Novel Outline: A Powerful Method to Plan Your Story

Updated April 26, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
writing novel outline

Have you ever stared down at a blank page with your fingertips on the keyboard, shivering with excitement, waiting for those words to come out? And then… nothing! Bah, it’s one of the most frustrating feelings you can ever have, as a professional writer or just somebody trying to get a story out of their heads. I know I’ve done it many times, and it’s annoying as hell. However, once I learned how to create a novel outline and use that sketch to drive my writing, things have never been the same. In this article, I will discuss how to create a novel outline using a straightforward Excel template. Yeah, you heard it correctly. Good old Excel is not just for accountants and engineers. Writers can benefit from it, and I hope you will agree with me by the end of this article.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

There’s a constant argument in the writing community about whether one should outline their stories or not. In the industry jargon, we call those who outline outliners, while the others are pantsers because they write by the seat of their pants. We can also call the two groups plotters and non-plotters.

Margaret Atwood and Stephen King are two famous writers who do not plot their stories. In particular, Stephen King is very critical of plotters, saying that, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

That’s rather harsh considering that you have writers such as J.K. Rowling, E.L. Stein, and John Grisham among those in the outliners’ camp.

What is also interesting about outlining versus pantsing (yeah, that’s a word writers made up) is that it doesn’t have to be just one forever. I find it particularly useful to outline your novel when you are at the beginning of your writing career. If you are still learning about story structure, character development and arcs, conflict, world-building, and creating a connection with the readers, learning how to outline your novel will be a fantastic tool in your arsenal.

But now, is there a best way to outline? Honestly, there isn’t one that I can call “best” in any way. I’ve tried all of them, and slowly, over time, I’ve taken the better parts of each, and I have created one that works for me. And that’s the operative word here: one that works for you.

You’ll have to experiment and try things out and see which one works best.

“I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.”Peter De Vries

computer laptop coffee

Different Novel Outline Approaches

There are several methods to outline a novel, and they all have their pros and cons. Let’s briefly look at these methods, and, later, we’ll see how to take the best parts out of each one and come up with one aggregate method.

1) Mind Map

This method implies creating all the necessary connections between characters, plot points, places, events, conflicts, etc. This is not a detailed outline, but it takes care of all the relationships. Mind maps can also be time-driven; in other words, you can create all the connections on a time continuum, generating the story’s structure across time.

2) Synopsis

The synopsis is a simple method that involves writing a brief version of the novel. This method is beneficial if you have a very crystal idea about how your plot will develop. If you already have the story in your mind, you are basically writing down a brief version of it and later expanding it to a full book.

3) Character-Driven Novel Outline

Since characters are at the core of every story, developing and imagining the characters’ arcs and conflicts is an excellent way to start a character-driven story. Writing down the story from each character’s perspective—even if most of those words won’t make it in the final manuscript—is a great way to envision the story in your mind, as the author. Following the hero’s journey structure is a great way to start this kind of outline.

4) Beat Sheet

The beat sheet is a term mostly used in screenwriting. A scene, which is the smallest unit of a story, is divided into beats in movies and TV shows. As a scene develops, the beat is that space between decisions, dialogue, or events that happen during the scene. If you are a visual type of writer and envision your story as a movie, using a beat sheet might be a suitable outline method. Here is an example of a beat sheet for Toy Story 3.

5) Snowflake

The Snowflake Method was developed by award-winning author and writing teacher Randy Ingermanson. Its premise is to start with one central idea and then expand that idea in iterations, much like a snowflake unfolds from the center. It’s the main idea I used in the Master Novel Outlining and Tracking Tool, and you will see a seed of it in here as well. I highly recommend visiting Randy’s site and reading his books on writing.

6) Bookends

For those who are not fully immersed in the outlining mindset and want to leave a little bit of mystery to how the story develops, the bookends method might be what you need. This method implies outlining the beginning and end of the story at a high level. Starting with the beginning and the ending means that you know where you start, and you know where you’ll end up. Having those anchors will keep you on the path as you fill in the middle.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”Ray Bradbury

typewriter letters keyboard

Simplify the Novel Outline Process

With this in mind, I wanted to create a template that takes advantage of each of these methods’ best parts. My focus was on:

  • Speed — Be able to outline a story in one day
  • Simplicity — Not go into too many details
  • Conciseness — Be short yet crystal clear
  • Completeness — Picture the full story in one shot

You will see how I borrowed elements from most of the methods above and combined them into one single template developed in Microsoft Excel.

Why Excel? Because I love it, and I’m a geek. Say anything you want about Excel, but it gets the job done. Will I ever put this up on Google Sheets, as well? Maybe, but I won’t guarantee it.

If you’ve visited my site before, you are probably familiar with my other novel outline system called Master Novel Outlining and Tracking Tool. The outlining tool in this post uses some ideas from the other one, but it simplifies things significantly (which was the main issue with the former).

But for now, let’s jump right into the template.

If you’d instead download it first to follow along, please go ahead using the download button below.

