Your Step-By-Step Guide To Writing A Story Outline

Writing a whole novel can seem like such a daunting task. 

But it’s far easier to complete a novel if you break it down. 

Writing a book outline is a really helpful way to break your story down into more manageable parts and to give you a clear guide on where your story is going and what to write next.

Let’s look at how to write a story outline, and we’ll give you some story outline examples to help you get started.

What Is a Story Outline?

A novel outline is like a roadmap for your book. Just as you wouldn’t set off on a long journey to an unfamiliar destination without a map, writing a book outline can help you get from setting off from your home to reaching your destination. 

Your novel outline is basically the skeleton of your story, including the structure, main plot points, and more, depending on how detailed you want to make it.

However, it’s not supposed to be a rigid, stifling, or limited document you’re not allowed to deviate from. 

It’s supposed to be a helpful, loose guide that still leaves room for your imagination.

Don’t worry if you don’t already know everything about your story. You can still create a good outline and fill in the gaps as you go.

It’s also possible that however good your outline is, your characters will turn up and throw it out the window. 

If that happens, go with it. It’s your characters that should drive the story. You can always tweak and adjust your outline as you get further into your story.

Things to ask yourself when you’re creating your outline:

  • Who are your main characters?
  • Where are they when the story starts?
  • What is your story’s setting?
  • What is the inciting incident?
  • How will your characters change over the story?
  • What do your characters want?
  • What is stopping your characters from getting what they want? The villain? Something internal? A combination?
  • What are the stakes for your main characters?
  • What is your theme?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere in between. An outline can still help you write your story.

Plotters may want to get really detailed and plot out each individual scene and pantsers can still write a helpful outline but leave more to be decided as they write.

An outline can be anything from a simple list of handwritten plot points on a page to a whole wall of sticky notes or index cards.

Some people prefer the visual format of a mind map, some would rather use writing software, like Scrivener, and yet others work best with a typed, ordered list of scenes.

Why It’s Important to Create an Outline for a Story

It’s not compulsory to create an outline for your book.

You don’t have to if doing so doesn’t work for you, but if you can make it work, there are a lot of advantages to writing a book outline before you start writing your story:

You’ll write faster.

With so many books out every month, it can be hard to stand out. One of the best ways to get attention is to use rapid release for your stories.

But one thing that tends to slow people down when writing is that they don’t know what happens next, and they have to spend time thinking about it before they can crack on with the story.

Write a novel outline, on the other hand, and you can speed away with your story because you’ve already worked out the whole thing from start to finish.

You can then release your stories more rapidly and keep your readers happy.

It’s easier to write.

Not only can you write quicker, but it’s also easier to write and to ensure you don’t miss anything that needs to be there if you already have an outline of at least the story’s main points.

There’s less chance of the dreaded saggy middle.

Hands up if you’ve ever started writing a novel and then realized that either you have no idea what happens in the middle at all or that what you’ve got just isn’t enough to keep the story flowing to the end.

That’s the saggy middle, and it’s not something you want. Use your outline to plan your middle and avoid the dreaded sag.

An outline keeps your story on track.

With a well-planned outline, you have a clear path from start to finish, and it’s easier to stay on track when you’re writing and ensure you’re still heading to the big finish you planned.

You can clearly see your character arcs.

In most stories, the main characters grow and change over the course of the story. You can use your outline to map these changes out and then write your story without losing any of those changes.No more writer’s block.

Kick writer’s block into touch with a clear outline that you can easily follow to see what to write next and what comes after that.

That doesn’t mean you have to write in order if you don’t want to, but it should mean that you aren’t left staring at a blank page with no idea what to do next.

Save time on editing.

A great outline can save you a lot of time on editing. You might find that once you’ve written your story, there isn’t as much to change to make sure your story flows well and that you don’t have to edit too much in terms of the story structure.

You might also save yourself some money here because there may be less for your developmental editor to do.

9 Ways to Write a Story Outline: Your Step-by-Step Guide

At the end of this post, we’ll share some story outline examples where you’ll discover there are as many ways to outline your story as there are writers.

But that’s a very good thing. It means that if you want to outline your stories, you can find a way that works for you.

It might take some trial and error on your part, but you will come up with a way of outlining that helps you plan your novel and keep track of all the parts of your plot.

1) Start with your premise.

Your premise is the basic idea for your story. What happens and who does it happen to? Remember those questions we gave you in our section, What is a Story Outline? This is where you need them.

Start asking yourself about your story, who your main characters are, and what happens to them.

Look at the inciting incident that sets your main characters off on the path of following the story through. What are the obstacles along the way?

Who is the villain, and what are they up to? How will they try to stop your main characters from achieving their goal?

What is your story about? What is your theme? What tropes will you need to include to fit the genre?

Take some time to answer these questions and think things through, then write yourself a paragraph that summarizes your novel.

2) Identify major plot elements.

We’ve already mentioned the inciting incident – the event that takes place that propels your characters into taking action and doesn’t give them any choice in the matter.

In this step, think about the main elements of your story.

  • What happens at the beginning when you introduce your main character? Where does your character start?
  • What is the inciting incident?
  • What is the mid-point or mirror moment?
  • What happens at the climax of the story?
  • How does your story end?

Once you have these major points nailed, you are a good way toward having your outline done, and you have the major points to hand your scenes on.

3) Get to know your characters.

You can’t finish your outline without knowing your characters really well. Your story should be character-driven, and action and dialogue should come about because you know what your characters would do next and how they would react to each challenge or occurrence in your story.

Use character sheets if it helps, and write down their basic information, such as physical description, any marks, scars, tattoos, eye color, hair color, and more.

If you’re very visual, try to find a photograph of an actor that would play your character in the movie of the book. That can help solidify your character in your mind and let you see and hear them.

