Three Steps to Outline Your Novel

Outlining your new story can be hard. Follow my three steps for an easy, breezy novel outline!

Have you heard the NaNo buzz this week?? It may seem early, but NaNoWriMo is just around the corner and for all you planners out there, this post is for you! Today, we’re talking outlines!!

(Pantsers…please don’t run away. I promise this will help you too!)

Writing an outline is a very personal experience. They can be bare bones with a simple list of events, character names, and places, or they can be in-depth studies on motives, reactions, subplots, character relationships, etc. Whatever and however you write your outlines (and even if you never use them after writing them!), they’re a fantastic tool to get you familiar with your novel.

Basically, depending on how you use your outline, you can sit down to write and have the easiest, breeziest writing experience of your life.


So today, I’m sharing my three step method to get started on an outline and some tricks I use to get familiar with my novel.

Step 1: Write a few different summaries.

These are NOT in-depth, numerically outlined summaries of every.single.event. In your story. They are quick, 200-500 word summaries of your story.

I normally write at least three summaries, depending on the story. I generally start with a very basic one that’s a few hundred words. Something non-committal that gets my basic idea out on paper. This helps hugely to focus my ideas and the little scenes whirling around in my head.

The next summary I write will be one that’s a few more hundred words. Basically double your word count to add in more characters, hints of subplots, and names of places or themes.

The third summary is my very first go and the back-of-the-book blurb. I try to convince my readers that this story is amazing and fascinating. And then I set up a healthy expectation for myself and my story.

Your next summaries can all have different motives: different audiences you’re describing your book to, what you would submit to an editor. Remember: these are all first drafts. They don’t need to be perfect, shiny, or have every detail nailed out. They’re simply a tool to get your brain churning out ideas for this new story that popped into your head.

Step 2: Write Event Chains

If you have several sub-plots or sub-characters, this is a great way to keep everything straight. It’s best to do this step with a piece of printer paper and a pen or pencil, not on a computer.

Start with where you want your story to begin and end. Write those down and opposite ends of the paper. Then start branching off. Perhaps the first events of the story influence your main character one way, but her best friend another, and her history teacher yet another. Draw arrows and start to sketch out the general path of each character.

Another way to think about this is cause and effect: write how each character reacts to an event, how a reaction creates the next cause for the next reactions. When you’re finished, you’ll have essentially a timeline of each character’s story. While every instance or every character journey won’t end up in your book, they’ll certainly help you better understand motives, reactions, and causes of important events in your story.

Step 3: Give yourself twenty minutes and just DO IT.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but I could give you tips and tricks until I’m blue in the face and it’s the end of the world and they wouldn’t mean anything, or magically write your novel, or make you a famous author if you don’t actually USE them. After you’ve done enough pre-work, you’re ready to do the ACTUAL WORK.

This is the hardest and easiest part.

Whether you need to make an appointment with yourself in your calendar, sit your kids in front of Frozen, or wake up a little earlier, get your butt in your chair, set a timer for twenty minutes, and hack out an outline. It doesn’t have to perfect. You have every right to change it. You have every right to NOT change it. You can scrap it. You can abandon it. You can elaborate on it until you have a series of Game of Thrones proportions on your hands.

Those twenty minutes are non-committal, but you won’t make progress on your novel until you put them in.

So, when it your appointment with yourself? I’d love to know in the comments.


Alexis Truitt

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