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How (And Why) To Outline Your Novel

Updated on July 23, 2015

Why Outline?

Between the summers of 2013 and 2015, I completed seven manuscripts, including five full-length novels (actually six, if you count the two that were condensed into one), and two novellas. No easy feat for a busy mom with a small, spirited child! My publisher has demanded to know how I manage to write so fast. In part, it's my obsessive personality... But mostly, the secret is outlining.

Like most writers, I started out "free-writing." From elementary to high school, and in my early twenties, I penned stories - short and long - with no destination in particular, just for the love of writing. The concept of an outline felt sterile to me. It felt like homework, as though I was removing all the passion and spontaneity from my favorite cathartic activity. But that all changed the morning I was inspired to write my first published novel, The Duchess Quest.

Plotting is important. So are things like incorporating relevant details, foreshadowing, and bringing your story full-circle. An outline can help you achieve all of that, and more. For me, outlining organizes my thoughts, hedges against writer's block, keeps me on track, and ensures that I don't get stuck or forget anything. In addition, it takes all the guesswork and plotting out of the actual writing process, so that I can focus on simply writing.

That said, when sitting down to outline an entire novel from start to finish, where to begin? Here are six tricks that always work for me!

Six Outlining Tricks

1. Write your query letter first.
Yes, your query letter. The one you'd send to an agent or publisher when soliciting the book for representation or publication. Which is also, basically, what'll go on your book's back cover. Make believe your novel is a finished entity, and now you have to write the juiciest, most fascinating mini-summary ever to entice somebody to read it. Put in anything that would grip you and persuade you to read it, if you were reading the back cover. Keep it brief and to-the-point, but pack enough detail into those compact lines. Then write your outline going off of that little summary.

This is, by far, the best method I've found for (a) deciding what I want to write about; (b) keeping on track; and (c) not worrying over how I'm going to compose my query letter when I'm finished! Trust me, as someone who's done it both ways, it's a lot harder to condense 100,000 words you've already written into a half-page query letter than to come up with a good summary, and then expound upon it. Also, it saves you any extra hassle or anxiety when you are ready to market the book, as your query is long since complete!

2. Organize by chapters.
To outline a novel, I list, in present tense, what I intend to take place in each chapter. Some writers list scenes or action beats. I've found organizing by chapters helps with pacing and making sure I'm giving my main characters equal air-time. I don't always stick to the exact plans. But having a general guideline of what I need to accomplish in each chapter, and in what order, presents me a simple, intuitive "assignment" in achievable chunks, each time I sit down to write.

3. Go out of order.
You can cut and paste later. But be sure to write out all your thoughts as soon as they come, even if they're out of order. I begin outlining in chronological order, but if a new twist or plot element jumps into my head, I add it at the bottom ASAP. Then I drag and drop to its proper home when I get to the scene it belongs in. Much better to begin with a messy outline than to forget brilliant ideas!

4. Ask why.
When producing an outline, few activities are more helpful than asking oneself why. When I first conjured the idea for The Duchess Quest, for example, I began with only two seemingly unrelated concepts: (1) A duchess had survived her family's execution (a la Anastasia Romanov), and (2) Three men who can't stand each other must take a long, perilous journey together.

To bring these concepts together, I began to ask myself why. Why was the duchess's family executed? Why did she survive? Why are the three men on a journey? Why is it perilous? Why don't they get along? Soon, it all started to meld together. The duchess was secretly rescued from execution... the men are on a journey to recover her... and compete for her affections! Asking why is productive, indeed.

5. Be mindful of length.
An outline that's too long, producing a 165,000 word, 700-page novel? Been there. An outline that's too short, bringing me only to 35,000 words at novella length? Done that. (No outline? I found myself with the awful task combining two full-length, endless, meandering novels into one epic, punchy one.)

From trial and error, I've learned to be mindful of the length of the outline itself. For a full-length adult novel, a 25-page single-spaced outline can get you there. It's best to be as detailed as possible in your outline, so that you don't get stuck anywhere once you begin writing.

6. Take your time.
Seriously. The outline is the hardest part (okay, outside of getting 150+ rejection letters, as I did). So don't rush. If you aren't sure where to take the story next, watch a movie, read a book and give it time. Chances are, you already have an end in mind - you just need to figure out the best way to get there. Know that, once you've completed the outline, the actual writing will be a breeze.


Do you outline stories before you write?

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    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      CK, if you will copy and paste

      10 tips for writing loglines raindance

      into a Google search, at the top of the search results (aside from any ads) will be a good article by 'raindance' about loglines. The other article I cited in my previous comment applies the concept to novel writing.

      When a screenwriter has pondered and mulled over a story idea and is ready to get down to the business of writing a screenplay, the first step is to write a logline, which is a one-sentence or at most two-sentence summary of the essential elements of the story that the movie will tell. It tells, in the present tense, who is striving to attain or achieve what, with what at stake, against what opposition. Modifiers can be included to express the emotional tone of the movie. The logline is the DNA of the story. It shows the writer if there is a real story and guides the writer in keeping focused on the story at every stage of writing the screenplay.

      An experienced, professional screenwriter prefers to be paid to write a movie rather than to write it "on spec", so before beginning writing the first draft, ze will quote the logline when pitching the movie idea to a producer. An experienced producer can tell from the logline whether it has the potential to become a movie with a solid storyline with an emotional wallop. Yes, the logline must "hook" the producer.

      I have heard that the website IMBD includes loglines in its movie listings.

      Loglines should not be confused with taglines.

      See the Kristen Lamb article for how this applies to writing a novel.

    • ckbrooke profile image

      CK Brooke 2 years ago from Washington, MI

      For starters, I am immensely flattered by your description of me as "focused, quick-thinking and prolific." Thank you! :-D I am fascinated with this logline you speak of - is that like the "hook" in a query letter? I will Google it. And I will also check out WorkFlowy; thanks so much for the tips!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      You convinced me, CK. I don't expect to ever be nearly as focused, quick-thinking and prolific as you, but I am sure that getting into the habit of outlining will be a big help in my fiction writing.

      Coincidentally, in the three women and me critique writing group I am in, one of them learned about outlining in a writers' conference workshop and has been pitching the practice to the rest of us. Some have tried it already and are enthused about it. I will be outlining my fiction henceforth, for sure.

      Consider beginning, even before the query letter summary, with a logline -- the one-sentence seed or DNA of the whole story. Google on:

      10 tips for writing loglines raindance

      and on:

      Kristen Lamb How to Tell if Your Story is On Target What is Your Book About in ONE Sentence

      Back to outlining, I think WorkFlowy (which I described in a recent hub) would be handy for that.