There is no “right way” to outline your novel. Every writer has their own outlining method. In some cases, writers will use a different outline process for each novel.
But if you understand all the outlining methods available to you, you can take the pieces you like and craft your own process. I’m about to you the 7 best outline strategies that yield novels your readers will love. Read this, and you will know exactly how to outline for your next novel.
Should You Outline Your Novel?
Yes, because a good outline will keep your story tight and focused.
If your stories don't make an emotional impact...
Or if you have a trail of half-written novels in your wake... outlining will help you finally achieve your writing potential.
Best of all, outlines boost your writing momentum. A good outline drives your novel to the most climactic moment of your story with that special kind of “let’s do this” energy.
Good Outlines Are Predictions, Not Maps
Outlines can be wrong. Never be afraid to veer off the path if you find a more interesting route to the end of your story.
Discovery is the joy of writing. As you learn about your characters and your world, you may discover that your outline was wrong, and that’s okay. Revise your outline, and keep exploring.
Remember: you’re the writer. You’re in charge.
The 7 Best Ways to Outline Your Novel
These are the best outlining strategies you need to know before you start outlining your next story:
- The 1-Page Outline for quick, easy outlining.
- The Three C's Outline for writers who don't want to overplan.
- The Snowflake Method for turning an idea into a complete novel.
- The 3-Act Structure for stories designed to have a climactic ending.
- The 4-Act Structure, a variation on the 3-act structure.
- The Hero's Journey for novels that are focused on developing heroes.
- The Beat Map Outline for novels built around the most emotionally-charged moments.
Let’s hop into our first example...
1. The One-Page Outline
If you have never outlined before... TRY THIS.
The one-page outline is fast and easy to update as you write. It keeps your story focused on what matters most: the emotions that lead to a big, climactic finish. No distractions.
It also takes less than five minutes to create.
Want to follow along? Get the free “One-Page Outline” template here.
How to Outline Your Novel in One Page
- Write Down Your Main Character’s Destiny
I’ll use The Hobbit as my example here:
Bilbo, a small, unlikely creature who lives in a hole in the ground, will get swept up in a grand quest to slay a dragon.
- Motivate Your Characters with Conflict
All characters need powerful motivations, because action makes a story move forward. But those actions should come from difficult choices and a strong sense of conflict.
Bilbo is caught between his respectable nature as a hobbit and his secret desire for adventure. He wants to go with the Dwarves, but rare are the Hobbits who leave the safety of home.
- Map the Most Important Moments
Write a bullet point for each major plot point that raises the stakes, or changes the course of the story.
The idea is to write out a dramatic arc that ascends towards a single, climactic moment.
- After traveling a while with the Dwarves, and almost getting eaten by Trolls and kidnapped by goblins, Bilbo gets separated from the group. Under the goblin caves, he steals a ring of magical power from a dangerous under-dweller. This gives Bilbo a unique power to confront the Dragon alone.
- After regrouping, Bilbo and the Dwarves get attacked by spiders and captured by Elves in the forest. This sets up the real conflict of the story: the Dwarves are not perfectly innocent in the destruction of their old home.
- The Dwarves accidentally awaken the Dragon too early, causing it to rampage and destroy most of the nearby human town. In the end, the humans end up slaying the Dragon. This further develops the central conflict of Dwarves vs. Everyone Else.
- The Elves and the Humans march on the Lonely Mountain to claim their share of the Treasure. But the Dwarves refuse, almost igniting an all-out war between Men, Dwarves, and Elves.
- But something else is coming: a dark horde of orcs and goblins and evil beasts are on their way to claim the mountain.
4. Tie the Beginning and End Together
Now that you know where your story is headed... it's time to find out where it starts and where it ends.
We’re going to craft your beginning and ending at the same time, so we can guarantee a satisfying conclusion.
Add a single sentence at the top of your outline that explains where the story begins...
Start: Bilbo is winding down for the evening in his quiet Hobbit hole when an old Wizard knocks on his door and calls him to a grand adventure.
Last, add one final sentence about how your story hits its crescendo. You do not need to know exactly how the story ends, only what the final conflict is about.
Crescendo: Bilbo, once a peace-loving Hobbit, must somehow salvage the broken truce between the good races before the armies of evil arrive.
Notice how the beginning and end tie into each other? We’ll get more into this when we talk about the Hero’s Journey, but suffice it to say this creates, not a random series of events, but a satisfying, complete story.
