How to Write a Compelling Story Outline: A Step-by-Step Guide
Every great story is like a journey, and every journey needs a map. That’s where a story outline comes in. Just as maps help travelers navigate unknown places, a story outline helps writers navigate the twists and turns of their stories. It’s the backbone of the narrative, providing a framework for the plot, characters, and themes.
Many writers agree that using outlines makes them more productive and gives them a better chance at finishing their projects. An outline can also help writers avoid common pitfalls like writer’s block and plot holes, ensuring that their story is cohesive.
So, to help you cohesive and successful story, we’ll examine in this article how to write a story outline and show you some examples by famous authors.
What Is a Story Outline?
A story outline is a structured plan that guides you as you write your manuscripts. It typically includes a summary of the major events of the plot, the main characters and their motivations, the setting, and any other main themes or ideas that the story explores. It can be as detailed or as brief as you need it to be, but it has to be clear enough to provide a framework for your novel.
A well-constructed outline can help you stay organized and focused while writing, avoid plot holes and inconsistencies, and ensure that your stories are cohesive and engaging.
Why Do Authors Need an Outline Before Writing a Novel?
While writing your novel, you’ll inevitably encounter various obstacles, and one of the ways to avoid them is to develop a comprehensive outline. Here’s how this outline can help you:
- Saves Time and Helps in Avoiding Writer’s Block
One of the main causes of writer’s block is a lack of direction or uncertainty about where the story is going. When you have a well-structured outline, you have a roadmap that provides direction and helps you stay focused on the narrative. You’d then know what needs to happen next, which can help you overcome the blank page syndrome and keep the writing process flowing smoothly.
- Prevents Dead Ends
Have you ever started writing a certain plot twist only to discover thousands of words later that you’ve reached a cul-de-sac? You then start to revise your story or create new subplots to evade the brick wall you slammed into.
By creating an outline first, you’ll be able to stay on track and avoid the pitfalls of dead-ends and inconsistencies. Moreover, having a clear understanding of the structure and flow of events allows you to quickly identify and resolve potential plot holes before they become major issues.
- Encourages Creativity
Having an outline can allow you to fully explore the creative possibilities of your story. While some writers may view it as a rigid structure that limits their creativity, the outline can actually be a helpful tool as it provides a framework that allows you to experiment with different story elements and see how they fit together.
It can also help you brainstorm new ideas for the story by identifying areas where more development is needed. Besides, having a clear idea of where the story is going can free up mental energy that might otherwise be spent worrying about the plot or structure. This can give you the confidence you need to explore new creative ideas and take risks in your writing.
How to Write a Story Outline?
Plotting a novel can be a challenging task, but with a solid outline in place, it becomes much more manageable. And now that you know all the benefits of creating one, it’s time to grab your notebook (or keyboard) and follow these simple steps to master the skill of outlining.
Step 1: Develop a Premise
Having a clear premise provides a foundation for the entire novel. The premise is the central idea or concept that the story revolves around, and it helps guide its direction. When the premise is clearly developed, it becomes easier to identify the main characters, their goals, and the conflicts they will face. This, in turn, makes it easier to create a plot that is consistent with the central idea.
A clear premise also helps in keeping the story focused and preventing it from becoming too convoluted or scattered. Without it, you might find it tempting to include too many subplots or unnecessary details, which can make your novel feel disjointed and confusing.
To create a compelling premise, consider the following questions:
- What is the essence of the story that you want to convey to your readers?
- What is the central question or conflict that will keep them engaged and turning the pages?
- What are the emotions you want to evoke in them as they read the novel?
Step 2: Create Your Character Profiles
Next, start thinking about your main characters. Creating character profiles is a critical element in crafting a well-rounded story outline. By understanding the personalities, backgrounds, motivations, and goals of the characters, you’ll be able to better craft the plot and the conflict of the events.
For example, knowing the characters’ strengths and weaknesses can help in developing plot points that challenge them and force them to grow or change. A well-crafted backstory can also add depth and richness to the character, giving a more nuanced understanding of their behavior and choices as the plot unfolds. Additionally, knowing the characters’ motivations and goals can help you establish the stakes of the story and create a clear narrative direction.
