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5 Outlines to Help Structure Your Novel

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Pressed for time? Listen to the post instead!

Some authors can sit down and bang out a novel in a few sittings with no help at all, others need a little assistance. Outlining is a practice taught in high schools around the country as a way to help organize one's thoughts before writing an essay. It can be a valuable tool to develop one's craft, but the old five-paragraph essay structure isn't exactly suitable for a novel. Today, we'll look at a few popular methods of outlining a novel.

This is just an introduction to these techniques. For more information on outlining, click the link on each subheading for further details.

Five Outlining Techniques

Narrative Outline

The most basic planning structure is built around the classic plot diagram.

novel outline

In this form, the author identifies the most important aspects of the story - the main character, conflict, inciting event and climax. These will become the critical plot points in the final manuscript. This is a very quick and easy outline that will work for stories of any genre or length, but it may lack needed detail so you may want to use this in tandem with another outline type.

Skeleton Outline

You're probably already familiar with this one as it's commonly used in schools, and it may be what you picture when you think of outlining a story. Divide the narrative into sections - this can be based on the same plot structure as in the last example if it helps - and then list out some plot points that should happen in each section. This is an easy technique that can help you spot holes or weaknesses in a story that you've already sketched out a bit, but if you need help building the story in the first place, then the following techniques might be better.

Flashlight Outline

This is a "plan as you go" method. Start with the first section of the story - again, this is however you choose to divide it up, but not more than a few chapters. Write a brief summary of what needs to happen in each chapter in that section. After that, if you need more guidance, you can sketch out the chapters in the next section, and so forth. It's a good strategy for people who like to write off the cuff but still want a little bit of guidance. However, if you have a specific ending or set of plot points in mind, it's probably not for you.

Snowflake Outline

In this method, you begin with simple elements, then add layers of complexity. Start with a one-sentence synopsis of your story. Now, expand that sentence into a paragraph. Make note of any significant characters or plot points in that paragraph, and then write a paragraph describing them. Continue as many times as necessary. This outline method does a lot of heavy lifting, since it also covers things like worldbuilding and character development. Of course, if you don't need those things, then you might wish to pick another technique.

Scene-by-Scene Outline

As the name suggests, this is more of a screenwriting technique that's been adapted to novels. You'll need index cards or sticky notes for this. Write an important plot point on each card or note, then arrange them into a timeline. You can add new points, remove them, or switch them around until you have your ideal story. Since editing a novel is generally a less technical process than editing a film, this is probably more effort than you need to put in. However, it is a useful technique for novels with complex timelines or lots of POV characters to track.

A Note on Software and Workbooks

One thing I want to note about these outlining techniques: They don't require any special software or tools to perform. In fact, aside from notebooks and pens and perhaps index cards, none of them require any purchases. Many articles on outlining exist primarily to push software packages that no one really needs. If these programs and utilities help, then fine - I've even used this book myself. However, you should never let anyone convince you that you need to license software or buy a workbook to write a novel. My guess is that you have everything you need right now.

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