7 Steps to a Perfect Novel Outline

A few months ago I blogged about how I wrote a coherent full-length novel in a month. A coherent first draft manuscript is a great place to be! I wrote 72,000 words during November (actually, I did it in 3 weeks). I included tips on getting through the process of actually writing, but the real deal is that nothing is more important than the outline.

I just heard all of you pantsers out there groaning. Yes, I am a hardcore plotter. I get that plotting your novel in advance seems like a lot of not fun work that curbs your creativity, but truly nothing could be farther from the truth. Well, the creativity part. It IS a lot of work, and it’s not always fun.

What plotting gives you, though, is a way to keep up your momentum as you allow your brilliant ideas come to you during the writing process. You will avoid a saggy, ponderous middle, which can happen to any story when it’s not quite sure where it’s going. You will write quicker and it’s likely you will have to edit less after the fact. And most importantly, you will never have to suffer through the mire of writer’s block!

What you do have to do is edit your novel before you start writing. If you’re ready to do this, then here is my 9-step process in creating a fully-developed outline for a novel.


1. Research your genre

It all starts with an idea. For my work-in-progress, the idea is a mystery-ghost story. I want to put in all the bells and whistles of a haunted house, using the traditions of the genre while also trying not to be cliche. How to get there? Read tons.

I read horror books, ghost stories, articles about modern versus Victorian ghost stories. I read essays about the structure of a mystery, and as many mysteries I could get my hands in. This is a very fun part of the process.

As I read, I’m constantly jotting down notes, either about the genre or about elements I want to add to my own novel.


2. Brainstorm

This is the time that you write out all of the ideas. Put everything in there, leave absolutely nothing out. The more bonkers, the better. There doesn’t have to be a chronology at all, it doesn’t really have to make sense. It can involve musings about the plot, questions that need to be answered, ideas that you thought up at 3am and think are brilliant, even if afterwards you realize it says jars of candy = the frogs. That’s fine, throw it in there. This is also a really fun part of the process, so don’t try to curb your imagination.


3. Figure out what kind of book it is

This one is harder than you think. I’m not talking about genre like fantasy or romcom, but rather the story itself. And here I’m going to introduce you to the magic guide I use with every outline: Save the Cat: Writes a Novel. You might have heard of it before, it is the definitive guide on creating a story structure, and I swear by it.

According to this bible, there are ten basic storylines that every story in existence follows, since the beginning of humanity. Obviously, we’re talking in broad strokes here, but basically, it is impossible to write something original. All we can do as authors is bring our experience and put a fresh spin on these. Examples of these are a hero quest or an underdog story. You need to know what your story is, so you know what it’s trying to do.

Because my novel is a mystery, it falls best into the Whydunit category, about detectives and the darker side of humanity. This shapes how my protagonist is going to act throughout the novel, to best showcase her character arc.


4. Cue Cards

Now that you know you’re genre, your basic storyline and have all your ideas scribbled out, you need to get them organized. There’s tons of software out there that swears it’s going to make you a better author and organize everything for you, and I think that works for a lot of people. I, however, am old-school, and I like to write everything out on cue cards with a Sharpie. What can I say? I work best with pen and paper in hand.

5. Create your plot board

Whether you’re doing this by hand or in software, it’s time to organize those plot points into something resembling a plot arc. There are specific beats you want to hit to give your story flow and meaning, and I also use Save the Cat to help me organize.

The Save the Cat beat sheet provides every moment that has to occur to make a story sing, as well as about how much of the story this is going to take up. For example, the Theme Stated is a single line, the Break into 2 is a single scene, while the Fun and Games part will take up 30% of the book! Every time I have used this plan to plot my novels, things fall into place in a way I didn’t quite see beforehand.

I lay out every one of my cue cards into their beats. From there, I can step back to see if my plot points are taking up the appropriate amount of time in the appropriate place.


6. Back to the drawing board

When you can visually see what’s missing, or maybe what’s going on too long, you’re able to tweak the plot points to fit into this beat sheet. When I laid out my cue cards for my current work in progress, I immediately saw that the Fun and Games section was too short, and the Bad Guys Close In section was too long. I also found a suite of scenes that could be transferred into the Fun and Games section, and it actually improved the main character’s arc. It was a moment of triumph, and that’s how you know it’s working!


7. Scene Work

Once your storyline hits all the beats, you’re getting somewhere but you are still not ready to write! Now you need to flesh out each of the scenes. This, for me, is the work that makes me groan, because it is intricate editing.

Every scene needs to be a story in miniature. Another resource I always have at hand is the How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. It’s provided me with much-needed guidance on how to make my scenes move.

You need to go into every scene know exactly what they are trying to achieve, why, and where they are going after the fact. Full disclosure: I hate this part. I feel like I’m performing mental gymnastics every time I go through this, but the result saves me so much time and effort in the long run.

Firstly, each scene is either proactive or reactive, and depending on which it is, will change what needs to happen. If a scene is proactive, there needs to be a goal and a conflict. Character will either succeed or fail in achieving the goal, and that’s the scene. If any of these parts are missing, it needs to be fixed, absorbed into another scene, or deleted. It can’t exist without these parts.

If a scene is reactive, there must be an emotional reaction from the character and a dilemma. However, reactive scenes are more complicated because they can be written as a paragraph, or actually not written at all, as long as you the author understand the points that happened. I really recommend doing a deep dive into this book to figure it all out, it has truly brought my writing to the next level. I’ve gone from getting comments from editors like: What exactly were you trying to do here?, to These scenes crackle!

With all of this information, I make a scene outline that I write for every single one of my scenes. I include all the beats from the plot structure, as well as information on the scene structure. It looks like this:

It includes a summary of the story and notes on any ideas, lines of dialogue, objects that I want to work in. This gives me guidance as I’m working to make sure I’m not missing any of those precious tidbits I came up with during brainstorming.

I then figure out if the scene is proactive or reactive, then follow the template for either scene. A few hints: if it is a reactive scene, the dilemma your character finds themselves in should be DEVASTATING! In a proactive scene, most of your consequences should be failures. This is why readers read our books – they love chaos and want to see our characters broken, the psychos!

The very important note to end on is the connection to the next scene – how do you get from here to there? Figuring out this transition now will save you so much time and torment later on!

If you’re like me, halfway through you might be wondering why you’re going through all these steps. But without guidance on why your characters are doing what they are doing the whole time, your structure might end up looking like this:

This for me is a recipe for writer’s block!

What you really want is for your structure to look like this:

Haha, I just realized this looks like some kind of sports-type diagram: Momentum! Assertive! Goal! Goal! Goal! I could not be further from the sports type, but maybe I have that mentality while editing?

Taking the time to plot out each scene is well worth it in the end. I find it keeps writer’s block at bay, and lessens the need to edit afterwards when you realize all the scenes you have written aren’t doing anything! This way, you make your story work for you.


It’s Time

After you’ve gotten through these steps, you should have an outline that’s going to get you through to your finished manuscript! It’s time to start writing.

I usually start writing my first draft with an outline of about 10,000 words. Now that it’s time to dive in, here are some of my tips on how to get through it.

Please comment if you find these tips helpful! And don’t forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter, with tips on how to find comfort even when you’re struggling, for excellent book recommendations as well as tasty recipes to keep you happy!

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6 thoughts on “7 Steps to a Perfect Novel Outline

  1. Pingback: Why Your First Draft Sucks | Cordelia Kelly

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