How to Outline Your Novel: 3 Ways to Create a Story Roadmap

brainstorming plotting save the cat
How to outline your novel: 3 ways to create a story roadmap

Have you ever had an idea for a novel but aren’t sure how to start writing, let alone finish a whole first draft? You might even have notebook pages filled with details about a story you’re eager to write, but you don’t quite have all the pieces of the puzzle sorted out. Maybe your ideas are scribbled down on random scraps of paper, and you want to organize them all in one place.

If you’ve ever found yourself in any of these situations, an outline might be just what you need to organize your ideas. With this, you create a plan so you can not only start that novel, but finish it as well. So what’s the best way to create a novel outline? And can a story outline work if you're "pantsing" your book? Read on to find the approach to outlining that works best for you!

What is an outline?

An outline is a roadmap that helps you write an entire novel, from the first word to the last, while hitting important landmarks along the way. Think of crafting your novel like a cross-country trip. You need to know not only where you’re starting and where you’re going, but also the stops you need to make along the way so you don’t get lost, frustrated, and never reach your destination.

An outline for your novel follows a similar plan. It keeps you on track in your novel writing journey so that you don’t get lost along the way, wasting time, energy, and words. An outline ensures you put your scenes in the right places without leaving out anything important. This road map also helps you see at a glance what your story needs, so you can write a compelling book that keeps your reader turning the pages.

How do you outline a novel?

There are many options when it comes to outlining a novel. Some writers prefer a basic outline or synopsis that simply highlights the major plot points, while other writers prefer a more detailed sequence of events that highlights every scene or chapter in the novel. Let’s take a look at three popular outline templates for planning out a whole novel.

Plot Outline Method 1: Bullet list

The most basic outline is a list of all the ideas you have for your novel. This might be a bulleted list of scenes that belong in your story. It might include major plot points, a character arc, or the major turning points in your story.

If you’re just getting started with an outline, write down every detail you want to include in your novel. This might even include some character development, world-building details, bits of dialogue, and individual scenes. Get as many details as possible onto paper so that you have a starting point for your outline.

For many writers, this is enough to get them to the finish line of their novel. Those writers are often referred to as “pantsers,” because they choose to write by “the seat of their pants” without a detailed line and figure it out as they go. Writers who use a detailed outline are known as plotters. As a plotter, your next step might be to flesh out key details, or scenes, from your story.

Once you’ve brainstormed your ideas, choose at least five key details to flesh out more deeply. These details could be an inciting incident, such as when the hero of your story finds out her spouse is cheating. It could be the moment your hero finds out she has been fired or receives a devastating health diagnosis. It could be the moment the hero moves out of her home, gets her own apartment, and starts over without the cheating husband.

Choose five details from your list and flesh those details out further. How does the hero feel? What do they plan to do next? What is their goal? How do each of these scenes or details change the direction of the story or drive what happens next? How does the action of each scene add drama and conflict to the story? Keep asking yourself these questions as you develop the plot. Each scene should be a natural consequence of the scenes that lead up to it.

Plot Outline Method 2: The three-act structure

One of the most widely recognized ways of organizing a story, the three-act structure simply divides a novel into the three main parts, or acts, of a narrative arc. To figure out where to place each scene in your story, let’s take a look at each of the three acts in this structure.

Act One: Set up

Act One sets up your novel and the world in which it takes place. In this act, you need to introduce the world of your story, the main characters, and the problems and goals your hero will face. By the end of Act One, something needs to happen that will push your character into action, in a new direction, or on a new journey.

Act Two: Journey

In Act Two, your hero will go somewhere new or try a new way of doing things. This will lead to more conflict and problems along the way for your protagonist as they embark on their hero's journey. This new voyage often leads to new or modified goals for your hero. By the end of Act Two, these new goals lead your hero to a new low point where all hope seems lost.

Act Three: Resolution

Act Three focuses on a resolution in which your hero figures out what they need to do to solve all the problems from the first two acts.

Now that you know what the three-act structure is, take those scenes you fleshed out in the previous step and figure out where they go in the three-act structure. To take this a step further, take all of the details you’ve developed so far and place them all in the three-act structure. You’re now well on your way to outlining a novel that you can finish!

Next, let’s look at outlining with the popular Save the Cat! story structure.

Plot Outline Method 3: Save the Cat! Five Foundation Beats

Adapted for novelists by author and Writing Mastery Academy founder Jessica Brody in her bestselling book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, the fifteen beats of the Save the Cat! method make up the essential plot points that guide a story from beginning to end.

But you don’t have to work out the entire beat sheet in order. When outlining, start with the five foundation beats that hold up the rest of your story. Identifying where your scenes fit into these beats will help you lay the groundwork for the rest of your novel and lead you naturally through your hero’s transformation. The Five Foundation Beats are:

  • The Catalyst: An inciting incident that serves as a call to action for the hero. After this moment, your hero’s life will never be the same again. The catalyst breaks the status quo and sends your hero and their story in a new direction.
  • Break into 2: In which your hero makes a decision based on the catalyst and must now go somewhere new or try something different. This beat breaks the hero out of Act 1 and into Act 2.
  • Midpoint: the middle of the story that includes either a false victory, in which the hero gets what they want, or a false defeat, in which the hero loses something they want. Something happens that puts pressure on the hero to change, such as a new threat or a plot twist. The midpoint pushes the story in yet another direction, often with a new goal for the hero to pursue.
  • All is Lost: Your protagonist's lowest point, which leads to their dark night of the soul. The bad guys win, goals are lost, or someone dies: something that makes the hero feel as if they’ve lost all hope of achieving their goal.
  • Break into 3: the hero comes up with a solution to their problems, marking the end of Act 2 and the start of Act 3. The hero figures out how to solve their problems from Act 2 and goes about solving it.

Take all of the details and scenes you have brainstormed and fleshed out and place them into these five beats. If you’re ready to dive more deeply into your plot, try the full Save the Cat! method by outlining all fifteen beats of your story.

Ready to outline your novel?

Are you ready to create an outline that will get you to the finish line with your novel? Remember, your outline will likely change as your story grows and develops. You may even find yourself needing to create a whole new outline during revisions. That’s okay! It’s important to start with something, even if it isn’t perfect— that’s how novels get finished!

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