A quick-start guide for a novel outline in 10 steps
There are a number of plot structures and beat sheets out there, but most of these require you to already have some pretty detailed knowledge about your story and its characters. But where do you start before that? This 10-step quick-start guide will get your creative energies flowing and kick-start the writing process!
(Also, before you start: even though these are numbered, you can do these steps in any order you want. For instance, you might not yet know the story’s core conflict until you fully flesh out the main characters. You can also skip some questions entirely if you just don’t have an answer yet, like what the subplots will be. You can always return to any step and make edits or add more.)
1. Determine the genre of your novel
This will help you choose what kind of story you want to write, and what elements to include in your outline.
For instance, a sci-fi/fantasy novel will require different details about the world (tech/magic/etc) than a period drama or coming of age comedy.
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2. Choose your main characters.
These will be the people (or creatures, or robots) that drive your story. You might have one that’s the main protagonist and point of view character, or you might have half a dozen points of view.
It’ll also be important to define the people that stand in opposition to your main characters, which will usually be your story’s villains (but not always!).
3. Decide on the story’s conflict.
This is what your characters will be striving to achieve or overcome throughout the novel.
In a lot of genre fiction, this often revolves around stopping the bad guy from stealing the MacGuffin or blowing up the world. But in some the main conflict might be an internal struggle, or maybe an adopted protagonist is trying to find her birth parents.
The conflict might also come from the world at large, but it will usually also be focussed through a main antagonist that embodies all the evils that the protagonist struggles against.
4. Choose the story’s setting.
This will include the time period, location, and other important details about the world in which your story takes place.
For example, your sci-fi story could take place on a military starship (the Enterprise), or a civilian cargo transport (Millennium Falcon or Serenity), or even a farming colony (Farmer in the Sky).
Fantasy could be set in Narnia or Middle Earth, could be an alternate history Earth (Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell), or even contemporary urban fantasy.
For genre novels, you can decide how advanced the tech is or how pervasive magic is. Can anyone use magic, or do they have to go to Hogwarts first? Can anyway buy a space ship with a warp drive?
For a contemporary drama or even a period piece, you could decide on the social strata of the main characters, if they live in the big city or a country town, etc.
5. Determine the story’s main plot.
This is the sequence of events that will occur in your story, leading up to the climax.
Look back at #3 (the story’s conflict) and base the plot around exploring this conflict and then attempting to resolve it.
Start out with bigger “milestones” throughout the story, then you can go back and fill in more of the details. An example might be:
- Johnny needs money for his dad’s cancer treatment, but can’t find work
- He decides to help a friend rob a bank
- One of the bank tellers recognises Johnny and starts blackmailing him for money
- His friend kills the teller but is quickly caught
- Johnny worries that they’ll both be tied to the bank robbery
6. Create subplots.
These are smaller stories that help add interest and depth to your novel. They don’t have to have a direct connection or impact on the main story or conflict, but help the reader understand the characters better, and often help the characters reach their own understandings or find motivation.
For example, in our bank robbery story, a subplot would be Johnny spending time with his dad and recounting the good times they had when he was a kid. We’d also see how poor they are and how sick the dad is, and then better understand Johnny’s strong motivations to get money any way he can.
Another subplot might be how his friend (and probably Johnny) go a little crazy with all their new money and spend it up big.
7. Write a chapter-by-chapter outline.
This will be a detailed roadmap of what happens in each chapter of your novel. You could start by listing out the beats you wrote in #3 then mixing in the subplot beats from #6. From there, start adding in new lines that help to connect one beat to the next.
One or two sentences per chapter should be enough details.
8. Develop your characters.
Now that you know more about the plot and characters, flesh out their personalities, histories, and motivations. Why is Johnny okay with robbing the bank? Why didn’t the teller just go to the police?
Write down some notes for each character, then go back and take a look at the overall plot and subplots. Can you find places to demonstrate the details? Do you have new ideas for scenes or sub-plots?
9. Write out a scene-by-scene outline.
If there’s any step that could be skipped, it’s this one. But maybe you want to take your chapter outlines and drill them down even further. You could write a sentence for each scene, or maybe even start writing out full paragraphs and dialogue. (i.e., you might just start writing your story!)
10. Revise and edit your outline.
Make sure everything flows smoothly and that your story is engaging and compelling. Do your characters’ actions feel motivated by their backstories and personalities? Are you missing any details? This is the time to make sure.
Bonus 11. Start writing!
As fun as outlining and creating new worlds is, don’t forget that the ultimate goal is to write a novel or screenplay! Once you’re confident that you know who and what you’re writing about, don’t be afraid to just jump into prose and see what you discover.