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How to Write a Novel Outline

Updated on June 14, 2011

This article is about outlining a novel that you have written or plan to write. See the elements of a novel outline below, and read on for guidance when developing your outline. If you would like to read about outlining a novel written by someone else for an assignment, check out this article aboutHow to Outline a Novel!

The purpose of outlining your novel is to get yourself organized, and present your story idea in a way that others can understand. Writing a novel can be overwhelming, and this essential step can help you find holes in your story so you can generate new ideas to fill them.

Elements of a Novel Outline

These are the essential elements of an outline you plan to share with a publisher or agent. Even if you are writing it for yourself, you'll want to include these elements, and may want to write it as if it will eventually be given to someone else because it will help you figure out how to communicate your story more clearly.

Working Title: This is the title of the piece. It is "working" and should be labeled as such because the publisher and/or agent may want to change it.

Brief Synopsis: Tell the agent or publisher what your novel is about and what will drive the plot. Include the setting if it affects the plot. It may be something general like "high school", or specific like "Topeka High School in Topeka, Kansas in January 1973". This should be in paragraph form.

Main Characters: Describe the main characters and their relationship to the protagonist, but don't use too much detail. Just say the aspects that are related to the plot. For example, "Adam: Eve's boyfriend", or "Adam: Eve's boyfriend with control issues" depending on whether or not Adam's control issues have anything to do with the central plot. These do not need to be complete sentences.

Chapter Outline: Explain what happens in each chapter in 1-2 sentences.

Who are you outlining for?/For whom are you outlining?

When you create an outline of your novel, you must first decide what purpose it serves. This will dictate the language you use, the content you include, and the appearance of your finished product. It will also drive your deadline.

If it's for you, then you can take a more laid back approach to the outline, because you can treat it like a draft since you'll update it as you go along. You will obviously have a better grasp than another reader of what you mean, and can make notes to yourself which will help you develop your story. However, you may want to write it as if you are going to share it with another person, because it will help you figure out which ideas may not be as clear to someone who is not inside your head.

If it is for an agent, editor, or publisher, then you will take a professional approach. Your style should be formal in order to be as clear as possible. Remember that this outline is an explanation of a story you made up in your head, and it is the first impression anyone will have of it. You will need to take extra care to use appropriate grammar and spelling.

Rules for a Professional Outline

  1. Do not use contractions.
  2. Underline the title.
  3. Number the chapters.

Get extra help writing your novel with these products! Or, read below for guidance while developing your outline.

Make Your Novel Outline Dynamic

Most likely, you have already brainstormed for quite sometime about the content of your novel, so you have already completed the first few steps without even knowing it! Congrats!

However, you are not finished the whole brainstorming process, because you will likely have to tweak your story as you find holes. The next step is to decide who the outline is for (see above) and plan to write accordingly..

Once you know that, you'll have to start your directed brainstorming process. This is when you take the ideas you already have in your head and answer questions that will help your story take shape.

Directed Brainstorming Questions

Main Character

  1. Who is your main character, and what is he or she trying to do?
  2. What is his or her name, and what does it mean?
  3. Where is your main character from? Where is he or she now?


  1. Where and when is your story taking place?
  2. How important is the place and time to your plot?


  1. What is the problem your main character faces?
  2. How does your main character address or plan to address the problem?
  3. What role do the other characters play in creating, exacerbating, or addressing the problem?


  1. Who is your narrator?
  2. How much does your narrator know about the characters?
  3. How much does your narrator know about the plot?
The answers to these questions should help you write a clear novel outline. Also, the answers to these questions will raise even more questions, so answer those too!
When you write your novel outline, make sure to focus on clarity and consistency, because your publisher or agent can't decide if he/she likes the novel if they can't figure out what it's about! Good luck and happy writing!


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