How to create an outline for your novel

Chiara De Giorgi
5 min readJun 16, 2020

4 steps that’ll take you higher

By now you have carefully considered all your options, and you have decided you want to write your book. You have something to tell, and you have experimented with different writing styles and genres. You can’t wait to get down to work and write a masterpiece which will bring you fame and fortune.

Hold your horses, my young Padawan.

Yes, you can do it, but remember: these are Covid-19 times. One person out of three is going to write the book they never had time to write before; another is already an author; the third one is you. If you wish your book to be THE book, you need to prepare an outline. Think of it as a ladder: each step will take you and your book higher.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

What’s an outline for, I hear you asking, when you have inspiration?

Well, if you followed my previous advice (here , here and here) you should have realized by now that inspiration often tends to flow like a swollen river, flooding the pages like there’s no tomorrow. Your story is somewhere in there, drowning in the metaphorical flood. A carefully crafted outline provides you and your inspiration with “river banks” — which you will still be able, at times, to push a little.

Remember: a carefully crafted outline will potentially save you days and even weeks of rewriting and revision — not to mention it will make your editor’s life easier.

How to create a good outline? Climb the four steps of the writing ladder, and you’ll know how.

Before we do that, though, there’s an important question that needs answering to: is the outline a MUST?
Of course not, nothing is a MUST. To craft an outline is an advice given in good faith, in order to make your life as a writer and your editor’s life easier.

That said, let’s add the following explanation:

a) You’re writing a short story (let’s say under 10.000 words). A short story will be read from start to finish without interruption. Of course you can prepare an outline, if you wish, however it is not as crucial for a short story as it is for a novel or a saga.

b) You’re writing a novella (under 40.000 words). It depends. If you’re writing about a mystery, for example, an outline can help you not lose the thread of the story. In case the story you’re telling is simple and linear, you can skip the outline.

c) You’re writing a novel (more than 40.000 words) or a saga (to infinity and beyond). An outline is hardly something you can skip. So prepare yourself: you’ll need to climb this ladder.

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

1. First step: the three parts.

Your novel will be typically composed of three parts: introduction, body (climax), ending.

The first thing you’ll have to do, therefore, is split the story you want to tell into three parts. The introduction and the ending should be shorter than the bod. Let’s say (just for reference) that you have 5 chapters in total: the first one will be the introduction; three will belong to the body; the last one will be the ending.

- Introduction: How are you going to take the reader into your story? What’s the setting? Which characters’ point of view is the reader seeing, whose voice are they hearing?

- Body/Climax: What’s the point of this story? What’s the action, the mystery to solve, the obstacle to overcome? Where does this story take place, and who’s leading/taking part in the action?

- Ending: How does this story end? Where are we, and how have we come to be there? Which characters are there?

Note: In case you’re going to write a saga, you’ll have to split the bigger story into three parts first, then climb the first step of your writing ladder for each one of your volumes.

2. Second step: chapters

Depending on how complex your story is, your outline will show more or less details.

According to the three parts you have outlined on the first step, you can now split each part into chapters.

This step is particularly useful in case you want to submit your novel to a contest of some kind, because you normally have to write no more than a definite amount of words. Some math will help you here, as you can just divide the total amount of words allowed into five: 1/5 will be your introduction; 3/5 will be your body/climax; 1/5 will be your ending.

Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash

Write down (in short sentences or key-words) what is going to happen in each chapter: where will your hero bump into their obstacle? Where are they finding help, and where is the release?

It is a neat work, one where all chapters are more or less the same length. Would you like your story to be read in big chunks, or rather in smaller bites?

3. Third step: Words

This step is linked to the last one, especially in case you’re submitting your work to a contest, as the word-count is crucial.

The question you have to ask yourself is: how many words in one chapter? How will the reader get the most out of your story? Short, digestible chapters, or longer and more complex ones? Does your story need a prologue, and/or an epilogue? Would you like to start each chapter with a quote? All that goes into the word-count!

Don’t panic! All this math talk is just to give you a way to keep your writing under control. If you have decided you’re having 5.000-word long chapters, it’s okay to have a 4.600 or 5.600-word long one. Remember: you might have the most interesting and beautiful story in the world to tell, and it deserves to be told in the best possible way for your readers to enjoy it. Being prepared does make a difference.

Still unconvinced an outline is a good idea? Climb one step higher on the Writing Ladder, discover the incomparable benefits, and reach the Writer’s Nirvana.

4. Fourth step: the incomparable benefits

Ready to enter the Writer’s Nirvana?
Here’s what a carefully crafted outline will do for you:

a) You won’t lose the thread of the narration, not even if you let it go for a while: you’ll be able to pick it up right there where you left it;

b) It will prevent you from contradicting yourself;

c) No one will be alive in chapter 13, who had been killed and buried in chapter 7;

d) You are the Master of your outline, not the other way round. Your story can go another way at any time: just remember to adjust the outline as you go in case you decide you like the new direction better, or save it for an excellent spin-off.

Next time we’re going to learn how to manage characters. Don’t miss it!

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Chiara De Giorgi

Dreamer, reader, writer, storyteller, editor, translator, traveler.