How to outline a novel in five steps
By Desiree Villena
When you set out to drive somewhere new, you don’t just hit the road and hope you’ll make it there eventually. You look up directions and establish a route to get you from point A to point B. The same logic should be applied to writing a novel — just deciding one day to sit down and write a book might work for a handful of “pantsers,” but for most of us, such a big achievement can only be accomplished by setting course before we take off.
In this post, we’ll break down the five key elements of outlining a novel, using The Wizard of Oz as an example throughout.
1. Nail down your premise
In other words, you should be able to answer the question, “What is your book about?” If you struggle to answer this clearly, try establishing the following:
- The Protagonist: Who is your novel about? (A young girl from Kansas named Dorothy.)
- The Goal: What does your protagonist want? (To find the Wizard.)
- The Motivation: Why do they want this? (So he can help her get back home.)
- The Conflict: What is preventing the protagonist from achieving their goal? (The Wicked Witch of the West.)
- The Theme: What is the universal concept at the core of your novel? (In this case, two fold: “there’s no place like home” and the message that, most of the time, we already have the answer we seek within.)
2. Determine your "plot points"
A page-turning read is one that’s built on: “This happens, and so this happens, which causes this to happen, resulting in this.” One occurrence prompts another, leading to another, and so on and so forth. There’s causality in the story, and readers continue to wonder what will happen next.
Contrast this with just: “This happens, then this happens, then this happens, and finally this happens.” If the plot in your story doesn’t beget further plot, readers (and any literary agents you may end up querying) may be left wondering, “so what?”
The way to avoid the second scenario is to establish your plot points: the incidents that propel your story in a certain direction, directly impacting what happens next.
When you’re first getting started on your outline, you may not have all the turning points of your novel determined yet, and that’s okay! Try to establish at least the inciting incident, midpoint, and climax. Or if you want to be really thorough, you can also add on two additional plot points.
Consider the major turning points in The Wizard of Oz:
- Inciting Incident: What happens at the beginning of your novel that sets the story in motion? (Dorothy is caught in a twister and wakes up in Oz.)
- Plot Point One: How does your character react to the inciting incident? (Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road to find her way home.)
- The Midpoint: What major obstacle occurs that keeps your character from the resolution? (The Wizard sends Dorothy after the broomstick.)
- Plot Point Two: What is the fallout from the midpoint obstacle? (Dorothy is captured.)
- The Climax: What is the final outcome of your story’s overarching conflict? (Dorothy throws a bucket of water on the Scarecrow to save him, and ends up melting the witch.)
Each of these major incidents are directly propelled by the previous one. Of course, a story can't solely be comprised of big turning points. Which brings us to…
3. Connect them with smaller scenes
It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Yes, the big plot points matter, and they will be the pillars of your outline. But just as important is the story that happens between those big turning points. Even the most action-packed novels need moments of ‘normal’ humanity to keep readers connected to the story.
In order to give the turning points of your novel weight and significance, smaller scenes need to occur in the interim, allowing tension to build toward the climax. Let’s take a look at the connecting scenes in The Wizard of Oz:
- Leading to Inciting Incident: After running away from home, Dorothy encounters a fortune teller who forces her to realize the dire concern her disappearance has caused her family. She hurries home, where she… gets caught in a twister and wakes up in Oz.
- Leading to Plot Point One: Dorothy meets the Good Witch who urges Dorothy to find her way home and escape the clutches of the Wicked Witch by… following the Yellow Brick Road.
- Leading to Midpoint: Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, whose support and friendship help her reach the Wizard, who refuses to help without the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.
- Leading to Plot Point Two: Dorothy and her Oz companions make their way to the castle, when Dorothy is captured.
- Leading to Climax: Toto finds Dorothy’s three friends who ambush the guards and find Dorothy.
At this point, with your big turning points and connecting scenes mapped out, your outline is taking a fairly solid shape. Now that the external elements your character will face are settled, it’s important to also consider the internal goings-on of your protagonist.
4. Don't forget character development
Even if your character doesn’t undergo a huge transformation over the course of your novel, their encounters should still create some kind of impact, growth, or learning.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic bildungsroman-cum-hero’s journey, wherein the young protagonist starts as your “average teenager” (in this case, a young girl who feels misunderstood by her family and seeks independence), and, throughout her trials and tribulations, not only matures out of adolescent naivete, but also becomes equipped with the courage and knowledge necessary to overcome the overarching conflict.
While outlining your novel, ask yourself not only how your novel will begin and end, but what kind of person your character is at the start of the story compared to who they will be at the end. By the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy discovers she had the means to return home all along—the ruby slippers. However, her adventures in Oz allow her to come home armed with the knowledge that “there’s no place like home.”
5. Build toward a satisfying ending
The ending of your novel may very well change as you write it, so it’s not necessary to have the details set in stone. Still, you want to have a general idea of where your story is heading, so that you can ensure all the plot points that come before point in vaguely the right direction.
The resolution of your novel (or denouement), can take a number of different styles. For example: a resolved ending where all loose ends are tied up, an ambiguous ending that leaves the characters’ fates open to interpretation, or an unexpected ending that presents readers with a final twist.
Whatever ending you decide to build towards, ensure it leaves readers satisfied by answering the big questions proposed in your novel. It’s fine to leave characters with a few “what ifs,” but you need to ensure you give them enough information upon which to speculate and don’t simply leave readers with big plot holes in the end. So as you create your outline, make notes of the various threads so you can be sure to tie up the important ones by the time the denouement is through.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world's best editors, designers, marketers, and book reviewers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys writing short stories and reading everything from cosmic horror to contemporary romance.