Here are some steps to follow when developing character profiles:
- Identify the main characters: Start by identifying the main characters in your novel. Typically, this includes the protagonist, antagonist, and any major supporting characters.
- Develop their physical characteristics: Describe each character’s physical appearance, including their height, weight, hair color, eye color, and any other distinguishing features.
- Outline their personality traits: Determine the personality traits of the character, including their strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and habits. This will help you come up with characters that are realistic and relatable.
- Establish their backstory: Create a backstory for each character that describes their past experiences, including any significant events that have shaped their personality or worldview.
- Determine their motivations and goals: Identify what each character wants and why. This can help you create a clear and compelling narrative arc.
- Consider the relationships between that character: Reflect on the dynamics between each character and how their relationships evolve over the course of the story.
Step 3: Create Your Plot
The plot is the sequence of events that make up the story, and it provides the structure that the outline will follow. Once you have a general idea of what your novel is about and what your characters are like, you can start developing the plot by figuring out the major events and turning points that will occur in the story. This can include things like the exposition, the climax, the resolution, as well as any other key moments that you want to include in the story.
As you develop the plot, you will start to see how the story unfolds, and you can use this information to create a rough outline. This can help you see the big picture and fill in the details as you go. You’ll then be able to ensure that the events flow smoothly and that all of the pieces fit together in a way that makes sense.
Step 4: Determine the Setting
The setting is the when and where of the events in your novel. Deciding on the setting provides a clear and concrete background for the events and actions that take place. This, in turn, can help you in ensuring that the story is consistent and believable, and that the events make sense in the context of the setting.
Additionally, the setting influences the mood and tone of the novel, as well as the behavior and motivations of the characters. By establishing the setting early on in the outlining process, you can ensure that it’s fully integrated into the story and that it enhances the overall impact of the narrative.
Step 5: Build the Scenes
Now it’s time to bring all the above elements together and start building the main scenes. When done right, this will provide a clear structure for the plot. By identifying the major events and actions that move the story forward, you’ll be able to organize your ideas and ensure that it flows logically and cohesively. Furthermore, knowing the main scenes allows you to avoid unnecessary deviations or subplots that can distract from the main storyline.
Having a clear idea of the main scenes will also facilitate developing the characters; by considering how each character responds to the key events, you’ll be able to create more dynamic and believable characters with a clear motivation for their actions.
Step 6: Fine-Tune the Outline
The last step in perfecting your outline is ensuring that all the elements of your novel fit together and that the flow of your story goes smoothly. All you need to do now is identify any areas that are redundant or have major plot holes. And don’t forget to make sure that premise of your story is reflected in the outline in a logical and meaningful way.
What Are Some Common Outline Formats?
While the steps we provided above will help you in writing a compelling outline, it is not the only way. In fact, there are many formats that writers use in crafting their outlines. The best format for a particular author will depend on their individual writing style and the specific needs of their story. But to give you a general idea of the most common ones, let’s take a look at these four examples.
- The Synopsis Outline
Usually used by authors to pitch agents, the synopsis outline gives a broad idea about the novel and how it progresses. However, many writers use it to outline their thoughts and ideas before they start the writing process.
To make the best out of this outline format, start by creating a short document, usually a page or two, that provides a broad outline of the novel’s premise and structure. You can then include a description of the characters, conflict, and narrative arc.
You can break down your synopsis into a few paragraphs:
- The first paragraph should introduce your two main characters (the protagonist “hero” and antagonist), how the story begins, and the setting of the story.
- The next few paragraphs include the plot twists faced by the hero. You may want to introduce other essential characters as well, such as sidekicks.
- In the final paragraph, you should explain how the major conflicts are settled, and give a glimpse of how the novel ends.
Here’s a downloadable example of the synopsis outline.
- The Snowflake Outline
If you prefer to focus on the big picture in your outline, then this method is ideal for you. Created by author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson, this technique allows you to start with a basic summary and add elements from there. Just as you start drawing a snowflake with a single line, your story outline starts with a simple sentence.
