Updated: Oct 1, 2020
When many people think of outlines, they think of the very cut and dry ones assigned by writing teachers before writing an essay. Though they may or may not have felt helpful at the time, your writing teacher was onto something. Especially when writing a novel, where a lot of events and characters are introduced, what made sense in your head can easily become a jumbled mess of characters and ideas if you go into it without a plan. Writing without a general idea of your characters, the world you are writing in, and the plot structure can make the whole process feel overwhelming and can lead to plot holes and inconsistencies in your writing.
Outlines are essential for creating logical and exciting plot structures, building quality characters and relationships, and developing the book’s setting.
There is no sure-fire way to construct an outline. It may take some trial and error to figure out what level of detail you need in your outline or what exercises you need to do to better understand your characters, plot, and setting. You can create your outline on paper or in a word document (personally, I prefer a word document because it gives me freedom to easily move things around and keep things organized), either way, allow space to add to your outline. You want your outline to be relatively organized and not just a cluster of ideas.
Important note to keep in mind when crafting your outline: it is as fluid as you make it. While it can be a helpful guide, your outline is not set in stone. Your outline is also a work in progress and can be adjusted as needed. The nice thing about outlines, too, is you don’t even have to write well. No one is reading this outline but you, you don’t have to spend hours overthinking the placement of a comma, you just need to access your creativity and build your writing plan.
While there is no regimented structure for an outline, there are a few essential topics to cover in every outline. When crafting your outline, be sure to answer the following questions to help guide you along while you plan out your novel:
1. What is the book about?
How would you describe the book to someone? What mood are you trying to convey, what topics are you trying to cover? Try not to be as vague as, “Girl saves the world from aliens.” If you don’t have a clear idea of how you want to describe the book yet, that’s okay. Write a rough starting point that you can come back to later because, as we’ve established, nothing is set in stone in an outline.
If you are certain about nothing else, you can at least describe your protagonist and the situation he/she is facing, what his/her objective is, who his/her opponent is, what the conflict is, etc.
2. Where is it set?
Is your book going to be set in modern time, the future, or decades or centuries ago? Is it going to be set in your hometown or a town you visited on vacation last year? Is it going to set in our dimension or a whole other world entirely? Some books put a lot of weight on their settings as essential parts of the plot, some focus less on the setting and more on the characters. Depending on what kind of book you’re writing, it may take more planning to define and understand the world you are creating for your book’s setting. Even if some of the descriptions don’t make it into the book, it is still important to see what your characters see and to understand what your character’s must about the world they live in.
3. Who are your characters?
Get to know your characters in advance. Know how they look, how they grew up, what their role is in your story, and who they interact with. Write up quick character profiles to really understand them. You can do fun writing exercises, such as interviewing your characters or writing a short scene from the perspective of non-protagonist character.
You’ll want to understand your protagonist above all. Think of the ending outcome you imagine for your protagonist and work all the way back to the beginning, not just of the story, but of their life.
Again, even if all that doesn’t make it into the book, they are your characters and as the writer, you had better understand every aspect of them in order to bring real depth to them and make them feel more real.
4. What happens?
This is the part where you construct your plot and build your timeline of events. If you did the work in the earlier steps, you should have a good idea by now of what you want to happen. This can be as detailed as you need it to be. Some writers may find it useful to write a chapter-by-chapter outline, almost like a SparkNotes synopsis of each chapter, while others would prefer to write up more broad plot points. Choose whatever amount of structure works best for you.
As you go through, try to ensure that you are creating a logical flow of events—watch for possible lapses in the plot arrangement flow or blank areas. If you know you want to write scene A and scene D, how do you get from one moment in the plot to another? Your outline will help you work out how to get there.
All of this might seem like a lot of extra leg work to do before even starting to write the book, but it actually saves you time and frustration in the long run. Creating the outline in a few hours saves the painful months of trying to make sense of and organize your plot and characters when you’re deep into your first draft. Taking the time to sketch out these details before you dive into writing will take some of that burden of your chest and enables you to enjoy the fun parts of writing while also writing more productively.
If you have a plan, it keeps you from making the excuse that you don’t know where to go next. Having the outline helps you maximize your writing time. No longer are the unproductive writing sessions in which you spend the only time you have going back to read what you already wrote. Now, you can quickly check your outline for what happens next and get writing immediately. Additionally, outlines ensure that you don’t forget ideas; jot them down in your outline to return to later. If, for example, you’re writing a different scene but get the idea for a scene you haven’t gotten to yet, add the idea to your outline so that it is not lost forever.
If you are struggling to construct your book outline, reach out to our Creative Coaches, who are prepared to assist you in guiding your ideas into a logical and exciting outline and plan of action.