“The outline is 95 percent of the book. Then I sit down and write, and that’s the easy part.” - Jeffery Deaver, International Best-Selling Author.
Book outlining is one of the most important parts of writing a novel, especially for new writers. It is a skill that takes time and practice, but it has a worthy reward if it can be mastered.
You see, writing a story is like building with LEGOs. You can go the creative route and just start building, maybe with or without a plan in mind, but you may not get the same results as if you were following the instructions.
For some, going the creative route is what it takes to build a masterpiece. While this may be the case for you, I still recommend that you learn how to outline and find a style that fits your frame of mind. Even the most creative LEGO builder can pick up a few new ideas from the pictures and instructions.
If you're more of a planner at heart, then you will love the tips in store. Below, I have listed three simple book outlining examples for planning your next novel or story. I have used each of these both in personal writing as well as written work for clients. Give each story outlining process a try to see which one suits you best. You might even find that a combination of outline examples works for you.
These outlines are loosely based on other information gathered from college lectures, writing courses, books, and other authors. They are a great starting point for new authors to get into writing, as well as experienced writers looking for a fresh viewpoint on the art of storytelling. I will link some resources at the end that I drew my inspiration from to create these simple outlining strategies I use almost every day.
Here are 3 simple book outlining examples to help you outline a novel.
Outline Example 1: Plot-Oriented
Plot-oriented outlines are the type of outline structures that map out the major scenes. The greatest example of this is The Writer's Journey, where Christopher Vogler takes the premise of Joseph Cambell's research on writing and expands it. (By the way, if you don't own this book, you're missing out on one of the greatest resources writers can get their hands on!)
I have taken the majority of my plot-oriented outline structure from studying this book, but I've also included some research from others and my own input. This basic structure is meant to simplify the outlining steps down to make it easier to see how everything goes together. I use this structure when working with clients on Fiverr, and I have never once received a bad review, so I am quite certain it can be a benefit to you!
So how this outline process works is you have five parts: Intro, Adventure, Hardship, Climax, and Conclusion. These could be divided up and sometimes there's even multiple of a section, but this is the fundamental basis.
Your intro is where you have the opening to the story described. We see who the main character is, where they are in life, and what the setup is for what's about to take place.
The adventure is then where the main character takes some sort of journey. Sometimes they're forced into the journey based on the circumstances around them. Other times, they dive headfirst. This is usually the longest part of the story and often where a major physical climactic scene takes place. Sometimes the physical climax takes place later on with the emotional climax, but other times they are separate.
We then have the hardship, where some sort of emotional climax takes place, also sometimes referred to as the failure. This is where something bad happens and it looks like it's all over for our main character.
The fourth section is the climax, which is the scene where our main character gives it one last shot. In some stories, this is where the emotional climax is resolved and a physical climax takes place. Other times, it's just a resolution to the emotional climax.
Finally, we have the conclusion, where the writer ties everything together, and the story comes to its end.
I give a full breakdown of this plotted outline example in a blog post here using the movie Shrek, so check it out if you want more information on how this works.
Here is a picture of how my plot-oriented outlines look, usually ranging between 15-25 pages (length will vary depending on how much detail you want). Obviously, this is scaled down to one page just to show an example, but try something like this on your own if you're looking to map out your main scenes.
I find that this outlining structure works best when I'm looking to have an overview of a story. I may not have every specific scene figured out, but I know the most important points I want to have included.
I also find that this outline is very less constricting, meaning I have the freedom to add, discard, or change whatever is necessary to get to each scene. Since these sections leave transitions and gaps in between, it means I have a lot of room to make the story go in whatever direction I want.
Lastly, I think that this is the perfect outline for someone who doesn't really want an outline. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out! If you only plot the major sections out, you can at least say, "I know where I'm heading." Now you just need to get there!
