So you’ve decided to become a novelist. You have a fantastic idea that will catapult you into the ivory halls of literary acclaim. It’s only a matter of time before people are asking for your autograph and your favorite Hollywood stars are clamoring for a shot at starring in the film adaptation. Your star is on the rise…

But wait! First you have to write the thing (yes, there’s always a catch). And the best way to do that is to build yourself a roadmap. A novel outline will help give you a big-picture view of your story and work out any plot holes or problems before you begin. That way, you won’t have to dissect your rough draft quite as aggressively when you’re done.

We’ll take you through everything you need to know about how to outline a novel from start to finish (and point you to some more deep-dive resources in our Writing Academy, too!)

Why is it helpful to write a novel outline?

Novel outlines are useful because they give you a “bird’s-eye view” of your entire story. With an outline you can develop your characters, settings, conflicts, and themes before you begin drafting, which means foreseeing and addressing any problems or plot holes that might give you grief later in the writing process.

You can also build your story around effective structural beats, which will help with your pacing and forward momentum. Story theorists have spent a long time developing patterns of storytelling that resonate with readers, and by building your novel around one of these frameworks, you’ll be able to hit all the right notes every time. (When you’re finished it will look like it was effortless, even if you secretly know it took a lot of meticulous planning!)

Finally, outlining a novel means you won’t get stuck halfway through your rough draft wondering what on earth your characters are going to do now. A novel outline is a roadmap that keeps you on course from beginning to end.

A novel outline helps you stay focused and gives you a “big picture” view of your story.

10 steps to outline a novel

Ready to begin developing your novel outline? Here are the steps you’ll need to take to bring your idea to life on the page.

1. Get to know your protagonist

The protagonist is the central character of your story. All of the major plot points happen because of either something that happens to the protagonist, or something that happens because of the protagonist. In other words, choices, actions, and reactions. The protagonist is a story’s guiding light.

This means that your protagonist needs to be complex and compelling enough for a reader to follow them across an entire novel. To develop the main character who’s going to lead this journey, make some notes on the following questions.

What does your protagonist want?

Your main character needs to want something, or there’s no story. Stories are born out of change, and change is born out of desire. Give your character something to work towards.

This might be something like a higher paying position at their job, a date with the girl next door, a championship title, or even just a safe place to sleep at night. The steps the protagonist takes to achieve this goal is what’s going to get the plot moving.

What does your protagonist need?

Okay, but what do they really want? Your protagonist’s deeper need will probably be an unconscious thematic reflection of the goal we looked at above. A need might be something like financial stability, personal validation, freedom, a loving family, and so forth.

The main character may not be consciously aware of this inner need, but it will drive their actions nonetheless.

What is your protagonist’s greatest strength?

Everyone’s good at something. Pinpoint what your main character can do better than anyone else. This might be something concrete (i.e. a “hard skill”) like baking award-winning pies or fixing cars; or, it might be something more intangible (i.e. a “soft skill”) like compassion, patience, or leadership.

If you’re writing in the sci-fi or fantasy genres, your protagonist’s strength might be something supernatural in nature. However, main characters of any literary genre should have their own distinctive “superpower.”

Remember: as your story develops, this strength should impact the plot in some way. For example, if your main character is a champion baker, maybe they bake a cake later to get themselves out of trouble, buy someone off, or sneak a file into a jail cell (it’s been known to happen).

What is your protagonist’s greatest weakness?

Likewise, everyone has something that they struggle with, and which has the potential to bring about their downfall if they’re not careful. A weakness might be something like greed, pride, impulsiveness, or excessive compassion that makes them vulnerable to deception.

Like your protagonist’s strength, this element should also have an impact on the story. When things start going wrong, it will be because this weakness got the better of them. In a tragedy, like The Great Gatsby or Hamlet, this weakness will prove too much for the protagonist and will ultimately drag them down. In a more positive story, the hero will meet and overcome their weakness as part of their character development.

Great stories are about complex, compelling characters.

2. Meet some secondary characters

For the next step, make some notes on the other characters your main character interacts with over the course of the novel’s plot. This includes friends, enemies, frenemies, and all the assorted complications that the protagonist encounters on their journey towards achieving their goal.

