How to Outline a Novel

How to Outline a Novel -

Welcome back to another Writing Wednesday! This Wednesday, I’m going to walk you through the process I use to outline novels.

Obviously this isn’t the only way to outline a novel, and you don’t even need to outline a novel before you start writing it.

So far I’ve only used this method to outline 1 novel, but I find that it’s the best outlining method I’ve used thus far. It’s also based on the way I’ve outlined novels in the past.

1. Choose the major story milestones

Choosing what happens in the story is the first step I take. More specifically, I choose what will happen for each major story milestone.

What are the major story milestones?

The major story milestones are story ‘beats’ that happen at specific parts of the story. They align with both the three act model of storytelling, and the four part one.

There are 9 major story milestones, and they are as follows:

  1. Opening (beginning) – The state in which your story begins
  2. Hook (6.25% mark) – What grabs your reader’s attention, and a glimpse of the story to come
  3. Inciting Incident (12.5% mark) – The first big problem that your protagonist has to solve. Solving this problem, or attempting to, will send your protagonist to the first plot point
  4. First Plot Point (25% mark) – Introduces the main problem that will need to be solved over the course of the story
  5. First Pinch Point (37.5% mark) – Gives the reader a glimpse at the true antagonistic force
  6. Midpoint (50% mark) – A plot twist or shift that changes the context of the story for both the protagonist and the antagonist
  7. Second Pinch Point (62.5% mark) – Gives the reader another glimpse at the true antagonistic force
  8. Second Plot Point (75% mark) – The point in which the protagonist now has everything that they need in order to defeat the antagonist. No new plot information or characters should be introduced after this point. After this the story should focus on the battle between the protagonist and antagonist
  9. Conclusion (ending) – The state in which the story ends

How I choose what happens for the major story milestones

Now that you know what the major story milestones are, I’ll explain how I decide what each story milestone should be.

I’ll start with the way story ideas always come to me, in the form of a ‘what if’ question.

For example, urban fantasy is the genre I’ve been exploring recently, because the question of ‘What if magical and supernatural creatures and phenomena were apart of our everyday lives?’ has been haunting me for awhile.

Once I have a question in mind that sparks a story idea, I see if it can be answered with further ‘what if’ questions. This will lead me to create a small chain of questions about what could happen in the story.

Once I have a chain of those questions, I’ll write them down and see if any could be used as a major story milestone. Usually one of them can be used as a hook or an inciting incident.

After that I’ll start to think about what could happen in the other story milestones. I’ll write them down and then adjust some things to fit the pacing or plot better.

Once I have all of the major story milestones chosen, I move on to step 2.

2. Break it into parts

After I’ve chosen all of my major story milestones, I break the story down into parts based off of all the major story milestones, except for the opening.

The parts are formatted so that I have the part number, which story milestone it ends on, how long the part is, and a description of the story milestone it finishes on.

So my parts (for an 80k word story) end up looking like this:

  • Part 1 – Hook (0 – 5k words) *Description of hook*
  • Part 2 – Inciting Incident (5k – 10k words) *Description of inciting incident*
  • Part 3 – First Plot Point (10k – 20k words) *Description of first plot point*
  • Part 4 – First Pinch Point (20k – 30k words) *Description of first pinch point*
  • Part 5 – Midpoint (30k – 40k words) *Description of midpoint*
  • Part 6 – Second Pinch Point (40k – 50k words) *Description of second pinch point*
  • Part 7 – Second Plot Point (50k – 60k words) *Description of second plot point*
  • Part 8 – Conclusion (60k – 80k words) *Description of the conclusion*

This allows me to visualize where the story needs to go during each part, so that I can figure out what happens in between the milestones, which is step 3.

3. Outline each individual part

After I’ve broken down the story into parts, I move on to outlining each individual part.

In the outlines for each individual part I write down what needs to happen in order to move the story along to the next milestone, what the characters’ motivations are in that part, and what the scenes should accomplish to move the story forward.

In the end, the outlines for each part end up looking like this:

  • Part # – Milestone (Point in the story) *Description of milestone*
  • *Description of what happens and what the characters’ motivations are at the beginning of the part*
  • *Description of what happens and what the character’s motivations are in the middle of the part*
  • *Description of what happens and what the characters’ motivations are at the end of the part, and more details about what happens at the story milestone*
  • *A list of what the scenes should accomplish in this part*

The outlines for each part usually end up being around 4 to 5 paragraphs long, not including the list of what each scene should accomplish.

After I’ve finished step 3, I make sure that the story is cohesive and doesn’t have any noticeable plot holes. Then I move on to step 4.

4. Outline the scenes for each part

During step 4, I outline the scenes for each part. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, since during step 3 I created a list of what the scenes should do to further along the story, and I also have the beginning, middle, and end of each part described.

Making the outlines for each scene is just a matter of asking myself, “How can the characters get to the next section of this part, what’s stopping them from progressing, and how can they overcome that?” And then I write down the answer to that question.

When outlining the scenes I also like to describe:

  • What my protagonist wants and what prevents her from getting it
  • What that scene does to further along the plot, subplot, or character development

Step 4 is the final step in my outlining process, not including how I use the outline, so once I’ve finished step 4, I’m finished outlining.

How I Use My Outline

After I’ve finished outlining the scenes, I start writing.

I don’t bother with tweaking things since then I’ll get into an endless cycle of modifying small things about my outline, plot, characters, or setting, instead of actually writing.

If I ever come across a point in which I have an idea of how to modify the story, or how to fix things to make them better, I just leave myself a note in the document that I can use when I go back and edit things.

I’m also not super strict about following the outline exactly. If I have a sudden character idea or want to introduce a subplot, I’ll just find a way to squeeze it in, or I’ll make notes on how to fix the pacing during editing.

If you outline your stories before writing them, how do you like to do it? Let me know in a comment.

If you enjoyed this blog post, or found it helpful, please leave a like, a comment, or share it on social media. It really helps me out.

I blog on Wednesdays about writing, so check back next week for some new content!


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