just alternating scenes of high highs and low lows. JK Rowling is also a master of weaving in the subplots masterfully into the main plot. Hermione’s Time-Turner remains my favorite twist of any HP novel (after Snape and “Always”, of course). But ultimately, copying someone else’s outline did not magically fix my own. And so I turned to…

3. The loose-format outline: I eventually put my first manuscript aside, because I had been working at it for way too long and I’d lost all objectivity. I dabble in it from time to time now, but it’s still not ready. So I moved on to my next work, and this time, I outlined it my now tried-and-true way:

  • I jot down every idea that comes to me Random notes on my phone, song lyrics that I think will describe my characters, phrases I want them to use, names that come to me. I make a big mess of ideas to start.
  • I (loosely) organize these ideas I put everything  I want to keep in a Word doc entitled “Notes”. I put everything I’ve rejected in a Word doc entitled “Discarded” so in case I decide I need it after all, it’s still there. In the “Notes” doc, I organize it into “Characters”, “Theme”, and “Plot.” I get the plot ideas in loose chronological order, usually in a bullet format (none of that 1. a. i. stuff)
  • I write I keep the “Notes” doc open, and I just go at it.

Why this works: The looseness of everything leaves me space to take the story off my planned direction if I need to. I don’t need to spend time with making sure the indents of each 1. a. i. are correct–everything’s just in bullet format. I can easily go in and take things out and add things in.

And most importantly of all, it’s simple.

For me, keeping things simple in the rest of the writing process allows me to pour my efforts into the most important part: writing the story. 

But hey, maybe you need the rigid, detailed outline. Maybe outlining your favorite books helped you more than it helped me. Maybe you have an outline method I haven’t even thought of. Or maybe you don’t outline at all!

It’s all fine–do what works for you. And if you don’t know what works for you? Try it all. No one says you have to get it right on the first try. One of my favorite things about writing is the beauty and joy I find in the process of it. I hope you find some of that beauty and joy as well.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

10 thoughts on “3 Ways to Outline Your Novel

  1. I always start with number three. The downfall is that everything becomes unorganized and difficult to find which means more work later. Keeping my thoughts organized has helped a lot lately. I guess I like rigid systems more 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your evolution makes me happy — especially going through Prisoner of Azkaban as a perfectly plotted story. I agree about that, but I’d add that any well written tale that involves time travel has to be brilliantly plotted in order to make sense — and, like most readers, I’ll believe anything as long as it makes sense.

    When I write with my writing partner, we throw paint at the walls to see what design appears. It’s like brainstorming, but it has no goal but to create a story.

    When I write on my own, I start with a line or a word or a character or a What If, and then see the ending. Writing the journey to the end — complete with snafus, detours, and how-do-I-get-there-from-here moments — is my joy.

    Liked by 3 people

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