Here are some of the secondary characters you might choose to include in your novel.

The antagonist

The antagonist is the character in direct opposition to your protagonist. This is often the villain of the story, although antagonists can also be well-meaning or sympathetic people whose goals are in conflict with the main character’s. For example, a parent who strongly disagrees with their child’s plans for the future might be the antagonist of a novel, even if they think they’re doing their best.

Not all stories need to have an antagonist. Some get their conflict from pitting the protagonist against a force of the natural world, or a societal norm. However, it’s worth considering if your novel needs someone to stand in the way of the main character achieving their goals.

The love interest

Many novels will include a love interest for the central character, even if they’re not strictly “romance” novels. You don’t need to include one if you don’t want to, but they can be useful for pushing the protagonist into motion and giving them higher stakes to fight for. If you do decide to go this route, just make sure your love interest is a fully formed person and not just a plot device (and be careful to avoid fridging!).

The support network

Friends, family members, people who encourage the protagonist along the way and remind them of what they’re fighting for. You can have a lot of fun developing comic relief characters or foil characters that play a role in the story’s plot. Often, these will be the characters that readers remember and relate to most.

The mentor

Mentor figures are a classic character archetype that are best known for their incarnations in sci-fi and fantasy stories, but which can appear in stories of any genre. A mentor is simply a character who provides the protagonist with knowledge, tools, or training that helps them reach their goals.

A mentor might be a wizard with conveniently arcane knowledge; or, they might be a superior at a new job who shows the protagonist the ropes, or a teacher who sees the protagonist’s untapped potential. Think about who or what might furnish your central character with the tools they need to move forward.

The grenade

Finally, is there a character who shows up and completely changes the direction of the story? This could be a new competitor, a new love interest, a new student or employee. If things seem to be going too smoothly for your protagonist, consider throwing in a new character to upend everything they’ve worked for.

3. Map out your major settings

Now that you have a sense of who this novel is going to be about, make some notes on the world that they live in.


Geography is what we tend to think of first when we think of the word “setting.” This is the physical place including the landscape, architecture, and environmental impact. Does your novel take place in the country or in a city? What’s the weather like? How is this place affected by the natural world? Do your characters deal with yearly flooding, or earthquakes, or acid rain? Is there a body of water nearby, or mountains, or a ravine?

You may find it helpful to sketch out a map of your story’s key places (this also helps you keep things consistent later, when you’re trying to remember which of your streets intersect and how far that wishing well was from your protagonist’s home).


Now, think about the social and political landscape your characters live in. Is there a lot of stigma against a certain group of people? What’s expected of certain genders or age groups? What does “coming of age” look like in this place? Who’s in power, and why? Make some notes on how this society functions. (If you need some ideas, be sure to check out our lesson on worldbuilding!)


Temporal setting is an element that often gets overlooked in the outlining process, but it’s important to remember that time plays a pivotal role in the way your characters will interact with their world and with each other. This is especially important in futuristic or historical fiction, but every story takes place sometime.

This includes the era of time, the season, what seasonal celebrations might be happening around this time, and the protagonist’s stage of life. Consider also if you want your novel to occupy a relatively compact space—a few weeks or months—or if it will be an epic that covers several years.

4. Write down everything you know about your story

By this point, you should have a wide-lens idea of what your novel is going to look like. Now, take a blank page and write down everything you know about what happens in this story.

Stories often come to us in fragments. You might be able to see a few key scenes clearly in your mind, while the rest is still in shadow. You may have a sense of where you want your characters to end up, but not how they get there. Trust that it will all become clear in time. For now, write out what you know about this story so far. You can write it backwards or forwards or vertically or horizontally or in multicolored pens. It’s just about pulling on the threads in your mind and getting them down onto the page.

You’ll probably come up with new ideas as you go, and discover new connections that you didn’t recognize before.

5. Determine your story’s conflicts

Take a look at your messy word-vomit outline. Does it have a conflict? If so, great. Pull it out and look at it. If not, it’s time to come up with one.

