how to outline your novel - where to get started and how to go about it
I realize that this post is a little late because well preptober is almost over and you’ve probably already outlined your novel. But well not all of you are going to be doing nanowrimo so I hope this post does help you. Outlining a novel is not easy. It’s super overwhelming. You are trying to create a novel out of absolutely nothing. You may have a couple ideas already written down but that’s not novel and nor is it an outline. Now you’re here because you want to turn these ideas into a novel. But if you feel like you don’t have enough ideas and your stuck check out my posts on coming up with story ideas for a novel and expanding on your story idea. Before I get any more in to this topic this post is to tell you how to get started with outlining. If you want to figure out if an outline is for you unfortunately I can’t help you there. But let me know if you need a post like that and I’ll get on to that.
SO where do you start with outlining? I mean you just jot down a bunch of ideas and put it into some sort of story structure right? well no don’t do that because your story is gonna be a big mess. You don’t need story structure or anything. But what you do need to know is where to start. So let’s just get started.
In my opinion characters are where you need to start. This may seem weird to you? I mean how do you outline good characters if you don’t have a plot for them to follow? Yea not really. That was what I thought before I watched Abbie Emmons’s videos and read story genius. Your characters are the ones your reader cares about (well mostly) I get that some genres won’t be very character driven but a lot of genres like fantasy, adventure, contemporary and so much more is very character driven. I love a good character who I can connect with. That’s why you need to start your story with your characters. Do check out my post on how to create amazing characters for your story and subscribe to my blog to get my character templates which is a great place to start. But here are the basics for you. Start with your characters hopes and dreams, fears and their misbeliefs. And from here dig into their backstory. Your characters backstory is what will determine your plot in so many ways and their backstory is what will make your characters them. What happened in your characters past that made them like this. That gave way to their fears and their misbeliefs.
Your characters are the ones who will go through all the shit you put them through and I don’t just mean in a fantasy or sci-fi novel. What happens to your characters doesn’t have to be a life or death situation. A life or death situation doesn’t have to matter as much to your protagonist as something else would. Don't get me wrong, i love life or death situations, they are so awesome and exiting.
Well I’m saying this all wrong but you need to figure out what would destroy your protagonist the most. If your protagonist has to save the world—well why do they have to save the world? Why is that important to your character? If your characters is looking for love then something might happen between them and their love interest. A horrible fight or misunderstanding which could be the worst thing that happens to them. Yup that’s right your characters determine everything for your novel from their greatest fears to their greatest dream, the one they’ll fight so hard for. Which is the stakes of your novel.
Now that you have your characters outlined you know their greatest fears and hopes and everything. You can now start to brain dump scenes for your novel. But a brain dump isn’t as easy as you may think. I mean just write down all your ideas right? well if you don’t have any ideas that could get complicated….
So if you are stuck with your story then here’s how you can come up with more ideas. Your characters. Start from their fears and dig down. This is how you can create new scenes. Something that pushed your characters outside their comfort zone is what will terrify them the most. Yup you now have that scene figured out. You have a misbelief for your character? They think this will make them happy and even better they don’t have to face their fears while they do this. except their fears come t slam them right in the face.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. A brain dump can work many ways. I love picking up a pen and a notebook and just writing down every thought. It isn’t meant to make sense it’s like a journal. I know that sounds to easy right? its not! Its freaking hard but sometimes when I’m stuck I write down everything I can think of without judging myself. And then I read through that and surprisingly there are a few ideas there I can actually use.
You brainstormed and expanded on your story ideas. You have a few good ideas don’t you? But you still feel stuck right. well create a synopsis. I always recommend creating a synopsis before you write your novel because its also really very useful when you outline. Now as for how long your synopsis can be…its up to you. A lot of people have a very short synopsis with a few lines to just tell them what the story is about and where its going. And some others do very long synopsis’s which are even pages long. Well I think it wouldn’t hurt to do both. Well of course your outline doesn’t have to be as long or short. It can be a page or maybe a little longer than a paragraph or anything. Your synopsis isn’t just everything that happens. And again this isn’t something for your publisher or what you put on amazon so no pressure. This is the reference for you, a guide.
So go ahead and write your synopsis you can try it multiple times until you get what you want but again you can just do it a couple lines summing up the entire book or you can have chapter synopsis too.
