Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You’re starting the first draft of your novel, and you’re super excited. You write a killer opening chapter and maybe even a killer first act—-you know your characters, you’ve got your premise, and you’re confident in sending them off on their journey.
In the second act, it’s a little tricky, but you know what you’re doing, and you think you know where the story ends. You keep pushing. Then, somewhere in the middle of the second act, everything stalls. Your characters, for reasons you can’t explain, feel stuck. You don’t know how to move them, and the story stalls.
Getting stuck in a first draft is totally normal, but if you find yourself frequently unable to finish a first draft because you get lost along the way, it might be time to consider whether you need an outline.
In this article, we’ll talk about what outlines are, how you might benefit from one, how to create one, and where you can get started making your own or borrowing from a template.
This guide on how to write a story outline covers:
- What is the outline of a story?
- Do you have to outline a story?
- How outlines can help you
- How do you write an outline for a story?
- Story outline examples
- What is an outline template?
What is the outline of a story?
An outline is a plan for your finished manuscript. Think of it like the blueprints for a house. An outline will tell you what to do as you draft your novel.
Whatever your method, whatever the length of your outline, the idea is the same: an outline is there to help you get through your first draft as painlessly as possible.
Do you have to outline a story?
Plenty of successful authors don’t bother with outlines. They might make you feel too boxed in, they might kill the fun of a first draft for you. Writing your first draft and finding your plot along the way is perfectly fine, if it works for you.
But if you’re having trouble without an outline, let’s talk about a few reasons why an outline might help you out.
How outlines can help you
The benefits of outlining can be summed up into two main points:
Stay on track while drafting
Having a plan can keep you goal-oriented while you’re writing. Knowing where your story is headed helps you write each scene with that in mind, which makes everything more pointed and targeted. It also means that you’re less likely to get lost along the way, since you’ve got a roadmap telling you what to do next.
It may be the case that when you draft, your characters end up doing things differently than you’ve planned. You may come up with new ideas and want to explore them. And that’s great! Explore those new ideas and embrace your new characters. Instead of viewing your outline format as a strict rulebook, view it as a safety net. If you get stuck, defer to your outline and keep pushing.
Save yourself time in revisions
Don’t get me wrong—no matter how detailed your outline, you’re probably going to need to rewrite most of your first draft. That’s just how revisions work, and it’s how writing a novel works.
However, a detailed outline can often serve as a first draft in and of itself. Even if you don’t make a super elaborate outline, having one can still make your first draft more concise and polished. This can potentially save you some time when it comes time to revise. Instead of having to find the plot in your first draft, you just have to hone it.
How do you write an outline for a story?
If outlining sounds like it might be for you, read on for tips on how to write an effective outline for your story. When all is said and done, and outline should do at least the following:
Identify major plot elements
The broad strokes of your story should be included in your outline. What these plot points are called might vary depending on which story template you’re using, but broadly speaking, you should include:
- The introduction, or where your characters start
- The inciting incident, or where and why the plot starts
- The climax, or where the action in your novel comes to a head
- The end, or how the book ends
Identify your characters and their wants and needs
A character’s wants are the things a character thinks they need to succeed. A character’s needs are what they actually need. These two things often conflict with one another, and that conflict creates a character arc.
For example: in Tangled, Flynn Rider thinks he wants nothing but gold and riches, and he’s initially motivated by wealth and greed. However, after he meets Rapunzel, he realizes that he actually needs to be vulnerable and have a safe place to love someone. His want is selfishness, but his need is selflessness. This culminates when he sacrifices himself for Rapunzel, choosing her life over his own.
How to outline scenes
Every scene should do something to change the status quo. There should be no element in your book which could be removed and have little to no impact on the story—if there’s a scene in your book that doesn’t change anything, it needs to go.
This means you need to make every scene essential, and outlines are a great place to make sure you’re doing that.
Create a goal for each scene. What do the characters want in this specific scene, and what’s in the way of them getting it? Their success or failure should bring them closer to or further from their goals.
How do you start an outline for a book?
Sitting down to start outlining might feel just as daunting as sitting down to write a first draft (which makes sense, since, remember, outlines are sort of condensed first drafts). If you’re not sure where to start and you’re sick of looking at your blank Word Doc, I’ve got some tips for you:
Start with the end in mind
Instead of working from the introduction to the ending, try to figure out how you want your book to end first. Even if you only have a super vague idea of how the book ends (like knowing which characters are still alive, which side of a war wins, or who the main character ends up with), this will still help you out. When you get stuck, ask yourself what needs to happen to bring the characters closer or further from that end point.
Start your outline with whatever you have
This advice also works if you’re writing a first draft from scratch: write whatever you’ve got. If you don’t have the beginning yet, don’t let yourself get stuck trying to come up with one if you have an entire climactic battle planned and ready to go. If you think you know how the climax will work, and what will lead up to it, go ahead and write that out.
Yes, it might change when you go back and do the beginning. This is how writing goes—there’s not going to be any quick hack that can save you from having to make huge edits in your second draft. First drafts (and outlines, for that matter) are mostly about momentum. Start with what you have, and use that momentum to carry you through the rest of the outline. You might find that while you’re outlining that climax, the inciting incident suddenly clicks in the back of your mind.
Use an outline template
If you’re feeling lost in an unwieldy outline, or if you’re unsure where to even begin trying to map out your plot points, it might be worth looking into an outline template (we’ll look at a few templates later on). These can help you see where your plot point should go and help you identify holes, gaps, or crowded spots in your story.
How long is a story outline?
A story outline can be as long or as short as you need it to be. You might want to have basically a summarized draft ready before you write, or you might only want the biggest plot points outlined. You’ll have to do some tinkering to figure out what works for you!
Story outline examples
There are about as many story outline templates as there are writers, but here are a few examples to get you started.
Mind maps are great for visual planners. Start with your central idea or character in the middle of a piece of paper. Draw a line out from it and write a related idea—what’s something about the character, something they need, something that happens to them? Keep branching off these related ideas until you’ve got all your thoughts down.
You might transfer your mind map to a more linear format, or you might keep it the way it is—this is entirely up to you.
Storyboard (Post-It Method)
For this method, you’ll want some wall space, a posterboard, or a whiteboard, as well as a stack of sticky notes. Write your plot points on the sticky notes and stick ‘em on your surface. You can color code the sticky notes for different subplots or character perspectives, and you can include as many sticky notes as you feel you need. This method is nice because it allows you to physically see plot holes or gaps in the story.
For this method, you’ll write out a summary of everything that happens in your novel. Think of it like the sort of summary you might read on Shmoop or Wikipedia. It’s the whole story without the frills. Instead of having the conversation written out, there will be a sentence or two summing up what the conversation was about.
Bullet outlines are just what they sound like. You’ll write each beat of your story as a bullet point and go through the entire book.
Personally, I like to use bullet outlines when I get stuck on a chapter or scene. When I can tell I’m stuck, I map out everything I want to happen. It might look something like this:
- Jane buys lighter fluid at the store
- She comes home and sets the house on fire with the lighter fluid
- She sits in her car, ready to leave, when she remembers the store has a camera and she didn’t wear a hat to cover her face
- She calls her sister for help
This helps you get your ideas out quickly, which can be paramount in digging out of a stuck spot.
What is an outline template?
An outline template is a blank sheet with plot beats on it. Basically, it’s a fill-in-the-blank outline that’s ideally already taken pacing into account, so all you need to do is insert your plot points.
Outline templates can sometimes make a story feel forced or mechanical, so they shouldn’t be followed religiously—you should still do your best to manage your own pacing and decide what to do next. But if you’re stuck, these can be hugely helpful.