The one-page outline is the simplest strategy and my personal favorite. I keep one on hand every time I start a novel. It's an integral part of my NaNoWriMo preparation strategy, too.
In case you missed it, you can download the free One-Page Outline template here. Try it out on your next outline, and let me know how it goes.
2. The “Three C’s” Outline
This is your fastest outlining strategy. It’s perfect for creating intense, rapid-fire stories.
- Contract: What is the main promise of your story? What answers will your readers get by the end of the story?
- Crucible: What are the stakes for your heroes, and how do those stakes grow?
- Clock: How much time is left?
Dan starts his outlines with a character who is destined to change. For example, in The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon is destined to transform from a know-it-all lecturer to a man of action.
Then, he fills in the outline by answering his three C’s.
But the true secret to his addicting storytelling is “braiding.”
First, you start with multiple storylines. One focuses on the hero, another on the villain, and another is a red-herring or a storyline just for a side-character.
Each storyline has a separate beginning. You slowly braid them together until they all twine together in a final, climactic moment.
If you want to learn how to do this, I strongly recommend you try Dan Brown’s MasterClass course. These are so easy to watch and rich with valuable writing advice.
3. How to Outline with the Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method is the best way to expand your unconnected ideas into a complete novel.
It’s the perfect blend between outlining and discovery. If you know what kind of story you want to tell… but you don’t know the specifics yet, try this method.
Here’s How the Snowflake Method Works:
- Start with a single idea that sums up the core conflict of your story:
Harry Potter, a half-abused orphan, must attend a Wizarding school and stop the man who killed his parents.
- Create your main characters, your setting, and 3-5 of the most important plot points.
- Harry Potter makes a discovery that even his harsh caretakers can’t hide: he is actually a wizard
- Harry Potter sets off to Wizarding School where he meets his two best friends (Ron and Hermione) and some new enemies, including the hateful Professor Snape
- Harry and his newfound friends will uncover a dark plot to steal the Philosopher’s Stone and give it to the Dark Lord who orphaned Harry - a plot which only they can stop.
- Expand your descriptions until you have 2-5 pages of character ideas, plot points, and important scenes.
The snowflake method starts with a few major ideas and builds to an intricate, complete story concept. I find it extremely helpful for brainstorming new novel ideas.
You can also grab an in-depth Snowflake Outline template here.
4. The Three-Act Outline
The three-act structure is designed to set up and answer a single dramatic question.
It’s perfect for screenwriting and for new authors because it provides simple, rigid guidelines.
For this one, I'll use The Shawshank Redemption as an example. Spoilers, ahoy.
Act 1 - Set Up the Question
- Introduce the Character & the World
Andy Dufresne, a mild-mannered banker, is convicted of murder, and sentenced to two life sentences in prison.
The dramatic question is not “did he do it?”
Instead, we’re focused on, “What happens to a man who believes he has been wrongly convicted?”
- Inciting incident
Andy Dufresne is sitting outside his house in his car, drinking and holding a gun. To the viewer, it seems obvious that Andy, after finding his wife has been cheating on him, had an intent to kill.
- Turning Point
Andy is sent to Shawshank Prison, a place where everyone is guilty… including the warden. After this, everything is different.
Act 2 - Wrestle with the Question
Character faces the dramatic question —> Midpoint catalyst —> Point of no return
- Facing the Dramatic Question
At first, prison is hard for a man as soft as Andy. But over the years, he perseveres because he believes he is innocent. He even starts to create a cadre of friends and unlikely allies, including the Warden himself.
- Midpoint Catalyst
Andy finally gets proof that he is innocent… but the Warden, who has been using Andy to launder money, refuses to let Andy pursue his legal claims. The innocent man is firmly trapped, there is no escape.
- Point of No Return
Andy refuses to give up hope until the Warden kills Andy’s friend - and the only other person who knows about Andy’s innocence. With no choice, Andy begins to accelerate his plans to escape.
Think of this as the bridge to the climax.
Act 3 - Resolve the Question
- Final Buildup
This is your chance to increase the momentum to breakneck speeds.
In the Shawshank Redemption, this culminates in Andy acting in increasingly strange ways, including blasting illegal opera music for all the inmates to hear, and asking his friend Red to get him a rope.
