Four Ways to Outline Your Novel

Four Ways to Outline Your Novel

In my first post about worldbuilding, where I focus on how to get started with worldbuilding your novel, outlining is the very first step. There are many different ways to outline your story, and in the end, only you know what works for you. In this post I’m going to present four different ways to outline your novel, and a few quick google searches will probably provide you with many more options.

I’ll focus mostly on ways I’ve used myself, though I’ll also mention a few that I’ve never tried, mainly because I figured out what works for me, and I’m sticking to it. Now, if none of these appeal to you, don’t worry. Maybe they’ll help you discover your own way to outline, or perhaps you’re a pantser, and don’t need to outline at all. Every writer is different after all.

#1 – The Snowflake Method

Also sometimes refered to as the expanding snowflake method, this was one of the first ways to outline I learned about. This was way back when, some 10+ years ago, when I first started seriously working on my fantasy series. You can read a more in-depth article about the method here, but for the purpose of this post I’ll simplify it a little.

Basically, the idea is to smart small, and then expand on that. First, you have the basics of what happens in the scene/chapter/story. Then you snowflake out, and bring in more details about what happens. Then you do it again, and get even more details surrounding events. And so on and so on, until you have all you need in order to start writing your rough draft without running into unexpected complications.

For example:

  1. Johnny got shot robbing the bank.
  2. Johnny just got paroled, and didn’t want to rob the bank, but he had no choice. An off-duty cop in the bank shot him in the shoulder before he could get away.
  3. After his release from jail, Johnny wanted to get his life back. But his former partner has other plans, and kidnaps his daughter in order to force him to take part in the robbery. Seeing no way out, Johnny agrees. Inside the bank, off-duty cop Jensen keeps his  head down, but as they exit, fire a single shot at one of them, hitting Johnny in the shoulder.

You can continue this until you have not only the chapter or scene mapped out, but the background for what happens, as well as details on the various characters involved as well. In fact, the above example could easily be the story arch for a major part of the story, depending on whether or not I want the focus to be what happens after the robbery, or what happened before.

#2 – A Detailed Timeline

Setting up a detailed timeline is something you can do by hand, or if you prefer using digital tools, you have Aeon Timeline, which is a visual timeline software. This can be done down to the hour of the day something happened, or simply by month. It works best if your story is set during a specific time period, like for example the winter, the month of July, or perhaps during the school year, such as the Harry Potter books were. You can easily use a single sheet of paper to outline, like the way J.K. Rowling did for The Order of the Phoenix in the image below.

If you story takes place over several years, using one sheet for each year might make things easier to organize. Like J.K did above, you can outline based on the various characters or plotlines, or focus on something else. Do what works for you.

#3 – Notecarding

This is a great way to outline, and if you prefer keeping this digital, there are tons of different programs made specifically for this purpose. Advanced writing programs such as Scrivener also has notecarding included. You can of course use actual notecards, post-its, regular paper cut into smaller pieces, or the napkins at your local coffee place if that’s what works for you.

The idea is simple. Use notecards to write down the basics of what happens in each chapter. You can then create notecards for each scene in the chapter as well, if you want to be even more detailed.

This is my prefered method of outlining, and while I always keep my notecards in Scrivener, I also like to use actual notecards I can place on my corkboard, so I have a physical outline I can look at whenever I am not on the computer. For me, placing this on my corkboard helps me visualize my novel, and for example see when a chapter is too long.

This is the way I usually notecard:

  1. First I create one card for each chapter, which tells what happens in that chapter, without going into detail.
  2. Then I create one card for each scene in that chapter. This is where I go into detail about how things happen. I color-code my cards, so the chapter cards are one color, and then the scene cards are a different color. Using numbers, like 1-1 for chapter one – scene one is necessary to keep them organized as well. otherwise things could get interesting.

I do this easily in Scrivener, and then the cards are right there when I start writing. And if I want to add more details than fit on the notecard itself, I can add that to the notes section for the scene.

#4 – Bulleted outline

This probably has a lot of different names, but I’m keeping it simple. This is your basic ‘this is what happens’ timeline. You can add as much detail as you want or need, or as little. You can use this with single sentences explaining what happens, or entire paragraphs. In fact, you can use this to create a summary of your entire novel if you want.

Let’s use Johnny in this example as well.

  • Johnny is released from prison. He is looking forward to see his girlfriend again.
  • An old friend is waiting on the outside. He tells Johnny he needs his help for a job. Johnny refuses, and leaves.
  • Johnny returns home to his girl, ready to move on with his life.
  • The next day, she doesn’t come back from work. He get’s a call from his old friend. They have her, and will kill her unless he agrees to help.
  • Johnny meets the rest of the crew, and they go over the plan.

And so-on and so-on. It outlines what happens in more detail, and each point covers a new scene or plot point. It works best if you write it out in chronological order, but I’m sure it can be adapted to work in whichever way you need it to. It may be basic, but it works.

In Worldbuilding: Where to begin? outlining your novel was part of the first step. If you weren’t sure how to go about that, I hope you found this post helpful. But if none of these methods appeal to you, do a quick google search and see what else is out there, or just sit down and find what works for you. Because in the end, that is all that matters.