Here’s how it’s done:
- Start off with a sentence summing up the novel’s premise in 15 words or less.
- Then expand it into a paragraph, adding the characters and the narrative arc.
- Proceed to create character summaries and gradually build the summaries into full character profiles.
- Create a list of the major scenes and organize them into a logical sequence. Then write a paragraph describing each scene.
You can now combine these parts into a document and expand upon it to write your story. To better understand this outline format, take a look at this one of J.K. Rowling’s novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
- The Summary Outline
This format involves estimating the number of chapters and creating a beat-sheet document, listing the sequential plot events. Each chapter is then summarized with a distinct purpose, encompassing descriptions of characters, settings, and timings.
This method allows you to focus on the big picture of the story while giving you a clear idea of what should happen in each chapter. You’ll find it most useful if you prefer a flexible approach to writing and don’t want to be too rigidly tied to a specific structure or plot.
You can also download this example of the summary outline of The Great Gatesby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is based on the idea of a hero’s transformation through a journey. It isn’t a format per se–rather a story structure–but it is used by many writers to create an outline and guide the development of the plot. It is particularly useful for stories that revolve around a character’s personal transformation and growth, as it offers a framework for creating a compelling narrative arc that captures the hero’s journey from a state of naivety to one of experience and wisdom.
This journey typically consists of three main sections: departure, initiation, and return. The departure stage involves the hero leaving their ordinary world, which is followed by the initiation stage, where they face various trials and tribulations. The return stage sees the hero return to their ordinary world, transformed by their experiences and equipped with new abilities and insights.
Each of these stages contains a number of steps that describes the hero’s transformation into a wiser personality by overcoming certain obstacles. To understand more about these steps, take a look at this outline example.
Tips for Creating a Story Outline
Crafting a story outline can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not sure where to begin. Fortunately, there are several tips and tricks that can help simplify the process. Here are some effective strategies for creating an outline:
- Decide on a Story Structure Before Outlining
When you first start writing your outline, it will be very tempting to jot all your thoughts down in an unorderly fashion so as not to lose any of the ideas in mind. However, having a clear understanding of the story structure will make writing the outline much easier.
This structure shows how the events are organized into a clear beginning, middle, and end. Knowing how your story unfolds will help you know where to place the scenes and events to produce a logical and coherent storyline.
- Use a Template
Using a template to outline your novel can provide a structure and guide that you can follow, which can help organize your thoughts and ideas more effectively. A template can also ensure that important elements (such as character development, plot progression, and setting details) aren’t forgotten.
Additionally, a template can save time and energy, as you won’t have to create a new outline from scratch every time you begin a new project. And if you’re stuck on the format of your outline (or simply want a jumpstart), a template is all you need. You can use any of the examples we’ve provided in the previous section as a guide to create your own outline, or click here to find more templates that fit all types of stories, novels, and other written work.
- Visualize the Story
There are many tools that authors use to visualize the outline of their stories. For example, you can use mind maps or sticky notes to plan how the story progresses.
Using mind maps is a popular way to outline novels and stories. This method can be a fun and creative way to brainstorm ideas and organize your thoughts. It allows you to see the relationship between different ideas and scenes and can help you create a cohesive and engaging story.
Other writers prefer using sticky notes with several colors to visually outline their novels. Sticky notes of the same color are used to represent the main chapters and are placed side by side. Then, using different-colored ones, notes that represent scenes in each chapter are placed below the corresponding main chapter. This can help you clearly see the flow of events and identify any plot holes the novel might have.
- Take Inspiration from Other Writers’ Outlines
Try getting a glimpse of the outlines of famous and successful authors. Seeing how they approached creating their own outlines can give you valuable insights and a fresh perspective on how to create your own. For example, take a look at J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, or Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22.
All in all, outlining is an essential tool that facilitates the writing of any novel. It helps you tackle numerous obstacles associated with writing such as writer’s block, redundancy, and plot holes. It also facilitates your writing process and keeps you focused. Keep in mind that each writer uses a different approach to outline their work. So always experiment and try new methods; eventually, you’ll reach the outcome you desire.