5 Methods To Outline A Novel

Which Way North? 5 Methods To Outline A Novel

In this post, we look at five ways to outline your novel. We include classic methods and introduce some innovative approaches.

True Or Magnetic North?

When we outline a novel, we want it to be a perfect compass to keep us on track. But, the actual narrative doesn’t always go in the direction we planned.

It’s like the difference between true north (fixed, neat, comforting) and magnetic north (shifting, re-aligning, always changing).

Some writers like everything to be clear before starting chapter one, others follow the magnetic pull of other ideas. Most of us are somewhere in between.

Whether it’s a few scribbled lines in your moleskin, or an elaborate multi-tab spreadsheet, most writers agree you need some sort of outline before you start writing.

Synopsis Vs Outline

  • Typically a synopsis is written after your novel is complete. It is a polished and short document you as an author use to market your novel to agents and publishers. It’s your calling card.
  • An outline is something you create before you write a first draft. It is just for you – a comprehensive or loose guide to the story you hope to tell. It is your roadmap, a blueprint, your compass.

If you’re looking for tips on outlining your novel, here are five to consider:

  1. Fast & The Furious

Novelist John Braine, author of the iconic Room At The Top, didn’t believe in wasting too much time with an outline. He would start with a quick 500-word summary, then write a draft at white-hot speed.

The rough synopsis would give him some idea of where he was going in the story. But, it also left him with breathing space to allow the story to develop organically.


In this rough outline, don’t worry about character names (placeholders will do) or setting (a quick list of possible locations is fine). Do minimal research (don’t fall into the Google trap). Just take the kernel of your idea and write out the ‘big picture’ for your novel.

Read Pulse Plotting To Get Your Story Moving

  1. Chapter Skeletons

Bestselling author James Patterson, who co-penned Run, Rose, Run with Dolly Parton, uses short chapter breakdowns before he writes or starts collaborating with a co-author.

The outline runs to about 20 to 25 pages (or between 7 000 and 10 000 words). For each chapter, there is a thumbnail of the plot and action to be covered. Each ‘thumbnail’ includes information on setting, action, and even snippets of punchy dialogue.


Develop a chronological outline and add in the consequences of the character’s decisions at each step. Example: Sarah stays late at the bar with her friends and misses the last train home (decision). She is stuck in the city with no money (consequence).

Read 5 Really Good Reasons To Outline Your Novel

  1. Character Generated Outlines

If your story is driven by a character, you may want to use this central character to anchor your outline. You can use their emotions – wants, needs, fears – to map out this character arc’s – how they will struggle, change and find a new truth in their lives.

Think about how your lead will transform during the course of the story, consider the frictions in their relationships to help you find emotional ‘markers’ in the story. The conflict can be with other characters, society or their environment.


Focus on your protagonists’s flaws (pride, poor impulse control, spendthrift etc.) and create conflict around these human traits. When you introduce an obstacle for the character, write down ideas for how it can be intensified and how it can be resolved up in the end.

  1. Play Before You Plot

If your idea isn’t fully formed, it might be counterintuitive to ‘force’ an outline. In this scenario, you may want to write three or four exploratory chapters first. This will allow you to ‘test’ the story.

These chapters can be experimental – and may even include some false starts – but they will give you the feel of the novel, its characters, setting, and tone. If you think these chapters have merit, write out an outline or a full synopsis.


The three chapters don’t have to be sequential. You can focus on key scenes or ‘moments’ in the story – the first significant change, coming face-to-face with the antagonist, a love scene, or the final chapter.

Read The Plot Maker

  1. Letter To Yourself

Are you really stuck? Don’t think of an outline as a formal document. Simply tell the story to yourself in an informal, fun way.

‘My story is about a Suzy who decides to rob a bank and frame her corrupt cop ex-boyfriend.’ ‘Once upon a time, an old man wakes up from a nap to find a giant stork on his staircase.’

This approach gives you the comfort of a single audience – you. It’s less intimidating. You can write it out, or record it as a voice memo or video on your smartphone.


You can also frame the outline as dialogue between you and your main character. Ask your character questions and jot down or record the answers. (Author: ‘Why is this search for your biological parents so important?’ Character: ‘I need to know if my birth parents also had sickle cell disease.’)

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The Last Word

‘I don’t write a novel until I’ve lived with it for a while,’ says John Grisham. ‘The more time I spend on the outline, the easier the book is to write.’

An outline is your way of living with your story. It’s how you breathe it into existence and make it come alive of the page. It’s a living document and, as such, can be quite malleable.

anthony ehlers

By Anthony Ehlers. Anthony Ehlers facilitates courses for Writers Write. He writes awesome blog posts and workbooks too.

More Posts From Anthony:

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  4. 5 Simple Steps To Writing A Short Story
  5. 2 Questions To Find Your Writing Process
  6. 11 Popular Sub-Genres In Fantasy Romance
  7. Write Your Synopsis Without Losing The Essence Of Your Story
  8. 6 Mistakes Screenwriters Make
  9. 12 Point Checklist For Your Story Goal
  10. 5 Myths To Break When Writing A Good Character

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Posted on: 31st August 2022