As the viewer, we are lead to believe Andy is about to kill himself. This appears to finally answer our question: when an innocent man is considered guilty, surely he must break down.
But then, we hit the climax...
The morning after Andy asks for the rope, the Guards can’t find Andy in his cell. The whole prison gets turned upside down, and dogs are brought in to chase Andy down.
Where could he have gone?
- Bridge to the Future
In a long reveal, we discover that Andy never gave up hope. He knew he would have to fight for his innocence, and so he spent the last decades digging an escape tunnel.
If you’ve seen the movie or read the book (both are incredible!), you’ll know that Andy also leaves a special gift for his friend Red - a bridge to their future lives.
This finally answers our dramatic question: when you know you are innocent, never stop fighting.
Key Point: the Three-act Structure Thrives on Change
At the end of each act, and at the midpoint, something happens which changes the course of the story. This generates an incredible amount of momentum that steamrolls the story into the climax.
The Three-Act structure is perfect for new writers and for writers who prefer to outline only the most important parts of their story.
It leaves plenty of room for creativity, and it forces the writer to consider how their characters will adapt to sudden, dramatic changes.
Here's a fantastic 3-Act Novel Template from author Abbie Emmons. Notice how many different ways there are to cut up the three acts? No matter which outline strategy you choose, it will always be unique to your novel.
5. The 4-Act Structure
Some writers disagree with the 3-act structure. They argue that the Midpoint is actually the split between Act 3 and Act 4.
Instead of one dramatic question, they believe that each act is it’s own story - building up to the final act and resolution. Here’s a fantastic video that explains the concept:
The 4-act structure can be outlined like this:
- Act 1: Character’s current world is interrupted
- Act 2: Character develops a new strategy to deal with the interruption
- Act 3: Character’s strategy fails. Miserably.
- Act 4: Character develops a better strategy that works… or, if you’re writing a tragedy, that makes everything irrevocably worse.
If you’ve already attempted the 3-act structure and found it lacking, try out the 4-act structure.
It’s more specific and I love how the 4-act structure focuses on plotting out smaller objectives and questions that build towards the climax.
6. How to Outline Using the Hero’s Journey
One of my writing professors believed there were only two types of stories:
- A character comes to town
- A character goes on a quest
If you believe this theory, then the Hero’s Journey perfectly outlines all quests. The Hero’s Journey is essentially an expanded version of the 3-act Structure.
There are very specific beats you're supposed to hit... but again, outlining is a prediction, not GPS directions.
Here’s how it works:
- Hero has a problem with the current world
- Hero is called to action and must enter a new world
- Hero returns to the world, having gained the power to overcome the original problem
If you’re trying to learn how to write better heroes...
...try the Hero’s Journey. Despite all it's prescriptions, it’s still surprisingly flexible.
Every fantasy or science fiction writer should outline with the Hero’s Journey at least once. You will find yourself using the landmarks in this monomyth for the rest of your writing life.
7. How to Beat Map Your Novel
There’s an old Hollywood trick to outlining called “beat mapping.”
You write a list of the main emotional “beats” you want in your story. Then, you arrange them into an ever-increasing arc of rising emotions.
The power behind beat mapping is that emotional momentum. Start with simple beats, add layers of events that create conflict, and watch your story rise to a powerful, emotional climax.
What is a "beat?" A beat is an emotional event that changes the course of the story. For example:
- A boy finds a magic sword in a stone
- The lead detective is found dead in the street
- Two star-crossed lovers realize they were meant for each other (finally!)
The hard part is figuring out how granular you want to get with your beats. In a romance novel, the first kiss is probably an extremely important beat. But what about the second kiss? The third?
There’s a fantastic book called Save the Cat!
It completely outlines the Beat Mapping process and shows you which beats you MUST include, and which ones are optional.
Make sure you get the novelist version of Save the Cat!
Conclusion: Your Novel Outline Process is Unique to You
An outline is the single most powerful tool for completing your story. Whether you’re writing a rapid-fire thriller or a slow-burning romance novel, your work becomes 10x easier the moment you create an outline.
The perfect outline will:
- Show you the whole story
- Prevent you from getting stuck “in the middle”
- And help you actually finish your story
Start with a simple one-page outline. And if you find that feels good, try one of the other outline methods listed above.
Remember: you are the master of your outline… and your outline process. Pick and choose the elements that feel most important for you, and you can go back to focusing on the best part of writing: telling a damn good story.