Quick-Novel-Outline-Template V1.0

Quick Novel Outline Template

Quick Novel Outline Template

The Quick Novel Outline Template came out of my first attempt at writing a children’s story. I have used my other outlining strategy for other works, but this time, I wanted something simpler—something that would take me from point A to point B faster.

I came up with the idea of a one-day outline. That meant to create a simplified version of my outliner that would allow me to take one story idea or one character that I had in mind and make the plot structure in just one day. Is it even possible?

I thought it was. That is how this story template came to be, and I am sharing it here so that everyone can use it. Below, I will describe how to use this template at a high-level. Inside the template, I’ve provided you with a full set of practical instructions as well. I think it would be beneficial that you read both before using it. The Excel template’s download link is at the bottom of this text.

novel outlining tool

Step 1 — Setting Things Up

First things first—in the tab Setup, you will enter the essential elements of your story:

  • Your novel’s title
  • The series name, if applicable
  • Word count—I recommend you read about the average industry standard word count for the type of story you are writing and make your best guess estimation. Here’s a link you can use to estimate your word count.
  • Author—thy authorship’s pen name
  • Date Started—when are you planning to start writing
  • Target Completion Date—the approximate time you plan to finish your novel. Of course, this date is an estimation, but enter something because the sheet will use it later to determine the number of words per day you should be writing.

Step 2 — Define Your Story’s Premise

2.1 Your Novel Outline’s Elevator Pitch

Step 1 is where you begin to paint the story.

You start with one line that tells your story’s premise. That is your elevator pitch. If you only had 10 seconds to tell someone what this story is about, how would you do it?

Here are some great examples of an elevator pitch:

  • Astronaut, stranded on Mars, has to figure out how to survive. (The Martian)
  • A teen romance between an ordinary girl and a boy who is actually a vampire. (Twilight)
  • Orphan boy goes to school for wizards. (Harry Potter)

Of course, if you know the story, these short one-liners mean a lot more to you than to someone who doesn’t know the story, but you can agree that they are compelling and exciting enough. Do your best to create your story’s one-liner, and don’t worry—you’ll have time to revise it.

novel outlining setup

2.2 Beginning and Ending

Once you have that elevator pitch, think about the beginning and the ending of the story. How would you write your one-liner for those sections?

For the beginning, think about the status quo—what is the world today, what is the character doing, and what is his or her predicament?

For the ending, picture the world after all the events. What has changed? How is your character now?

Having an idea, even if vague, about how your story starts and how it ends is a critical piece before you can fill in the meat in the middle.

2.3 Middle

Lastly, you will fill in a sentence about what happens between the beginning and the ending. You don’t have to be too lengthy at this point. Just capture the essence of what is happening.

Step 3 — Sketching Characters

characters people shadows Every story involves something that happens to someone somewhere, at some point in time. I dare to say that there’s no story without characters, even if your characters are not human. Even if you have abstract concepts or inanimate objects portray as characters, there’s always someone in your story.

Your readers connect with these characters along the way. They begin to love them, hate them, see themselves as those characters and care deeply about them, or not at all. It’s your job as a writer to create that connection. I’ve written before about the importance of developing compelling characters and how, sometimes, the readers will long remember the characters much more than the story itself.

In the outlining phase, you will not work on a full character arc. Instead, you will paint the physical, mental, and emotional image of your most important characters. Among these, you have your protagonist, antagonist or villain, and sidekicks. Of course, you can have more than one in each category.

One critical part of falling in love with a character is giving that character a name. For me, that’s one of the most entertaining parts of outlining. Oftentimes, once I set my characters’ names, I find it impossible to change them. It’s almost like they’ve become alive. I highly recommend you do this before you move to the next steps. It will make your story a lot more real.

The novel outline template provides a Major Character sheet and a Minor Character sheet. These are scaled-down versions of my more extended character development worksheet. Here, I tried to boil it down to the essential characteristics that allow you, as the writer, to connect with your character at a basic level.

Later, as you write your story, you will have the chance to improve that bond.

Step 4 — World-building

worldbuilding World-building is one of the most entertaining parts of planning your novel, especially if you are writing a fantasy or science fiction story. This section is where you get to let your creative juices flow and build that world to your needs.

However, don’t fall into the trap of spending too much time on world creation. Remember that your goal is to tell a story, not to create a world. In the process, you’ll do both, but the driving force will always be the storytelling.

So, when it comes to world-building, use the Glossary sheet to jot down ideas about your world. If it’s a regular world, such as a city or town on Earth, give a brief description. If it’s a more complicated fantasy or science fiction world, write just the basic facts:

  • What makes this world unique?
  • Why is the world relevant to the plot?
  • How do your characters interact with the world?

That’s about it. The rest of your world’s colors and flavor will come out of your writing. All you want to do is give yourself a few anchors about the world at this outlining stage.

Step 5 — Develop the Structure

With the basic story idea, some characters in the mix, and a bit of a picture of the world, you have defined a great canvas on which you can continue to develop your story. Your novel outline is well on the way!

