~~Dream with wings—and you will soar to new heights~~

How to write an outline

How to write an outline in six easy steps

Writing an outline for your novel can be very beneficial for the first-time novelist. Outlines can help you structure and plot out your novel before you sit down to write it. Now, you may already have some idea of what you want your novel to be about, but following these tips can help you strengthen the overall structure. Try it, and let me know what you think.

1) Your ideas.  You have ideas about your plot all lined up in your noggin, but at this point they’re still just ideas. Write down everything you’d like to see happen in your book. A simple scratch sheet of paper will work for starters, but by the time you are through, you may have an entire notebook--if not more. Now look over everything you’ve written. Is your plot idea still the same as you envisioned it? Or have you come up with an even better one. You’d be surprised how plots can change when you’re not stuck on a single topic. Keep that paper and set it aside. It was just the warm-up. 

2) Premise/plot. You’re sure you have your premise (idea for your story). First come up with a sentence or two that best describes your premise by answering the following questions:

  • Who is the hero in your book (protagonist) and what is her condition at the start of your story? (try to use as few words to describe him/her) Example: Seventeen-year-old misfit, shy Jane doe, or whatever fits your plot.
  • What is your hero’s goal? What choices will she have to make to attain that goal?
  • Who is the person or thing that stands in the way of her attaining her goal? (Antagonist)
  • What catastrophe will happen when she attempts to attain that goal?
  • What conflict will happen when your hero reacts to the catastrophe?

This is the premise from my upcoming book for example: Neglected seventeen-year-old (condition), Macy (protagonist) wants her parents’ attention—even if she has to do something criminal to get it (goal). But when she is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, (catastrophe) she must fight for her life (conflict) as she is stalked by a notorious prison gang (antagonist). If you can answer those questions and place them in a tight sentence or two, you have your premise. 

3) Give your story a location. You have a preconceived notion where you want to take your reader. It could be a city you’re familiar with, the moon, or even the planet Griptoid. (okay, I made that one up) But the place you choose should be sketched out. Not an actual sketch, but write out all the details you will need for each scene. Readers want to be taken away from their routine lives and planted in an exciting new environment. Whether it be dark and haunting, or chic and modern, they want that escape. Think about every aspect of the readers’ experience. Is it cold there? Will it be the asphalt jungle, or the actual jungle? You decide, but make it exciting for the reader. Even if it’s a dingy house in the country. It’s the details that pull readers in. 

4) Design your characters. This is your most important step besides your plot. I choose to set my location first and then create the character. It’s easier for me if I know where my character lives before I bring them to life. Based on everything you’ve done so far, ask yourself: How do I want my character regarded? You want them likable, plain and simple. If readers don’t like your characters, they won’t finish the book. Make them strong and charming, but don’t get carried away. Making them perfect is boring and unnatural. What personality traits are you drawn to? When you can answer that, give it to your fictional character. Make them go-getters not passive fuddy duds. If the pressure is on and everything is stacked against them, as long as your character is trying to push forward, the better off your story will be. Don’t forget to make your main character suffer and then suffer more. There will be plenty of hurdles your character will face as the plot thickens and the conflict builds, but it’s the sufferings that draw the reader in. It’s the characters that readers connect with and it is worth your time and effort to get each character just right. 

5) Do a rough draft of all of your scenes/chapters. This is an extended version of your outline. Each chapter should have one or more scenes. Write each scene out keeping in mind the beginning, middle, and end. Okay, pull out that scratch paper list you made in the beginning. (by now it could be a notebook full) You should have written ideas you want to see happen in your story. A few of these will now become your subplots. You have your main plot, (premise) but in every book there are subplots that weave in and out of the main plot. Pick out the ones that readers will identify with, but might not expect. After all, you want to be unique. Your goal is to write something that no one has come up with. Yes, that is hard to do, but it is done every day. If you have to write out more, do it. The more effort you put into finding unique subplots the better off your novel will be. Finish up all your scenes using the ideas you came up with. You don’t have to write out the whole chapter. A few paragraphs at the most. When you're done you’ll know what you want to happen in every scene.

6) Write your outline. (condensed version) I know it seems like you’re doing double work, but condensing it will help you weed out the ideas you have lost interest with, or just don’t work for your story. Take a deep breath. You have all your notes and you’re eager to put it together. Some authors prefer to use index cards while others choose a simple notepad, or make their own chart using a word processor. Whatever works for you. Personally, I use index cards. When I’m done with one, I can just file it to the back of the stack. This process lets you pick out the most valuable information you’ve gathered so far and use it for quick reference. No one wants to rummage through the massive amount of information they’ve accumulated in this process. You will have the most pertinent information in hand and ready to go. It helps to color code your cards for easy access. Although, you can use the colors you want, I choose blue for my male characters and pink for female. For my location, I choose green index cards, and white cards for plots and subplots. Whatever works for you. 

Now that you have your outline complete you are ready to write. Find a quiet cubbyhole and start your masterpiece. Want writing tips, check the link at the bottom of my Writing Fiction page.