There are many different ways to outline a novel, and what works for another writer might not work for you. It’s important to try out different methods, or hybrids of different methods, in order for you to figure out what works well for you.
To get you started, here are are 8 ways to outline a novel:
1. Plot Synopsis
This is a simple form of outlining, which is great if you enjoy having a lot of creative freedom while you work on your story.
What you do is you create a short synopsis of what will happen in your story.
I would suggest having your synopsis be between the length of a paragraph and a page. Long enough to get out the bones of the plot, but not so long that you get bogged down by details.
2. Snowflake Method
Snowflakes branch out in different directions, with each section becoming more detailed as it goes.
Here’s how to use the snowflake method to outline your novel:
1. Start with a sentence that summarizes your story.
2. Expand that sentence into a paragraph that describes the main plot points of the story. Try one sentence for the beginning, three sentences for problems that your protagonist faces, and one sentence for the conclusion.
3. Write a page of information for each of the main characters (including a one sentence summary of their story lines, their motivations, their goals, their conflict, what they learn, and a one paragraph summary of their story lines).
4. Use the paragraph you wrote in step 2 and write a paragraph about what happens in the story for each sentence.
5. For each of your main characters, write a page long summary of the story from their point of view.
6. Take the summary you made in step 4 and expand each paragraph you wrote into 1 page.
7. Create character charts for the main characters, using the information you wrote down during step 3.
8. Using what you wrote in step 6, create a list of 1 sentence long scenes that need to happen in the story.
9. Expand your scene list from 1 sentence descriptions to multiple paragraph descriptions.
After step 9 you can begin writing your first draft.
3. Breaking it Down into Sections
Another way to outline your novel is to break it down into sections and then write a summary of what happens in each section.
Here are a few ways to section your novel:
- By chapters
- By scenes
- By acts
The method that I use for outlining (which is detailed in method #6) does involve breaking the outline into sections by acts and scenes. This allows me to get quite detailed while outlining.
4. Use What Ifs?
While I don’t use this method to outline my entire novel, I do use this to come up with the concept and ideas of what will happen in the first parts of my stories.
What you do is you start with a ‘what if’ question. And then answer it with another ‘what if’ question. Until you have a long chain of ‘what ifs’ that form the basis of what happens in your story.
Even if you don’t use this method to outline your novel, I would recommend trying it to figure out the concept, opening, and hook of your novel.
5. Work Backwards from the Ending
If you know how your novel will end, but not anything that happens before the ending, try working backwards.
Ask yourself, “What could immediately lead up to this point?”
Then take the answer to that question and ask what could happen before that. Keep doing this until you have a basis for your plot.
6. The Zoom-In Method
This is the method I use to outline my novels. It’s similar in concept to the Snowflake Method in that I start from something broad and work my way to a more detailed outline, but my execution is different.
1. First I start by breaking everything down into their acts. I use the 4 act structure, but it’s almost identical to the 3 act structure, the only difference is that act 2 of the 3 act structure becomes acts 2 and 3 in the 4 act structure.
While this step can be skipped, I find it useful for visualizing my story.
2. Afterwards I create a list of all the major story milestones, and write down where they should be in the novel, relative to the novel’s target length.
3. I write down a 1 sentence description for each milestone, and then tweak things to make sure the story line is cohesive and that the plot makes sense.
4. After that I write a longer description of each milestone, and include characters’ goals, conflicts, and motivations.
5. Then I break each milestone into it’s own section, and populate that section with scenes.
I’ll usually start with a 1 sentence description of each scene, but then as I continue outlining (and gain a deeper understanding of the characters and plot), I’ll start expanding those 1 sentence descriptions into multiple paragraph summaries.
After that, I either keep getting more and more detailed with the scene summaries, to the point where the descriptions become scenes themselves, or I just straight-up write the scenes.
Whenever I’m outlining, I like to work on the characters at the same time as the plot, so I’ll often go back and forth between figuring out characters’ personalities, motivations, and conflicts, and figuring out what will happen in the story.
This helps me make sure that the decisions my characters make make sense.
7. Free Writing
To outline using free writing, just write down whatever details about your story you can think of. Get all of the ideas out of your head.
Afterwards, if you want to organize your thoughts, you can use some of the other outlining methods to do so. Or just leave it as is, whichever works best for you.
8. Hybrid Style
Of course, you can always do a hybrid of multiple outlining styles, as all of these outlining methods have their pros and cons.
Remember that not every method will work well for you, so experiment, go with your instincts, and try hybrid methods for outlining.
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