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How to Write a Story Outline

Updated on June 22, 2021
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Rosa Marchisella is the author of the gripping "Touch of Insanity" series and the bone-chilling novella "The Greatest of Books."


What is a Story Outline?

Whether producing screenplays, stage plays or novels, a writer will be asked to submit details of their manuscripts to agents, publishers and producers as either an outline or synopsis. These two terms are often confused with each other and sending the wrong one to an agent or publisher can lose you an opportunity very quickly.

An outline is a very detailed breakdown of your script or manuscript. It includes background and character information, as well as a chapter-by-chapter summation. The format for an outline is as follows:


This section should include

  • the title;
  • sub-title; and
  • name of the author.

Genre and word count can also be included.


This is where you need to explain the story background, era, setting and any society information important to the story. For fantasy, this should include information on the world that the story is situated in, religions, magic systems, prophecies, etc. For science-fiction, include a brief explanation on the technology, the planet the story takes place on (if applicable), the history of civilization from present to the story’s setting, alien races, etc.


Tell your reader what the theme of your story is. “Theme” refers to the central idea explored in your story. It is usually a simple one or two sentence description, such as “Mankind’s struggle to find inner peace.”


What is the tone of your story? “Tone” refers to the feeling or attitude of your story. For example, many Stephen King novels have “dark humor” as their tone.



Provide a breakdown of the main character(s). It is important to include a brief history, goals, motivations and conflicts (internal and external).

Goals are what your characters are striving to achieve. For example, a pirate character’s goal may be treasure. It is possible for a character to have more than one goal.

Motivation is what keeps that character moving forward throughout the story. This could something internal, such as his desire to disprove a proclamation by his father years ago that, “You‘re not the type of person to see a task through to the end, son. You get distracted and that’s why you always fail.” It could also include external motivation imposed on the character from an outside source. For example, the character’s sister is being held hostage and the hero must accomplish his mission to secure her release.


This is where you must provide a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene breakdown of the story. It is vital that you explain any subplot(s) and reveal all “surprise twists” or “secret endings” otherwise the agent, publisher or producer won’t be able to make a fair judgement. Also, be sure to explain how the conflicts are resolved.

Formatting Tips

An outline is like your résumé, so present your work in a professional manner.

  • Be concise.
  • Use easy to read fonts, such as Times New Roman or Arial.
  • Proof-read for spelling and grammar.
  • Use easy to read fonts.
  • Make sure your margins are at least one inch on all sides.
  • Leave spaces between your sections to make reading easier.
  • Use black ink on quality 8.5 x 11 while paper.

If you’ve been asked to submit a synopsis, you can learn how to properly format one from the article, How to Write a Synopsis.

© 2011 Rosa Marchisella


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