Think about my example of building LEGOs. You're not using any instructions; you're simply looking at a picture to get an overall idea of what you're aiming to build. This outline can be simplified down to a few pages, or you can detail it up to fifty pages. It really depends on how closely you want to follow the outline and how much detail you feel is necessary.
Outline Example 2: Chapter-By-Chapter
A chapter-by-chapter outline is the typical outline layout where you write a header and summary for each chapter. This is perfect for the writer that wants some sort of congruency with chapter lengths and the number of chapters. For example, some people say, "Okay, I want to aim for 30 chapters and 60,000 words." They can then simply write out their 30 chapters, titling and summarizing each as they go.
While this isn't my personal favorite outlining process to use, I have found success in using it when writing my books. Oftentimes, I get to the midpoint or near the end, and I have trouble tying everything together. To have a better perspective, I will usually write a few chapter summaries of what is supposed to come next to help finish the chapter I am working on.
I have even found myself skipping a chapter or two in order to finish the ending before going back and figuring out how to finish the remaining chapters I skipped.
When writing a chapter-by-chapter outline, I recommend having three things defined in each chapter: the Setting, the Main Points, and the Summary.
The setting is basically where you describe where the scene takes place. I also like to add some other information like if it's hot, cold, wet, dry, uncomfortable, welcoming, etc. Terms like this can help visualize the chapter better once you get to the writing, and ultimately remind you of how the chapter should feel to the reader.
The main points are the purpose of the chapter. This is where you want to write down a few reasons this chapter is necessary for the story to continue or for the story to make sense. If you can't find a reason that this chapter is necessary to the story, it's likely that it's not necessary at all!
The final thing you want to have in a chapter-by-chapter outline is a summary. This is where you start writing down how the story will unfold when the character is put into this setting. You will also find a way to tie in your main points in the summary, giving you an idea of what the chapter will look like.
Overall, this traditional outlining method is very simple and easy to use, but you may find that it has less structure than the other two options. For some, that might be exactly what they need, as they don't want too much information in their outline. For others, they like to have specific details and scenes to aim for, so this might be a more difficult process for that type of writer.
Here is a picture of what a chapter-by-chapter outline looks like in its simplest form.
Outline Example 3: Scene Blocks
The final novel outlining process I want to talk about is something I have recently begun incorporating into my own writing. This is probably the most time-consuming way to outline, but I also find it to be one of the best!
This is an outline style I have come up with on my own based loosely on the process of screen blocking that screenplay writers will use. (I also took some inspiration from the book Save The Cat, which you should probably own as well!)
Screen blocking in the movie world is basically the process of explaining/detailing out every move that takes place in a scene. For example, if a screenplay writer were to screen block an action scene, he would write out all of the choreography and specific details of the scene that take place in order for the scene to happen the way the writer imagines it.
My scene block outline is similar to this, as I take the three basic scene types and outline them out. The three basic scene types are Obstacle, Tension, and Building Block.
Obstacle scenes are usually used the most in books. This is where we have scenes that get in the way of our character reaching the end goal of the book. This can be a physical, emotional, or even mental roadblock that the character has to overcome along the journey.
The next scene type is the tension scene. These are the scenes that build suspense within the reader and oftentimes cause curiosity. Whether it's a mystery being unfolded, or a love interest being hinted at, tension scenes are found scattered throughout a story in order to keep the engagement of the reader.
The final scene type in this outlining method is the building block scene. These are all the scenes that don't fall under the other two scene types. These are the dialogue scenes, the background building scenes, and the character development scenes. The main purpose of these scenes is to fill in the gaps between the obstacles and the tension in order to make the story congruent.
Oftentimes, stories start off with building block scenes to get the story moving. There is then a trickling in of tension scenes in order to engage the reader. This is followed by the majority of the obstacle scenes that take place in the middle. Tension scenes then come back towards the climax, especially if there is a twist near the end. Finally, the story ends with a few building block scenes to tie it altogether.