Look at your story skeleton from step two and think about how your characters will react to these major points. You may well start coming up with scenes and dialogue at this point, which is great! Jot those down too.

Know how your characters change and grow over the course of the story. Most characters do develop and change in novels. There are very few characters that stay the same.

4) Explore your settings.

Get to know your settings as well as you do your characters. You want to be able to describe things in detail for your readers and bring them into the story. 

In some cases, some settings may also contribute to the story and be either a part of the solution or a part of the problem. 

If you’re familiar with the story of Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts, for example, you’ll well remember the journey across the sea when they faced Scylla (clashing rocks) and Charybdis (the whirlpool), in a very narrow strait of water.

Don’t just think about what your settings look like. Add more description and help place the reader firmly in the story by thinking about what your settings feel like, smell like, and sound like.


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5) Think about your theme.

Some writers only discover the theme of their stories as they write. If that’s you, don’t worry. You can still write an outline and then add in the theme later once you’ve discovered what it is. Just leave this bit blank for now.

If you’d rather decide on your theme before you start to write, or even better, if you already know what it is, write it down here.

It’s good to keep the themes of your story in mind both as you write your outline and as you write your story. You can then ensure that your story fits with your theme and what you want to say.

6) Choose your outlining method.

We’ve shown you some story-outlining examples above, but those are just some of the ways you could outline your story.

You could choose a specific outlining method, such as the Snowflake Method, follow the three-act structure, or you could create an outlining method that’s all your own just because that’s what works best for you.

7) Create your outline.

Start to bring everything together here from the above steps. Go back to step two and start to add other major plot points, scenes, notes, and more to your list of the major plot elements.

Keep expanding your outline and adding in more details, including your character arcs, beats, and anything else you find helpful until you’re at a point where you think you’re done, and you’re ready to start writing.

While plotters may want to get into all the details in their outline, pantsers are more likely to want quite a light outline that they can then use to guide them as they discover the story as they write.

8) Troubleshoot your outline.

Give it a day or two, and then read back over your outline. Make sure every plot point and scene leads naturally up to the major plot elements and that the story flows.

See if there are any gaps and fill them.

Add in any other notes, scene ideas, and bits of dialogue that come up as you do this.

9) Starting writing!

You’ve done it. Your outline is complete, and it’s now time to put it to use and write.

Use your outline as much or as little as you want as you write. Don’t forget that your story follows naturally from who your characters are and what they would naturally do under given circumstances. 

If you find that your characters are going in a different direction or that you get better ideas as you write, then go with them. If things don’t work out, you can always look back at your original outline for help.

Story Outline Methods and Examples

Honestly, there really isn’t one best way to outline your novel. There’s only the best one that works for you. Here are just some story outline examples to show you how you could outline your story.

Try different ones to see which one you prefer, or try adapting the parts that work for you from different methods.

1) Snowflake Method

This method was invented by Randy Ingermanson. He was a software architect, and when it came to writing novels, he found himself using the same method he used to design software to write his novels.

He wrote this method up to share with other writers, and many writers find this a helpful way to outline.

You start by writing a single-sentence summary of your novel. This should be a compelling hook to draw your readers in. Get it right, and you can also use it in your marketing copy.

Next, you expand the sentence to a paragraph, which includes the start of the story, the major points, and the end of your story. You now have a short overview of your novel.

Next, add a one-page in-depth summary of each main character. Then go back to your paragraph summary and expand every sentence in that summary into another paragraph.

Keep expanding your novel outline until you have a full, highly-detailed outline and character sketches of your major characters.

You can read Randy’s full description of the Snowflake Method on his website.

2) Save the Cat Method

Save the Cat was originally a method for writing screenplays by Blake Snyder, a Hollywood screenwriter. It is equally effective for writing novels.

It’s called Save the Cat because so many novels have that moment where the main character does something to make the reader feel for them and root for them, for example, like saving a cat from a tree.

With Save the Cat, you follow a beat sheet, which breaks down the three-act structure, and simply fill in a couple of sentences for each beat to describe what you’ll need to know or what happens in each beat.

This then gives you a good overview of your novel and what has to happen at each point.

You can read more and download beat sheet examples at the Save the Cat website.

3) Fichtean Curve Method

This method is commonly used for thrillers where you want the reader to feel right in the middle of the action from the get-go.

The first two-thirds of a story plotted with this method are known as “Rising Action.” The next point in the story is the “Climax,” and then what follows is known as “Falling Action.” It’s easy to see how thrillers fit this method particularly well. 

Most thrillers start off at break-neck speed and take the reader through fast-paced action that’s all heading in the direction of the climax of the story.

Then, once the climax is reached, the story continues into falling action where explanations are given, the bad guys get their just desserts, and any romance is wrapped up nicely.

The pattern of the Fichtean curve tends to look like this:

Crisis 1, Crisis 2, Crisis 3, Climax, Falling Action.

Think about your story and see how you can plan all the action to fit this format.

4) Reverse Outlining

This method is exactly what it sounds like. Start at the end and then work your way back to the beginning to see how you’ll get to that ending.

This method can be particularly helpful for murder mysteries and thrillers. You can work backward from “who dunnit” and why, working out the steps they took to commit the crime.

As you go, you can also fill in how the detective or hero/heroine of the story works it out. It’s then much easier to go through and add twists to the plot and plant clues and red herrings for your readers to follow.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to outlining, there are so many different ways to approach it. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, an outline can make a big difference when writing your story.

It can help you keep track of everything that needs to happen and allow you to write faster. 

However, when choosing the best way to outline your story, don’t think you have to follow what anyone else does. Everyone is different, so outline in the way that makes the most sense to you.

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