Outlining a novel doesn’t have to be painful. After years of trying and failing to outline novels, I finally succeeded in 2020. Not only did I create a solid blueprint for my novel, but from it, I wrote a full-length novel. You can too!
Here’s my trusted formula for outlining future novels. (I’ve also got a Skillshare class about this, if you are interested!)
Note: This advice is for writers who like to outline full-length novels on their computers. You don’t need a supercharged laptop, but internet connection is a must.
Before you begin, you must have an idea of what story you want to tell. Perhaps you have a strong idea of what character you’d like to write, or the location. You don’t need a fully fleshed outline by this step. But in a sentence, summarise the main conflict within your novel. For further advice, check out the Snowflake Method.
Step One: With your story idea, figure out a beginning, middle and end.
At this step, take your sentence aside and envision a beginning, middle and end. Before you outline scenes, you must outline the overarching strucutre.
Story Sentence: A young wizard and his friends must find the Philosopher’s Stone.
Beginning: Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard.
Middle: Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts, develops friendships with Ron and Hermione while going on adventures.
End: Harry and his friends are victorious.
This story structure lacks many specific details present in the Harry Potter universe. But that’s okay, because right now, we are discovering the beginning, middle and end. If you are struggling with the ‘middle’, focus on just the ‘end’ and ‘beginning’ for now.
You can break this exercise into smaller tasks to determine the shape of your novel.
Step Two: With a word processor, brainstorm scenes you’d like to include. Do not worry about chronology or any ‘order’- that comes later!
Any word processor will do, but I recommend Scrivener (it’s what I use!). In this step, you will brainstorm any potential scene in your novel. From my experience, it’s easier to brainstorm scenes than chapters. This is because ‘scenes’ are easier to visualise, and are smaller than chapters.
The more scenes you brainstorm, the more will come to mind. You may want to consider ‘reactive’ scenes as well.
Step Three: Put the scenes in chronological or storytelling order
How do the scenes progress from each other? In this step, you’ll put your listed scenes in storytelling order. Think about how each scene leads from another. This is a great part, because you’ll notice scenes your story needs, but currently does not have.
At the end of this part, you’ll observe the bones of your novel more clearly. You may want to think about how much time you’ll allocate in writing your novel. Some write 600 words a day, whilst others can reach 3000.
Step Four: Expand each scene sentence to a short paragraph
Your outline at this stage is still vague and lacks crucial detail. This step will change that, and give you greater insight into your novel. We aren’t creating chapters in this step, but are simply fleshing out the story we have. While you complete this step, you’ll think more details about your characters, setting, plot and ideas. Make sure you write them down, and keep your notes handy.
This will make your writing project more accessible and ensure you don’t forget crucial elements of your story.
Step Five: Divide your outline into ‘parts’
Read your outline again. Can you see potential chapters or volumes within your outline? If so, mark them! Remember, a chapter or volume must unite all its content through a singular theme, character, setting or plot point. If you’ve read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, you’d know the importance of dividing story elements!
Note: Your novel divisions may change. The more you write your story, the more you’ll notice overarching details regarding character, setting, plot and theme. Flexibility helps, and remember, you are not constrained to a particular story structure.
Step Six: Complete beat and character sheets (if necessary)
Beat and character sheets help you strucutre your ideas and compare them to published novels. A famous example of a ‘beat sheet’ is Save The Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody. She breaks down storytelling into ‘fifteen story beats’ which helped her write many novels. You may have heard of Save The Cat! in screenwriting by Blake Snyder. It’s certainly well-known, but you don’t have to follow a beat sheet or character checklist 100%. You must allow some flexibility.
You can find beat and character sheets through writing courses / craft books. Or, you can always join mailing lists from editors and writer’s blogs. I recommend The History Quill, because it is stacked with resources and is essential to any historical fiction author.
What’s great about beat and character sheets is how they structure your ideas, and make you consider aspects of your story you may not have already. Note: With Scrivener, the beat sheets work well, helping you keep track of your ideas!
Step Seven: Compare your sheets to your outline
With your completed beat and character sheets, compare them to your outline and check for consistency. Ask yourself: does the outline reflect my character and plot goals? A good novel has multi-dimensional characters and a consistent theme and style.
Try not to overthink this step, as procrastination delays writing. It’s important for outlining to not turn stressful, as it may taint your writing.
Step Eight: Create checklists, mood boards using Notion, Asana, Evernote, etc.
Do you use a productivity app? They are game changers, and many features are free. (Just ensure they don’t crash on your device!) I use Notion, and below is a tutorial from a favourite YouTuber of mine, Lindie Botes. If you prefer Asana, Evernote or any other app, don’t worry! All the apps I checked before writing this post have this function.
With your productivity app, create a mood board. Writing isn’t visual, but a curated selection of images can motivate you with writing. Not only that, a mood board will help you develop your ideas concerning themes. For my novel, I have a motif of an angel. My story is set in Munich, and a quick Google Search revealed an actual statue of an angel in the Bavarian capital!
Now, the statue is even mentioned in my novel. Productivity apps are great for note-taking in research heavy genres (historical fiction, fantasy, etc). Ever since I started using one, my stress has decreased. Getting organised is crucial to novel writing.
Step Nine: Create a task calendar and decide on a deadline
You can use Google Calendar or your productivity app. Or if you’d like, a physical calendar! But mark each day dedicated for writing with what you want to accomplish. For example, on Friday the 13th in July, you’ll write the first chapter of your horror novel. We want to break your outline into smaller, more achievable chunks. The reason why so many writers fail National Novel Writing Month is partially because writers avoid this. But consistency is important.
You don’t have to schedule the entire novel in one sitting. First, start with scheduling your first 5,000 words.
When it comes to a deadline, it’s important to combine optimism with a realistic understanding of your current productivity. A mistake I made was saying ‘I’ll just write an extra thousand words tomorrow.’ The problem is that writing is hard, and you shouldn’t overcommit. Burnout is real, and you don’t want to experience it while writing your first draft.
Step Ten: Write your novel
Now we are at an exciting stage: writing your novel! Find a peaceful writing space, and avoid possible disruptions. Many successful writers complete hundreds of words in short ‘bursts.’ They turn off social media and type non-stop for 15-20 minutes. Afterwards, they take a decent break before getting back into it. As you are writing a first draft, it’s important to get it done. The longer you take to write your first draft, the harder it can be to motivate yourself.
When I wrote my first draft last year, I set a deadline. I did not meet it until half a year later. Motivation was hard, but luckily, I got through. Much of writing is determined by your level of motivation.
Whatever happens, keep going. No matter how many changes you make, or whatever regrets you have, you must complete your first draft.
Step Eleven: Compile your work and keep it secure
Congratulations! You have finished your first draft. Now, it’s time for to compile the document together. Most advanced word processors (such as Scrivener) have a compile feature. Make sure pages are numbered and the margins are consistent. Check for line spacing, font and text size as well.
Keep in mind, while editing your manuscript, you’ll write comments in the margins and cross words out. Make this easy by using large margins, double spacing and size 12 font.
After you’ve finished this step, make sure your novel is secure. You should send a version to yourself (via e-mail), upload a copy to Dropbox, and most of all, keep one on your hard drive. This may seem like overkill, but you’ve worked on your novel. It’s best to keep it safe and accessible, because you’ll need it in the future.
If you’d like to take an extra step, printing out your novel is not a bad idea. (Print On Demand is accessible to writers of any stage).
How’d you go? Comment below with any feedback or suggestions! Want this blog post in video format? Check out Madeleine’s Skillshare class on outlining novels and writing your first draft.