This outlining style is super beneficial if you like to think of your story one scene at a time, making sure you cover all your bases. You can also categorize your scenes if it makes it easier. So instead of calling it an obstacle scene, you can call it the fight in the dragon lair scene. Instead of calling it a building block scene, you can call it a bar conversation scene. Specifically defining scenes like this can help with contrasting your setting if you want to have one specific place in the story remind the reader that this is where your character gets all of their advice, or this is where your character always runs into danger.
This is the perfect outlining process for the writer that likes to be specific. Some writers find it hard to fill in the gaps and think of things on the spot while writing their stories. If this is the case for you, this might just be the outline style that fits your writing style.
Overall, this is my personal favorite outlining process. I have found that planning a story with this outline style helps me remember specific places and details I want to contrast in my story. It also helps me focus on having diversity in my scenes, making sure I don't have six back-to-back obstacles take place, but instead have other important scenes to divide it up and help the story flow. This book outlining style does take a lot more time and effort than the other two, but it's super beneficial in the end, especially when you're planning out a novel-length story!
The Outline Trinity
With these three outlining processes understood, you can really dive deep into outlining a book masterfully! I hope you see where I'm going with this. With these three outlines, focusing on three different parts of the book, you can use them all for one entire story! I call this the Trinity Outline.
You could technically do this in any order you want, but I'll give you a rundown of how I do this.
First, I plot out the book with the five major parts. I also figure out some basic info about the story like the setting, genre, and characters. I might add to my basic info more as I go, but I try to get as much down as I can.
Once I have my five-part section outlined, I can then begin to make chapters within those sections. I may not know how many chapters or all the information about the chapters until I begin fitting in scenes, but fill in what I can.
Lastly, all that is left is to add scenes to the chapters. Sometimes my chapters only consist of one scene. Other times they consist of multiple. I try to keep my chapters a similar length, so with some scenes being shorter than others, I try to balance it out. This is a personal preference.
Here is an example of how the first section of one of my outlines may look (except filled in). Sometimes, it's not this cleanly organized, but it's just a basic premise to follow. I try not to let my outlines be like a rule but more like a guide. This is just an example, so feel free to follow a similar style or use your own formatting.
As I said above, you may find yourself doing a mix of all three of these outlining processes at different times, but that's okay. Since you have an ideal guide to follow, it doesn't matter what order you fill in your parts. You have all the pieces to put it together. It's up to you to decide which pieces you want to start with.
Going back to my LEGO analogy above, you may want to start with a foundation (the plot), but from there, you may find that you have a little bit of freedom of what to fill in when. For example, sometimes I write all my scenes to a section and then go through and add page breaks where I want a new chapter to begin. I don't always do it that way, but depending on your story and outlining process, it doesn't always matter what order you go in.
It is a lot of work to do all three outlines in one, but doing this will give you a very specific roadmap for your story that will be easy to follow. It doesn't have to be followed perfectly (remember, an outline is just a guide, not a rule), but it will give you a good idea of how your story will go.
I hope that this information has opened your eyes to the different ways one can learn how to outline a book. Now, outlining isn't for everyone, and I know that some swear by free-writing. Stephen King, one of the best-selling authors in history, has said that he does not outline his stories.
In saying that, I would still recommend at least attempting it. It's not going to hurt to try! The worst thing you can do is not write at all. If you try outlining and find it's not for you, at least you were writing and learning about storytelling!
I hope that you learned some simple tips and ways about how to outline a novel! The goal of this post is to ultimately help other writers. Whether you've been writing for multiple years or you are just getting started, hopefully, some of this information can help you bring your story idea to life!
Here is a list of resources I would recommend to any and all who want to learn more about writing and publishing a book. Some of these links are my own, while others are links to other authors I would recommend checking out.
Books on writing:
Recommended TBR List:
Michael Vitelli (1 free month if you use this referral link)
Sylvia Bishop (1 free month if you use this referral link)