How to outline a novel

Outlining is not just for non-fiction.

Should you outline your novel? For some writers, the idea of an outline feels stifling, like it will suck their creativity away. But an outline is really just a map of the novel — a way to see the big picture. A good outline shouldn’t feel constricting. It should flow and change with your writing.


An editor — or a writer in the editing stages — needs to be able to envision the whole work at once. An outline, even a casual one, can help. And it can prevent your spending thousands of dollars for editor’s comments like “I thought this character was in China? How come now she’s on the beach?” Or, “He found his lost ring in chapter 8, but he doesn’t lose it until chapter 10.” Or even, “You’ve dropped hints about… but you forgot to resolve it.”

You don’t have to impress anybody.

It’s your novel, and it’s your outline. You don’t have to impress your 7th grade English teacher. Write it your way.

If the idea of outlining your novel scares you, try thinking of it differently. Just making a list of your chapters and describing what happens in each one will help you to keep things in order, and make your editor’s job a lot easier.

Include things like which characters do what, and what external events occur.

  1. House burns down. Celia meets George as he’s fighting the fire.
  2. George acts weird on their date.
  3. Bill, George’s roommate, finds the letter…

Later, you can change the outline to reflect decisions you make about the flow of the story. You can add or delete chapters at will. Because you know what? It’s your outline.

If you decide you want to go all the way, outline your novel completely. Some writers come up with twenty or thirty pages of outline before they even start writing.

Outlining a finished novel

Even if your novel is done, writing an outline can help in several ways.

  • It can make an editor’s job easier, and therefore cheaper.
  • It will help you when it’s time to write a synopsis for potential publishers.
  • An outline-after-the-fact will help you take an honest look, and determine if there are problems you should fix.