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How to Outline a Novel (Even If You Hate Outlines)

how to outline a novel
how to outline a novel
Outlining a novel is kind of like building a wall — one brick at a time. Flying monkeys optional.

Getting overwhelmed at the prospect of starting (or finishing) your novel? Feeling the pressure of hundreds of blank pages staring at you, waiting to be filled?

No sweat. Planning out a story is like building a wall:

You just do it one block at a time.

Just like a towering brick wall is made up of individual bricks, your manuscript is made up of individual parts.

You just have to break it down into small, easy-to-handle chunks, and then build it up from there. Here’s how.

Step 1: Get some index cards. Yes, index cards.

Get a pack of 3″ x 5″ cards wherever fine office supplies are sold. Or at the dollar store.

Crack ’em open and slap down three cards.

At the top of each card, write a headline: Beginning, Middle and End.

With me so far? Good.

Step 2: Write just one card — the beginning.

Take the first card and write down what happens in the beginning of your story, as simply as possible. One or two sentences.

The fact that you’re writing on such a small card actually works in your favor. It forces you to be succinct. Think of it as story haiku. A single sentence is fine.

Not sure what happens in the beginning? For now, make something up. You can always change it later.

Step 3: Skip ahead to the end.

Ignore the middle card for a moment and skip to the End.  In one or two sentences, write out how the story ends.

Does the protagonist achieve his or her goal?  How?

Keep it uber-brief: she catches the killer, she finds the cure, she marries Mr. Rochester, whatever.

Step 4: Fill in the blank.

Now for that tricky middle card. We’re going to handle this one a little differently.

Instead of a single sentence, this card is going to be a list. Brainstorm for a few minutes and think about all of the things that could possibly keep the main character from achieving her goal.

Cast a wide net, here. These obstacles could be anything: fear, conflicting desires, an enemy working at cross purposes, a mysterious message, anything at all. Make it up.

And here’s the key: you don’t have to actually use all of these obstacles. In fact, you might throw out most of them.

But even a bad idea might inspire a much better idea later. So give yourself permission to go crazy here. Write down anything that comes to mind.

Run out of space? Grab as many more cards as you need.

Come on, they’re cheap. Go crazy.

Step 5: Take a break.

Get some fresh air. Come back refreshed.

And when you do, look over this massive list of ideas you dreamed up. Pick your favorite one and write it at the top of a clean new card.

Then below it, describe how the character overcomes that obstacle.

Do the same for a few more ideas, until you have at least half a dozen. When you’re done, put them in order from smallest obstacle to largest.

Step 6: Connect the dots.

Put your Beginning card next to your first obstacle. How does the character get from the start of the story to that obstacle?

Break it down into a few steps. Write each one on a new card.

Step 7: Wrap it up.

Do the same thing with the ending. How does the character get from the biggest obstacle to the end?

Ideally, it should only take one or two cards.

Step 8: Lay ’em straight.

Put your cards in order: beginning, rising obstacles and then the ending.

Step 9: Start writing.

Using your cards, write a synopsis of your novel. Expand each card into a paragraph.

Write the whole thing through in a few pages, beginning to end. Give yourself permission to write badly.

This is just the rough draft, which you’ll throw away later and rewrite.

So don’t worry. Just write.

Step 10: Celebrate! You deserve it!

Check you out. You have the entire story clearly laid out before you, beginning to end. How awesome is that?

You deserve a cookie. Seriously. How many people say they’re going to do this, and they never do?

You will. Because you’re a writer. And you just proved it.

Bonus Tip: Nothing is etched in stone.

Remember, this outline doesn’t lock you into anything. You can change it any time you want to.

If something isn’t working for you, ditch it. Come up with something better.

Don’t think of it as a locked-down, cast-in-bronze plan.

It’s more like a weather forecast — we’re pretty sure this is what’s going to happen, but maybe not. Dress accordingly.

What’s your biggest writing challenge? Leave me a comment!

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