There are countless ways to approach writing an outline for your novel. Sometimes it takes multiple forms to get just one outline put together.
I recently finished my first “complete” outline for a book that I’ve had in my head for three years. I did so by combining three of the outlining styles I’ve heard most about over the last few years, and I thought it might be a helpful technique to others who are trying to start writing a book but have no idea where to begin.
- Write down the overarching theme and/or goal for the book.
Aside from three particular scenes in my book, I’ve not really known much of what would happen, and I didn’t know how to piece those scenes together. But I have always had an idea of what I wanted the recurring theme of my book to be. Sometimes that is the perfect spot to start. Having an idea of what you want your work to say, how you want it to make people feel, and why you want to create it is, in my opinion, far better than having a thoroughly planned plot without knowing the meaning of it all. It can be something complex, like wanting to help young women feel empowered and important or revealing some of the “hidden” realities in our societies, or it can be as simple as wanting to make others laugh or getting rid of an emotional burden that you’ve been carrying for years—not that it’s simple to do so. But having a goal for how the novel should impact the world (whether it’s your own life, a community, or the globe) could help the plot come together and give you ideas for specific scenes.
- List smaller themes and goals for sections of the book that support the main goal.
This might seem a bit much to some, but I truly enjoy when I can find specific themes running throughout entire books. I take even more satisfaction when those are focused on in more detail in certain chapters. Doing this can give you a better idea of how to organise your scenes, introduce your characters, and even incorporate foreshadowing into your book.
- Separate the hero’s arc into the sections.
Here, I took what I knew would happen to my main character throughout the book and the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey Arch, and compared them to the goals I had set for each section of my book. As of right now, I have four sections with sixteen chapters divided among them. I love the idea of having sixteen chapters for some reason, but with the scenes I have planned and a few ideas I have, I may need to add more chapters to the book or find incredibly clever ways to transition between some of the scenes. But I’ve been doing my best to make sure that each chapter and scene will support the theme of that section. That isn’t to say that some of the chapters or themes won’t overlap into other sections. I am actually hoping that those overlaps come smoothly in my work. But taking the general patterns of storytelling and applying them to your outline can help you arrange your scenes and fill in the blanks. These basic patterns can be referred to as the Hero’s Journey Arch, which consists of twelve stages that were identified by Joseph Campbell.
- Ordinary World, in which the main character, world, and everyday life are presented to the audience.
- Call to Adventure, in which something upsets the balance of everyday life in the character’s world and presents a challenge. The character is then given a choice between two (or more) conflicting calls to react to the challenge.
- Refusal of the Call, where the character decides against the call because of insecurities, risks, abilities, or some other reason.
- Meeting the Mentor, when the main character interacts with someone who provides wisdom, insight, training, tools, and/or encouragement.
- Crossing the Threshold, when the character takes up the call and decides to face the challenge.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies, in which the main character encounters trials, attempts to discover who can and cannot be trusted, and tries to prepare for what will come later.
- Approaching the Inmost Cave, where the main character gets ready for the central crisis or challenge that will be faced, in which the character faces their biggest fear.
- The Ordeal, where the character enters the central crisis, which has two outcomes on opposite sides of the spectrum (life or death, love or breakup, success or failure).
- Reward, in which the character achieves the main goal after surviving the central crisis.
- Road Back, when the character decides to complete the journey, returning to the ordinary world even if it’s difficult to do so and encountering trials along the way.
- Resurrection, when the character encounters the greatest crisis, which transforms or redeems them, and they gain something from it.
- Return with Elixir, in which the character takes what has been gained during the greatest crisis and shares it with others, particularly those in the ordinary world.
As I went through and aligned the themes and the monomyth through my outline, I added more and more detail of the story. The plot quickly grew from incredibly vague and disordered to feasible and understandable. As a result, it’s also a lot less intimidating to work on writing it.
- If you have chapter titles or scene ideas, organise them.
I already had sixteen chapter titles chosen and a few scene ideas, but I didn’t know where anything happened throughout the book. Thankfully, setting the themes, goals, and broad plot outline helped me to figure out where each scene and chapter would fit best. For my current work in progress, each of the sections have four chapters. For another book I’ve started planning, I have 23 chapters split into 7 sections.
Each book and its organisation will look completely different, and maybe dividing your book into sections (whether noticeable to the reader or not) isn’t something that you’re interested in or that will really work with your novel. But I’ve found it incredibly helpful in plotting and writing.
Good luck on all your outlining and novel writing adventures!!
What are some of your tips for outlining you stories? Let me know down in the comments!