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.
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.
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.
These are the best outlining strategies you need to know before you start outlining your next story:
Let’s hop into our first example...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is your fastest outlining strategy. It’s perfect for creating intense, rapid-fire stories.
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.
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.
Harry Potter, a half-abused orphan, must attend a Wizarding school and stop the man who killed his parents.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
Andy is sent to Shawshank Prison, a place where everyone is guilty… including the warden. After this, everything is different.
Character faces the dramatic question —> Midpoint catalyst —> Point of no return
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
One of my writing professors believed there were only two types of stories:
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:
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.
There’s an old 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:
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! that I strongly recommend because it details the beat mapping process. It will give you an idea, along with numerous examples, of how to beat map any story.
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:
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.