How to Outline Your Novel in 33 Easy Steps

by Truitt Collyns


computer typing

Step 1 – Think of a title: I’m not talking about for your book, obviously – just a file title so you can save this and come back to it later. Something like “New Book Outline” or “Fantasy Novel Outline” should work.

Step 2 – Think of a title for your book. It must be attention-grabbing, original and tied to the story in some interesting way. This will determine whether or not people pick up your book, so if you screw this up, every other step after this will be a complete waste of time.

Step 3 – Decide between numbers, letters or bullet points.

Step 4 – If you chose numbers, decide between Arabic or Roman numerals.

Step 5 – Think of everything that’s going to happen in the novel. Then map it on a circle. If there’s more than one timeline, map the second on a star.

Step 6 – Give every single character a name. This familiarity will better help you enter each character’s head space and care about what happens to them throughout the course of the story.

Step 7 – Have a random number generator select a number between 1 and 200. Whichever number it chooses, that’s your page number. Write what you think should appear there.

Step 8 – Since you probably skipped the book title step, go back and do that now.

Step 9 – If this is your first book, try not to think about how this is so much more arduous and time consuming than you thought it would be.

Step 10 – If you’ve written before to no success, try not to think about how that was probably all due to poor planning and outlining.

Step 11 – Give each character a few descriptors – just a phrase or two related to appearance and personality. Focus on specifics so they don’t all blend together: “footlong eyebrows,” “189 pounds” “ski jump world record holder.”

Step 12 – Hand draw all the settings you plan to use in your story for reference.

Step 13 – Give every single one of those places names, too.

Step 14 – Choose the genre you’d like to write in. Examples include Epistolary novels, sports erotica, post-positivist neo-Classicism, realistic fables, and literary fiction.

Step 15 – Choose the direction of your narrative. In English, we go left to right, but some languages, like Hebrew, go right to left, and classical Mandarin goes up to down.

Step 16 – Pick a narrator and style of narration. And even if you never use it, you should probably give him or her a name, too.

Step 17 – Think about how long of a time period your story takes place in. Convert that number into days and divide by 14.

Step 18 – Go back to your circle map from earlier and try to identify the peaks and troughs of your narrative.

Step 19 – Try to state the theme of your story in a single sentence. Then, try to do it with a wordless grunt, shriek or howl.

Step 20 – Start writing all of this stuff down.

Step 21 – Start researching possible publishers. Again, we don’t want to make this whole thing a waste of time.

Step 22 – Get a coffee, take a nap or watch a little TV. You’ve earned a little “me” time.

Step 23 – Choose a narrative voice. To stand out in a crowd, consider the second person.

Step 24 – You’re probably feeling a little lost by this point. Email several of your favorite authors and ask them to send samples of outlines from their books.

Step 25 – While you’re waiting for that, identify the climax of your story. No matter what, this will now be merely the first climax of a book so good and action-packed it seems like it’s never going to end.

Step 26 – Find a way to leave the ending open for a sequel.

Step 27 – Make a list of people to whom you want to dedicate the story. Whittle it down to one or two.

Step 28 – Check and make sure everything else in your life is still in order. Don’t want what’s basically a glorified hobby getting in the way of something important.

Step 29 – If you come across anything that seems clichéd, keep it. That means it’s worked for others and is simply part of a successful formula.

Step 30 – Go take one last look at that title and make sure it sounds good.

Step 31 – Write out the main plot points in a clear and concise manner from beginning to end. Reorder any scenes you feel are out of place. Delete ones you think won’t work. Don’t focus on specifics, just general narrative progression.

Step 32 – Print this outline and have all of your friends and co-workers check it over and see what advice they have.

Step 33 – And now the easy part is over and you’re ready to start writing your book.


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