It’s time to plan that great first novel of yours. You sit down, scoot your chair into your desk, and open up your word processor. As you sit there, a blank word document stares back… just staring. It taunts you with its white face. How do you even begin when you have no clue what to write about? Outlines, my friends. Outlines.

How do I write an outline?

Every author has a different process, but there are many different tools and tips for writing an outline for fiction books. Utilizing tools like a traditional outline, post-its, the snowflake method, or writing your outline in reverse can help make this whole process easier. Outlining isn’t for everyone, but I hope to convince you by the end of this that it can be a really useful tool to have in your writer’s toolbelt. Stick with me! I used to be very anti-outline. I felt that it made my process too rigid and the story felt stale because I was following a set path. The problem was I became locked into the tool. It was like trying to use a screwdriver to put a nail in the wall. The tool is there for you to use, not abuse. I soon learned that I was using the tool wrong and now I feel much more comfortable letting my outline guide me rather than control me.

What is an outline?

If you’re not familiar with an outline, an outline is like a roadmap. It’s something that you as the author create at the beginning of your writing process to guide you through your book. It helps you remember all of the major points you mean to hit in your story as well as other things such as character names or important locations. Outlines come in many different shapes and forms and depending on who you are as a writer or what kind of book you’re writing the outline could look different based on what you’re working on. For a crime novel, it could be a wall of post-it notes that contain clues, but for a Middle Grade fantasy, it may be something as simple as a bulleted list.

No matter how you write or what genre of fiction, the purpose of the outline will always stay the same: it’s there to keep you from getting lost. When writing smaller works, it may be easier to not have an outline. Larger works of fiction, however, have too many intricate parts that can get lost in the muck. Make your life way easier by giving yourself a map instead of trying to drive to Mexico blindfolded.

Why should I write a book outline?

You should be proud of your goals! Outlining will help you put a clear finish line on your book so you’re not writing forever. I’ve seen writers trapped in a book for a decade that only should have taken them a year to write. Don’t let that happen to you! Having a clear finish line can also be incredibly motivating and helpful. As I mentioned, having this finish line will also make it very, very easy to finish a book quicker. With less writer’s block and more writing, your book will be done in a flash and everyone will be impressed!

Focus is also gained when you use an outline. You’ll know exactly where you’re headed, so it’s easier to stay on track. I know I fall into the trap where I lose focus, open Facebook, and then avoid writing for hours. With an outline, you can prevent this entirely. Having an outline will also help with plot holes. NO ONE likes plot holes, especially the author. Outlines don’t necessarily erase them, but they can help avoid them. Finally, having an outline will improve the overall quality of your writing! You’ll see leaps and bounds of improvement. You wouldn’t teach yourself to drive blind, so why should you write a book blind?

What should my outline include?

Regardless of the method, your outline should include a few of these things:

  • character development
  • character arcs
  • plot points
  • climax
  • resolution

You don’t have to include all of them. When I’m writing Middle Grade, for example, I tend to not include character development or arcs at all. I have them inherently in my mind and don’t include them on the outline. If you’re writing an epic, you probably want to include all of these things to keep track of your characters. If I had to pick essentials, they would be resolution, climax, and plot points. These are going to be your basic waypoints in writing and you should never leave them out.

What are the different methods I can use to outline?

The Traditional Outline

This is the same outline that we all learned in middle school. If you somehow missed that bit or if it’s been a really long time, let me hit you with a refresher. The plot mountain is a really straightforward way to tell a story. You start with an introduction to the settings, character, and problem, then walk into the rising action. Rising action is where the main character faces challenges. The climax is a culmination of those challenges (the big bad), and then falling action comes afterward (maybe someone dies?). Finally, at the end of the mountain is the resolution.

I think that method is fine and very bare bones, but I personally like to follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. We start out with the call to adventure, where the main character is bored with their life and seek some new form of excitement. They are met at some point by some supernatural aid who gives them a leg up on their adventure, and then they cross the threshold (typically with some type of guardian). After that, they face several trials with the help of Helpers and Mentors, learning more about themselves along the way. Finally, they hit the abyss which is the culmination of their trials. They have some kind of revelation about themselves, transform emotionally, atone for the wrongs they did in the past, and then return with a newfound gift.

If that doesn’t really float your boat, there is a final type of outline that I’m fond of. We start with Character, which introduces the main character to the audience. Then, Status Quo follows. What does the main character hate about the status quo and how do they want to change it? Motivation is what motivates (what a surprise) the character to change and go on a journey. The Inciting Incident finally pushes them over the threshold. The Developments section encompasses rising action, which end in Crisis, and finally a resolution. This model is virtually just a shorter and sweeter version of the Hero’s Journey.

I like the Hero’s Journey and the Status Quo method because they both cover character development and arcs, which I believe is the central focus of any story we tell, anyway. Pop your plot points in place of each of the major steps of these structures, and you have yourself an outline. You can do this in a word processing document or in a spreadsheet. Whatever works for you!

Wall of Post-It Notes

I have personally never used this method, but know writers who do. Virtually, you’re going to get a million different colored sticky notes. Then, code each color with a different part of your plot, whether that be plot points, characters, objects, or conflicts. Now, like some mad conspiracy theorist you’re going to arrange your stickies on the wall to build the plot of your novel. The cool thing about this is that as your story dynamically changes, so can your outline. You can pick up any of the stickies and move them around as you see fit. Neato!

The Snowflake Method

This particular method is really popular and is taught by a lot of creative writing classes. This is quite a complex theory and I’ve never used it. This method involves writing a one-sentence summary that is less than 15 words, expanding that sentence into a paragraph, then doing the same thing for each of your characters. You start with something similar and then expand out from it until you have an incredibly complex novel. This is a very meticulous and architecturally designed way of outline, which I personally don’t like. I prefer my novels to be more organic, but if you’re someone who needs to know all the facts right away, this outline method may be for you. Since the model is quite complicated, I won’t explain it here, but you can read the full method in this article.

The Reverse Outline

I absolutely LOVE starting this way. I’ll combine this method with a traditional outline and work backward (this is also how I build D&D campaigns, too!). First, you begin with the problem your character is trying to solve. You know who your cast of characters is and what the villain wants. How does the big final battle play out? What is the climax and what resolution follows after? After you know this, you work backward crafting the events that lead up to this event. What happened to get the hero to this point? This is a great way to get unstuck when working on an outline.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? No matter which method you choose, you’re going to be a speed demon at the keyboard. All methods and processes are valid, just make sure you do them! Experiment until you find the shoe that fits. Which method is your favorite? Comment below to share! I’d love to hear your great techniques. Good luck outlining, and happy writing!