Outline Your Novel in 3 Easy Steps

This is my 100th blog post! Thank you to everyone for reading and supporting. :-)

I generally improvise from an outline.
-Jeff Garlin

Some writers like to outline every single detail of their books. Others never do. Even if you’re not a planner, though, most writers do have an idea of what’s coming next. Where will these characters end up? What is the conflict that will get them there?

Even a few bullet points can keep you on track to avoid rambling. You can outline further from there, or just dive right into the writing with quick and easy goals in mind! Here are three easy steps to give you a basic skeleton for your book.


Please note that these tips are for after you’ve come up with an idea and general concept for your work. Brainstorming is its own stage before outlining!
1. Basic Points

What do you hope to say with your book? Are you looking to entertain? To educate? To inform? Is your book fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.? Is your book for children, adults, etc.? How long do you think the book should be, and/or how much do you think you can/want to write? Your answer may range from “40,000 words” to “300 pages” to “about the size of this book I’m looking at”; it’s easy enough to convert from word count to pages once you know what you’re shooting for. (In standard manuscript formatting—Times New Roman 12pt font, double spaced, 1 inch margins—four pages are about 1000 words, and 25 pages are roughly 40 pages when typeset as a book.)

These clinical questions aren’t the most fun, but answering them gives you some structure for what you plan to write. Sitting down to write a 300-page crime novel for adults will be a different experience than if your goal is to pen a nonfiction science picture book for first graders.

You can make a list on an index card with this information: Purpose, Genre, Demographic, Length. If applicable, include something like “Theme” (if you’re writing work with a particular message or statement, for example) or just a general “Notes” section for any additional information you consider critical. Outline your most basic goals, and it’ll be that much easier to figure out how much time you need to budget for research, writing, etc.


2. Characters

Depending on what you’re writing, step two is flexible. If applicable, think about your cast of characters and scribble down defining features and their most important aspects. For example: “Jonah, 12, freckles, tall for his age, good at puzzles” and “Asmin, 32, Turkish, always on time, excellent tennis player”. You may know your characters better than you know yourself, or you may only need a few bullet points to get the ball rolling. Figure out how many characters you need to best serve your plot. Take note of characters who are more fun to write about and ones who feel like chores—you may save yourself time cutting the boring threads now instead of three drafts later when you realize this character isn’t fun to write and is messing up your whole process.

If you’re working on nonfiction or poetry, you may not have characters in the traditional sense, if at all. Consider then the character of your writing; is your style conversational? To-the-point? Do you directly address your reader? These are also questions fiction writers ask, of course, but they may carry more weight when there isn’t a cast of characters to help with the personality and presentation of your work.

You can make another set of index cards/flash cards for characters. Each main character should have their own card, and three to eight is a pretty perfect range of characters worthy of their own cards. These aren’t just point-of-view characters, but your whole main crew that spends a lot of time on the page. A list of names of background characters never hurts (for example, if your main characters are kids, it still helps to have their homeroom teacher’s name written down somewhere for the one or two times you mention that person in passing). Compile groups of minor characters onto cards (i.e., “Parents”, “Teachers”, “Co-workers”).


3. Beginning, Middle, End

You really only need three points to outline your novel. I know, that doesn’t sound like me at all; I like thirty bullet points when I’m outlining. However! To get past the planning stage and into the fun part—the writing—there are really only three things the writer needs to know.

Where does the story begin? Not “what is the history of this story/world?” “Where is my main character from?” or “What is an average day in this city like?” What is the first thing that matters in your story? Do characters meet, does something get lost, does war break out? That is your first page.

Where does the story end? What is the ultimate goal, and at what point will you be satisfied to say goodbye to this project? Authors accompany their characters on an adventure; what is the destination you want to escort them to? It could be a happy ending, a sad ending, or anything in between, but writers should at least start out with an idea of where this story is going. It’s cool if the ending changes while you’re writing, too.

What’s in the middle? I think every writer ever starts off with inspiration for the best scene in the heart of the story. It’s the point where your characters, world, and plot are established, but nothing’s yet resolved. You know, the fun stuff. If you have one or more scenes you know are in the middle, try to gauge how long it will take to get from the beginning to the fun scene (to the next fun scene, if applicable) to the end. The stuff in the middle that you’re hyped about writing makes a mini goal to reach on your way to the last page.

Your beginning, middle, and end can be elaborate paragraphs or buzz words. As long as “pancake disaster,” “volcano erupts,” and “Grandma wins the talent show” make sense to you, that’s your outline.

Bust out the index cards again! Write down your beginning, middle, and ending and line up however many cards you have on a table, the floor, or wherever. Try to distance them the way you think they’ll happen in the plot. For example, if your middle scene is close to the end of the story, put it closer to the end’s index card than the beginning’s. Having that visual representation gives you a physical outline to look at.
You should now have a nice little mini deck of cards. You’ve got the basic info of what and how much you’re writing, your main cast of characters, and a beginning, middle, and end. Ten or fifteen minutes of silliness, and you could be ready to go on your next writing project.


How do you outline and plan? Be sure to tell me your tips and tricks in the comments, or tweet me @turtlewriter!

Happy writing!

xo P



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