4. Do you need story structure?
Story structure is really great but its not for everyone. Guess what? Every single story is not going to fit into story structure. Yes I know its shocking that every story isn’t going to fit in the same structure right. But guess what structure was made as a guide for you to follow if your struggling with where to start which is probably why you’re here. but you don’t have to follow any specific structure. Your story is gonna have structure anyway it just won’t be the same structure a lot of others are using.
Don’t get me wrong I think story structure is great. Especially if you’re a new writer its gonna make outlining your novel so much easier. And if you do love using story structure go on using it I’m not here to tell you that’s wrong. Even if many stories are outlined using the same structure they tend to be pretty different because not a lot of readers tend to pay attention to that. well writers might but not all of them. Which is why I’m telling you to use story structure if it makes things easier for you. But the bottom line is you do not need story structure to write a fantastic outline.
5. How do you use story structure?
Now let’s talk about how you can use story structure. I mean you’ve got the story structure off of YouTube and now it’s time to go. Not really. If you got the story structure online and watched the entire video or read the full blog post you know that a story structure is flexible. I know, I know, it may not seem so. All the story elements are in place and you now need to bend your story to fit the structure? God NO. Story structure is there to help your story stand up again it serves as a guide. Your story should not bend to fit the structure.
I want you to go ahead and learn as much as you can about the story structure your using…before you change it up. Of course you might not be able to stick the story beats wherever you want. But who knows. Your inciting incident doesn not have to be just a few pages in. It could start very early or it could start much later depending on your story. Story structure wasn’t built to fit every single story ever which is why I give you full permission to change it up.
When I was outlining my novel for nanowrimo I decided to use the three act story structure. And it worked great for act 1. The middle was quite different, I had to move a few things around and the end was pretty good but not perfect. And you know what? That is pretty great. The story structure did what it had to do. It helped me outline my novel and I moved around a few other story beats. You too can do this.
Plot is what happens to your characters. Is the plot of your story important? Yes its very important. But that again depends on the genre you write. In some genres like mystery plot is definitely important. Your reader signed up for a mystery with an interesting plot so they probably wouldn’t care if the plot bored them.
So like I said about the brainstorming your plot still has to tie up to your characters and their motivations and everything. This is what determines what’ll happen and what will break your characters. This is also what helps you increase the stakes in your story. The one thing your characters want so badly, well the plot is them going after it. This is what’ll help you increase the stakes. Your character needs to go on a super cool super dangerous quest, well that is a really good idea which is done a lot but is something we all love. A lot. But what’ll increase the stakes here is to give your character a reason to want to live or a reason to want to finish the quest and so on. This reason will male the plot more important and interesting.
So go ahead and create a plot, turn your brain dump into something a little more coherent and this mu friend is your outline. Well almost your outline. You can go ahead and create chapter outlines too now if you want to go in detail but there is one more thing left.
7. Scene cards and story sequence
Yup you get it this is the last thing here on my list. You don’t have to get super detailed in here. but now that you do have a plot your probably have it in sequence. But lets make sure you really do. The most important thing is that the sequence of events affect each other. You can’t have chapter 1 and chapter 2 completely disassociated. What happens in chapter 1 has to lead to chapter 2 . and most importantly your character should be a different person in chapter 1 as compared to chapter 2. It doesn’t have to be the good kind of development. They can fall into a deeper hole of their misbeliefs or they can develop in a positive way Just make sure they do develop.
Now scene cards may seem like a huge deal to you. But trust me when I say that its really not. You can use scene cards for all your scenes or just a few important scenes and really dig deep into it and understand it. Now if you’re an email subscriber you probably already know that I offer scene cards and you might have already used it. if your not what are you waiting for. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and subscribe to my newsletter and along with my scene cards get my character profile and series template. The series template will work for you even if you write a standalone (I know confusing) you can just use it to store your scene cards, character template and world building info which is why you need to go grab them all and copy paste it into your word or scrivener.
Thank you so much for reading this post! I know its late but I hope it did help you outline your novel somehow or you found something to take away for your next novel. Go ahead and leave me a comment letting me know if you loved this and what part of outlining you find the hardest. Leave a like also subscribe to my newsletter so you get notified every time I post. Every Monday I make a post helping you write your story.