Monday, August 2, 2010

How to Outline a Novel

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

In the past, I've always sat down with a vague idea of how I wanted my novel to end and then simply wrote toward that end. As I've grown in ability and knowledge, I've started to first outline my novel then fill in the blanks. I've come to think of writing a novel as a road trip and an outline as the map. (You do remember those two-dimensional GPS's, don't you?)

So, how do you go about outlining a novel?

The first secret to know is a novel's outline requires some thought, yet little work.

You need only outline two major components of your novel to develop a workable outline. They are your main characters and the plot. Things like dialogue, POV, setting and all the rest can be ignored for the time being. At the outline level, you don't even need to know what your characters look like. You need only their personalities.

What an outline needs most of all, however, is the time and effort to noodle though what happens to your characters. What's the story? In this light, many find, as do I, the end of your novel is the first thing to determine.

As to your plot, develop four or five major things that will happen to your protagonist and write them out in simple language. Think along these lines:

1. Boy meets the Girl of his dreams.
2. Girl dumps Boy.
3. Boy and Girl decide to get back together.
4. Boy finds out Girl's not worth the work.
5. Boy comes to realize he can find true happiness with a dog.

After you've got your basic plot developed, figure out what has to happen to take your hero from plot point one, Boy meets Girl, to plot point two, and so on. Write these new occurrences into your outline. It'll look something like this.

1. Boy meets the Girl of his dream.
2. They form a loving relationship.
3. Boy becomes jealous of Girl's platonic male friends.
4. Girl dumps Boy.
5. Out of loneliness, Boy has sex with girl from the copy shop.
6. Boy and Girl decide to get back together.
7. Girl finds out about girl at copy shop and dumps Boy again.
8. Boy decides he can find true happiness with a dog.

That's really all there is to outlining your story. Though your outline will most likely be more complete than this example, it may also be just this simplistic. All it needs is enough structure to keep your first draft focused on the story.

As to your characters and the novel outline, your goal is to flesh them out on an emotional level, nothing more.

If you noticed in the expanded outline above, I inserted the character emotions, jealously and loneliness. That's a key to getting your novel outlined, for it established motivations, personalities, and so much more.

This means by the time you're finished with the outline of your plot, you should already know the type of characters you need. In fact, they'll probably jump out at you. From two words, loneliness and jealousy, we already have an "outline" of our hero's flaw, don't we? His flaw stems from personal insecurities.

Now for some general tips as to how to outline a novel.

Remain flexible. Your outline is not cast in stone. As you move along in your story, if things take a dramatic shift, so be it. You wrote your outline, you can rewrite with as much ease.

You can make your outline exquisite or simplistic. Get as detailed with it as you wish. Let your personality be your guide. In my case, it's basic and I allow the characters and my imagination to fill in the blanks as I write along.

Though I only outline characters and plot, you may wish to also outline your setting and any or every other aspect of your novel. One writer I know gets so detailed with her outline, each scene is structured before she begins her first draft. Whatever works for you, works for you.

If you'd like to see someone else's idea of a plot outline, check out this ARTICLE.

Do you outline or not? Why or why not?

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. I do outline, although mine are more detailed that your example.

  2. I think I'm struggling most with knowing what happens. I have a character and her personality. I have a general idea of how it starts and where it's going. But I have no freaking clue how it will get there. At all.

    I think that's why I'm struggling. I need to think more. Perhaps?

  3. I made an outline similar to this one but am having trouble now filling in the blanks!! Here come to first draft revisions :)

  4. I don't do a complete outline, but I do have a vague idea of where I'm going. I have some plot points, but I like to stew over things in between writing sessions, and I feel like the work gets stronger the more it marinates.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. C. Patrick SchulzeAugust 3, 2010 at 6:57 AM

    I used to write with a minimal outline, too, Julie. However, I found it helped me to reduce my editing at the back end with a more complete outline.

    Thanks for your comment.


  6. C. Patrick SchulzeAugust 3, 2010 at 6:59 AM

    Elana, I might suggest you write from your last chapter to your first.

    I'll write an article on that soon to give you an idea of what I mean.


  7. Saumya,

    Thanks for commenting and keep an eye out for an article on this subject.

    I appreciate your comment.

  8. Yes, Alex, my outline is much more fleshed out than the simple example I gave, but still I stop with characters and plot.

    Thanks for your input.

  9. This is my kind of a romance. Thanks for the laugh, and the tips as well.