How To Outline Your Novel | Part One


This week, as an extended Bank Holiday Bonus, we will be looking at how to outline your novel:

Taking the time to outline your novel can save you grief in the long run. An outline helps keep your story on-track and progressing past the initial thrill of beginning your work. Maybe you can’t wait to start writing, or maybe you’ve already started but are running into problems. This guide will explain all the techniques you’ll need to craft an effective outline for your novel.


Constructing a Timeline

The first step is to create a timeline or plot skeleton with your plot ideas. Be sure to include back story elements, both before the novel’s events and at the point they are revealed to the reader. Don’t worry if you have little to start with, it’ll quickly build up. Make sure to leave space for more details.

There are many ways to construct your story outline. Try a few techniques and see what works for you. You could start by writing out key events, or by writing a short paragraph for each narrative arc within your novel. Either way, you’ll eventually need to look at your novel as a compilation of separate events and as a whole.

If you’re stuck with what to do in the middle, or even at the beginning, try starting with what you want to happen at the end and then reverse engineer a path to reach that result. I call this method ‘The Stephen King” because he famously writes that he begins a new novel by writing the last scene, and then works backwards.

This works within minor plot points as well. For instance, if you know you want character B to disappear and the other characters to end up in a boat before moving onto the next scene, brainstorm with that ending in mind.

Depending on your story and how you like to work, the timeline could take on several forms. A dot-point list, an actual timeline or a mind-map are the most common, though there are other forms you can use. Often in the planning stage, it’s easier to use pen and paper so you can draw arrows and cross things out. This leaves a reminder of what you’ve tried and what hasn’t worked.

Technique: Write a List

If your story is relatively simple and short, the list-form is often the best way to start your outline. Focus on the core points of the story and jot down any additional ideas as you go. If you were writing “Little Red Riding Hood”, your list-form timeline may look something like this:

  • Grandma makes a red coat for her granddaughter
    – The granddaughter is called Little Red because she always wears red
  • Little Red goes to visit Grandma, who’s sick (novel opening)
    – Her mum asked Little Red to deliver food (or medicine?)
  • On the way, she meets Wolf and tells him what she’s doing
    – Wolf runs ahead, eats Grandma and disguises himself as her
  • Little Red is distracted by flowers along the way
    – Wolf wears Grandma’s nightcap and glasses, then hides the rest of himself under the covers
  • Little Red arrives, but notices that Grandma looks different
    – Wolf imitates Grandma’s voice
  • Little Red notices unusually big: ears, eyes, teeth
  • The Wolf reveals himself, Little Red screams and a nearby woodsman runs to her aid and kills Wolf

Currently, this is a basic outline and needs a lot more work if it wants to be novel-length. Writing prompts can often help you flesh out your story. Use your imagination and check out Part Four (coming on Thursday) for notes on characters, setting and plot.

Technique: Map the Events on a Line

For stories that span several weeks, months or years, time becomes a big consideration when placing events. Simply writing the same points you’d write on a list along a line can help create a realistic sense of time.

When deciding the duration between events, remember realistic limitations of time. For example, there is time lost when travelling, and there are only so many meals a person can eat or disasters a person can prevent realistically in one day. Many other factors change with time, such as characters’ ages and the seasons.

Line-form can also help when comparing two separate time streams, such as in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.


Lines are more difficult to edit than lists, but a good trick to keep your line flexible is to use index cards or sticky notes that can be easily shuffled and switched around – This is a personal favourite trick of author Julie Cohen (to whom I refer as “The PostIt Queen”). If you are limited for space, Scrivener and Aeon Timeline are two programs popular with writers for this and other purposes.

Technique: Master the Mind-Map

Mind-maps work well for stories that start with a single point and then diverge into several threads, often alternating between characters. Alternately, the story could be several threads converging to one point, like the musical Into The Woods.

To depict the passage of time in a mind-map and be able to easily compare one thread’s time state with another’s, put the point of convergence at the centre, and then draw circles going out. Just like tree rings, each circle you draw can represent another segment of time. When you expand your mind-map, the points in each thread can be placed in its ring-like time “zone”.



Explore Your Character Arcs

Character profiles are useful in the initial planning stage. However, when outlining your novel, you need to go beyond this static document. Character arcs show the change or growth a character goes through, and the stages required to get there. The changes could be greater or smaller self-esteem, mastering that ninja technique or realising that money doesn’t solve all your problems.

“Change, transformation, is a constant in our lives and if you can impel some kind of emotional change within your character, it creates an arc of behaviours and adds another dimension to who he or she is” – Syd Field, The Screenwriter’s Workbook

First, determine exactly what part of the story is reflected by the character profile. Often this is the start of the novel. Make a list of any changes you want the character to go through, or changes they need to go through to achieve their profile. Then, check the plot and make another list of possible changes that story events could cause in your character, making note of which changes you want.

If the two lists are contradictory, you may need to reassess your character or plot, or be prepared to work hard and write a character that is believably contradictory. From here, you can continue with the list form, or use a line, mind-map or paragraph to detail out your character arc.

For characters that go through significant change, or for stories that look closely at the human psyche, you may want to do several mini-character profiles. Consider dropping aspects that won’t change, such as physical appearance, unless your character becomes severely ill or can shape-shift.

Another way to use character arcs is to compare them to each other. Firstly, make sure all your characters don’t share the same arc, unless you’re purposefully trying to make a point. If a few characters have similar arcs, try to use one as a comment or opposite reflection on the other, or demonstrate the difference a decision can make.

Also check if any character arcs can assist or become an obstacle for another character’s arc. This can add a new depth to characters’ relationships, and maybe spark off a subplot.

Character arcs can then be used to flesh out your plot. Once you’ve done the arc, make sure the plot supports every small change the character undergoes. If it doesn’t, use this guide to inspire several new plot points.


If you are enjoying this post and finding it useful, then don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the next instalment…


8 thoughts on “How To Outline Your Novel | Part One

  1. I use my blog primarily as a place to keep myself writing, though I am also in the process of planning out a bigger project that focuses hugely on characters and their behavior around each other. Blah blah blah, I’ll save you the details, but GOD does that mind-map look attractive. Normally I hate mind-maps, for anything, but I hadn’t really thought of approaching it in such a way as that. . . I am totally stealing it

  2. Pingback: How To Outline Your Novel | Useful Resources | Writer's Blog

  3. Pingback: How To Outline Your Novel | Part Five | Writer's Blog

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