How to Outline a Novel

Outlines.  You either hate ’em or you love ’em.  Either way, today you are going to get an earful on how to outline a novel. If you are participating in Fix Your Messy Novel that Doesn’t Have a Chance Month, you might want to make a new outline for your Messy Novel of Choice. I say might, because there are cons. But I think there are more pros. Just for yourself.


Outline Pros
An outline puts all your thoughts in one place and gives you goals to work toward.  By plotting out your novel beforehand, you can fix plot holes before you even start writing.  Also, while organizing the ideas you have for an outline, you will make sure you have enough information and ideas to take you all the way through the novel.  I find outlines incredibly useful.

Outline Cons
You may feel restricted by an outline or that you can’t capture all your thoughts and put them on paper. Whether or not outlines are for you depends on your personality type.


I’ve compiled a list of four major outline methods, in order from least rigorous to most, for your perusal.

Question Setup
Some people just use a Q & A form for outlining. Many sites have a list of questions to help you develop your novel. This outline form is more of a bunch of reminder notes and inspiration than a detailed plan. Still, I find many questionnaires to be useful, especially in the early stages of development.

Site for more information:
A step-by-step guide to a question setup outline.

Three-Act Structure
In most cultures all stories follow a basic, foundational structures, termed three acts.  Act one shows the characters introduced, the setting created, and basic motives shown.    At the end of act one is the inciting incident, the event that change everything and plunges into the actual plot.  During act two, the main characters face progressively greater and riskier challenges to overcome.  Act three begins with the climax, the ultimate showdown between the heroes and the villain.  You fill in the blanks.

Site for more information:
The site I where first learned about the three act structure.

This outline method requires you to have a general idea of the direction of your novel.  Every scene is plotted.  Each scene has a form that looks something like this:
Scene setting:
Characters in this scene:
Scene mood:
Main points:

This is very thorough.  I must say I like this outline method the best, although I lack the patience to complete it. Novels with this type of outline are written scene by scene.

Site for more information:
A web page on writing a novel scene by scene and offers some fun visual ways to make a scene by scene outline.

Snowflake Method
The snowflake method was invented by Randy Ingermanson. It’s concept is simple: start small, and then add to that tiny bit and then add to that and add to that, growing the story like a snowflake. The beginning is a logline. The final step before actually writing involves actual phrases occurring in each scene.

Site for more information:
The founder’s official page on this outline method.

Now that you know different method, here are some common outline forms.  Some forms work better with different outline types or people.  I suggest trying several.

Spontaneous is when you write anything that comes to mind, quickly, and in spurts.  In other words, all over the paper.

I usually use this one.   It’s thought out and in a line, perhaps with side notes, but not in such a rigid, tight order as strict.  This outline form can be twisted in a lot of way to suit your unique needs.

The regular outline form you are taught in school is used.  Roman numerals and points and subpoints and all that stuff.  Works well with three-act structure and scene-by scene.


I hope you find this list and these links useful!  Maybe you will try an outline even if you normally do not use outlines.  If you are an outliner, how do you outline your novels?  Do you use an outline method listed here, or another one?


About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on January 31, 2011, in Useful Sites and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thank you, Kat! I’m trying to outline that one novel, and I knew of the snowflake method, but none of the others, so thanks!

  2. Thanks a ton! Great post, and excellent timing. I’m thinking of starting a new novel soon; I just need to get it all out.

  3. Wow, glad this has helped you two! I love to hear when one of my posts was useful. 🙂

  4. Thanks for posting this, Katty! I’ve never really known what all those methods were… until now. 😀

  5. I am seriously wondering if I’m writing my book “out of order”. I know there’s no certain way to write a novel or short story but my “acts” or “scenes” aren’t following the Act 1,2,3. For example – the end of Act 1 has the inciting incident. My book is about a regular girl with a crazy life for the first half of the book but then around Act 3 is where the real problem happens – the end of society as we know it. Because of all the details (mind you very interesting stories about what this drug induced girl goes through) to really show what this girl goes thru the main point of the book doesn’t come for a really long time into the book. Is this a bad idea? If so, any suggestions? Am I making any sense? 🙂

  6. Thank you so much for posting this, it’s helped me a lot as I’m thinking about how to develop my story idea.
    I’m not usually an outliner really, I usually cannot figure out where exactly the story’s going til I write it. 😛 But this time I am trying to figure out how to plan a bit more… So far I have written out a (very) vague story summary type thing and started a mindmap. I am hoping to try a writing program called Scrivener soon, I think it may help me plan a bit better as well. ^_^

  7. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been looking for a good plot outline that I can use for my stories. I must admit, I’m not really an outline since I can lose concentration fast. But I think this will help me write my story faster. Thank you!

    -Tavon W.

  8. There is definately a great deal to find out about this topic.
    I love all the points you made.

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