Writing a fiction book can be much easier with an outline. Not everyone likes or prefers to plan their plots in advance, but it’s worth trying if you haven’t before. It can also help you work through writer’s block if you’re struggling in your creative time.
Check out this guide to learn a few things about how to outline a novel so you can start your next big story with more confidence.
What Is a Novel Outline?
A novel outline is whatever method you use to chart your story. Writers use various resources to create novel outlines, like:
- Index Cards
- Bullet Points
- Sticky Notes
- Colorful Charts
- Scribbled Notes
As long as your resource places each plot point in a row, leading to your conclusion, it can be an extremely helpful writing tool. You’ll always know where your story is going, no matter where you leave things between writing sessions.
You can start your outline as soon as you get inspired for your next story. You may even complete it in one sitting. However, don’t feel pressured to make any part of it final.
Outlines are shifting, adapting creatures. When you think of a new scene or a plot hole solution, you can always adjust your outline to meet your story’s needs.
Pros and Cons of Fiction Book Outlines
There are a few pros and cons of outlining any story. Read them to see if a plot map is what’s missing in your writing process.
Pro: You’ll Map Your Conflict and Character Arcs
When you’re writing a short story, it’s easier to remember where you are. There might be a handful of conflicts and one or two character arcs, but they get summed up pretty quickly.
Novels are different. You’ll have a cast of supporting characters, hundreds of pages to write, and it might take you a year or longer to finish your manuscript.
When you sit down to continue writing your fiction book, it could be days or weeks since you last spent time in that world. You could feel lost and unsure where to pick back up. Even after reading through the previous few pages, it might also be hard to gauge where your writing should be emotionally and tonally.
A plot map is a lifesaver in that moment. You can highlight or otherwise mark where you stopped so you know exactly where to start. Your outline could also include notes on the emotional weight of each chapter or event. When you reach the editing phase, your manuscript will have a much more comprised narrative flow.
Con: Some People Prefer Spontaneity
That being said, outlining isn’t for everyone. I believe everyone should try it at least once, but some writers love spontaneity. They get an idea, sit down, and run with it.
Doubting the power of the creative mind? Spontaneity worked for writers like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Diana Gabaldon.
The trick is to go with your gut. Some stories and novels may be easier to write without an outline, while other times you may find yourself needing one. Maybe you never use one at all. Good for you—that means you’re so in touch with your creative side, you know how you work best.
Pro: You’ll Think Through Plot Problems Early
Outlining also helps solve and avoid plot problems.
Let’s say you’re writing a story about a woman volunteering at a food bank. Your plot outline looks like this:
- The protagonist wants to help her community
- She volunteers at the food bank one day
- She finds a check written to an electric company in a donation box
- She becomes best friends with the woman who wrote it
- They start their own food bank
You’ve got your primary plot points, but how do you get from Point A to Point B? After the two characters become friends, where do they get the funding for their food bank? Do they have disagreements, like normal friendships and business partnerships do?
You can simply add another bullet point (or sticky note, index card, whatever you prefer) between those plot points and expand your idea.
Writers pushing through the story without an outline might arrive at the same point, but feel stuck momentarily. The pressure to find instant entertaining plot ideas could make them put the story aside altogether. It depends on the person.
Con: You May Feel Controlled by the Outline
There’s a unique experience writers can have when working with an outline. Whether you normally use one or not, it’s easy to feel controlled by the outline.
When your plot map says that your protagonist goes for a jog, you might decide that weight lifting at the gym is more in line with their character. But because you’ve already outlined an entire novel, you might feel like you can’t change a single scene.
Although you don’t have to listen to that pressure (because your outline works for you, not the other way around), it happens frequently enough for some writers that they avoid outlines altogether. It’s something to consider and keep an eye out for as you experiment with your writing process.
4 Steps to Outline Your Book
Ready to go? Follow these steps to create a fiction book outline that works for any story idea.
1. Create the Basic Details
You’ve got a story idea and that’s great, but you’ll need some more information to make an outline.
First, create your characters. What are their names, what do they look like, and what do they want in the scenario of your story? (I have a few helpful tips in this recent post that delves into character creation more specifically.)
Next, pick the setting. Will your characters live in the modern world, a historical society, a fantasy world, or some other setting that inspires you? (If you want to make a map, this post has a free site that I love using for mapping new worlds.)
You’ll also have to pick your genre. This is usually automatically chosen by your setting when you have a story idea right from the start. If you don’t, you can always pick a genre and come up with a story idea based on what stories get included in that genre.
Then it’s time to choose what conflicts your character or characters will face. This will likely be many throughout the course of your book and lead to the ultimate conflict, followed by your resolution. Types of conflicts include people, places, things, ideas, accidents, and basically anything that could challenge your protagonist’s values or worldview.
When you know what types of conflict your novel will have, you should decide who or what your antagonist will be. This will be the person, place, thing, etc, that makes the conflict happen. What does your antagonist want, if anything? They’ll have their own mini-arc alongside your primary cast of characters.
2. Figure Out Your Goals and Theme
Every character needs a goal. It might be the end point of your novel, the halfway point, or something they find out they don’t want at all. Goals make people grow just as much as conflict.
Your story will also need a theme. What do you want your readers to take away from it? I wrote about this more extensively in this blog post from my original blog, so check out that link if you want to talk about theme in more detail.
Otherwise, just consider what you want your reader to think about when they picture your book. They might imagine the love of found family or the valid challenges that come with growing up. Themes are typically broad too because your story speaks on it for you.
3. Decide Where Your Story Ends
You’ll have to end your book at some point, even if it’s part of a series. Think about what happens with your characters. Do you want to continue writing with them in their world or do you want to move on?
Stand-alone books need resolution. Your conflicts should end and your character’s questions should get some form of answers.
If you don’t think you have an ending yet, it’s okay not to decide on one right away. Just keep it in the back of your mind while you’re writing and taking breaks between writing sessions. As you get to know your characters and theme, you’ll eventually find the right ending for your story.
4. Fill Out the In-Between
These details are all essential to your plot outline, but it should still look like it has gaps at this point.
If you see those gaps and think they’re fine—leave them! You might be a writer who fills in the connecting details automatically as you write.
If you like to plan, those gaps may bother you. Try adding new space between each plot point to draft ideas. You don’t have to finalize anything, but note what comes to mind when you imagine that part of your book. It could become helpful references later as you’re working your way through your manuscript.
It’s also helpful to note that the in-between sections might be where you need to research things. Researching as you write is absolutely fine.
You won’t automatically know everything about the 1770s when you imagine a book that takes place then. That history isn’t already in your brain while you’re outlining. You’ll fill things in as you get to them, so don’t sweat it if some gaps remain.
When you feel confident that you’re at a good place with your plot outline—that it’s useful to your writing process and contains the essential information you need to know about your book—it’s time to sit down and let the story flow.
Create Your Own Fiction Book Outline
Writing a fiction book outline may take a few more steps than planning a short story, but you’ve got this. Take things slow. Create one detail at a time and write every idea down. Following steps like these makes it easier to arrange everything into a cohesive story with a purpose or theme you feel passionate about.