At this stage, you will take each of the three parts of the story you defined in Step 1 and expand on them.

I’ve provided four expansion lines in each group (beginning, middle, ending). So, you will wind up with a maximum of 12 sentences. Each one of them is related to one of the story’s main situations:

  • Introduction
  • Inciting Event
  • Major Problem
  • Choice
  • Midpoint reversal
  • Disaster
  • Plan
  • Climax
  • Wrap up

I suggest using the same method as in step 1: do the beginning and ending first, and then expand the middle.

novel outlining structure

Step 6 — Scene List

Your novel outline’s Scene List is divided into two parts:

  1. Scene brainstorming session
  2. Scene detailing session

During the brainstorming session, you think about what happens in the scene. In the detail portion, you dig deeper into the scene and provide more information about where the scene takes place, who is in it, and so on.

Scene Brainstorming

For the scene brainstorming session (which is done in the tab “Step 3” in the file), you will see all the details you provided in the previous step and ten additional lines underneath each one.

That means that you can expand each idea into one to ten scenes.

Each scene will get a title on the Title column. The title should be concise and poignant so you can remember what it means. Think of titles such as “John Dies,” “Mary runs away,” or “The hurricane lands.”

Of course, you don’t have to use all ten lines; instead, use how many you need.

Once you finish writing everything, use the Hide filter on the right column and uncheck “Y.” This will hide all the empty lines.

Then, I suggest you switch to the Synopsis tab and read the whole thing from top to bottom.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it complete?
  • Does it provide enough details?
  • Does it sound compelling?

If the answer is no to any of them, go back and refine those details a little more until the synopsis sounds good.

Scene Details

Next, it’s time to add scene details to your novel outline, available in the Scenes tab. Here you will see that the titles of all your scenes have populated already. You need to use the Hide filter here as well to get rid of all the empty lines.

Here are the headers of this table and what you need to put in them:

  • Scene Title—this comes automatically from the step before.
  • Chapter—leave this for later. Once you complete the entire table, come back, and organize the scenes by giving them a chapter number.
  • POV—who is the point of view character in this scene?
  • Setting—where does this take place?
  • Characters—lists the characters in the scene, besides the POV. I suggest using initials.
  • Scene Importance—is this a major scene or a minor scene? It’s good to have this distinction because when you start writing, you’ll find it more effective to write your major scenes first and then fill in the rest with the minor scenes.
  • Purpose—each scene in your novel must have a purpose. If it doesn’t have one, it doesn’t belong there. Decide this ahead of time, and it will help you write those scenes better.
  • Type—a scene can be active (something is happening) or reactive (something is happening as a response to something else). Some scenes have a little bit of both, but it’s best to decide on their primary function. By stacking active and reactive scenes one after the other, you create the emotional rollercoaster your readers expect.
  • Actual words—you will fill this in later when you are writing.
  • Cumulative Actual Words—this column will add up automatically as you enter each scene’s actual word count.
  • Estimated Words—this is a pure division between your total number of words and the number of scenes you created. You can use this as a guideline, but you don’t have to.
  • Cumulative Expected Words—accumulates all the expected words up to the total estimated word count.
  • Notes—write any additional relevant notes and comments about that scene.

Step 7 — Now, Write!

With the scene list completed, I suggest you put this outline away for a couple of days. During that time, your brain will continue to think about it, even while you sleep.

After two days, come back to it and review your synopsis one more time. Check-in with your characters and add any final details to your setting and scenes.

Finally, if you haven’t done so already, give each scene a chapter number.

From this point on, it’s time to start writing!

Although optional, feel free to use the Word Tracker tab to track your writing. All you need to do is type the total word count to date on the Total Word Count column after each one of your writing sessions. You can also do it as a daily total, too, if you write multiple times a day.

This tracker will keep you honest, and it will tell you if you are on track to complete by the date you set up as a target.

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”Isaac Asimov

reading book

Novel Outlining Benefits

Look, I understand that novel outlining is not for everyone. There will be some of you out there who can sit down and let the story pour out. I commend you, and, in all honesty, I envy you with all my heart. I also love you, but that’s beside the point.

If outlining is not right for you, so be it. But if it is, and you found yourself struggling to get that story out, this might be the little tweak that makes it happen for you. So, work on this writing skill and you won’t be sorry you did.

As I said above, many famous writers produced great stories using outlines. You won’t be less of a writer if you do that, regardless of what Stephen King might tell you.

I stand by this novel outline method, and I genuinely believe it will help you. From here on, it’s all up to you!

Quick Novel Outline Template Download

Without further ado, please download the free Excel novel outline template below.

Quick-Novel-Outline-Template V1.0

Quick Novel Outline Template

Other Novel Outline Resources

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Are you an outliner or a pantser? How do you like it?
  2. If you are an outliner, how long on average do you spend outlining a novel?
  3. What would you say is the greatest benefit you get from outlining?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!

iulian-ionescu


Tags

outlining, writing tips, writing tools


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