Every story needs conflict. The steps your main characters take to overcome this conflict (generally a response to, or an instigator of, your protagonist’s goals) are what puts the story’s pattern of action and reaction into motion.

There are two main types of conflict your protagonist will encounter. Every story should have at least one, although the best stories will incorporate both.

The best stories have a balance of internal and external conflict.

Internal conflict

Internal conflict, also known as “protagonist vs. self,” occurs when the main character is struggling with some sort of inner turmoil. Usually this is because they want two different things, or because the thing they want goes against what they believe.

For instance, internal conflict might occur if your protagonist prepares to lie on a job application. Their core morality says that dishonesty is wrong, but their circumstances say that it’s necessary in order to get where they need to go. Or, a character’s internal conflict might come from being caught between two irreconcilable choices, like two love interests.

External conflict

External conflict occurs when the protagonist comes up against a problem outside themselves—another character, an organization, a social stigma, a natural disaster, and so forth. It means that a problem has been thrown into their lives that they need to solve.

You can introduce as many external and internal conflicts as your protagonist can handle. However, there will usually be one overarching conflict that gets the story moving (often the story’s inciting incident) and carries it all the way to the end.

6. Plan your beginning, middle, and end

Now, it’s time to take all your notes and cobble them into a vague story outline. No matter what kind of structure you use (and we’ll talk more about story structure below), every story has a beginning, middle, and end.

Write a one-paragraph synopsis of what happens in the first, second, and third acts of your story. Start with the inciting incident (or the event that sets the plot in motion), describe the story’s key moments that you’ve recognized so far, and go until the end. You may not know everything that happens in your story just yet, and that’s okay—you can fill in the blanks as you go.

7. Identify your protagonist’s value reversal(s)

To ensure your novel has a strong character arc, look at your plot outline and see if you can identify how your protagonist has changed over the course of their journey. Then, write this down at the top of your summaries.

Character value reversals might include things like:

  • Cowardly to brave

  • Greedy to generous

  • Self-serving to self-sacrificing

  • Naïve to Machiavellian

  • Cruel to compassionate

And so forth. Note that these don’t always need to be positive value reversals; in a tragedy, we often see our heroes brought down by their weaknesses (which we looked at above). However, a positive value reversal that illustrates the hero’s growth generally creates a better experience for your readers.

If you can’t identify how your central character has changed, you may want to spend a little more time exploring them. How are they affected by the events of the story, and what lesson does it teach them?

Dynamic character arcs are important for creating an engaging story.

8. Choose a structural framework

Now that you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in your story, it’s time to pin it to a structural outline (sometimes called a “beat sheet”). This will ensure you cover all the necessary plot points and keep your story moving forward with the optimal pacing and tension.

Some people worry that basing their novel outline on a predetermined structure will make their book seem formulaic. While it’s an understandable concern, this is not the case at all; every successful novel you’ve read or film you’ve seen that didn’t leave you feeling disoriented, cheated, or bored has followed a proven story structure. Stories are written deeply into human psychology, and when a story doesn’t follow a set structure we’ll be able to feel that something’s misdirected or missing—even if we don’t quite have the language to describe why. This is why it’s so important to ensure your novel is structurally sound before you begin.

Here are some of the most common and reliable story structures that you can use in your novel writing.

The three-act structure

The three-act structure is a narrative framework that encompasses (can you guess?) three parts: beginning, middle, end. If you’re writing a novel for the first time, the three-act structure is a good place to start.

The first act begins with exposition (or an introduction to the characters and their world), the inciting incident, and the first key plot point: a moment that kicks up the stakes and locks the protagonist into the story. This is the point of no return.

The second act begins with the “rising action,” which sees more complications introduced into the story, before reaching the midpoint: the “hinge” which sees the protagonist move from reacting to taking action. Finally, it lands on another key plot point that ushers in the third act.

The third act is all about powering to the big finish. This usually includes a point of catastrophic defeat followed by an ultimate battle (which may be something subtle, like a battle of wills or social justice), and then the resolution in which the story wraps up all its straggling loose ends.

Overall, the three-act structure looks like this:

  • Exposition

  • Inciting incident

  • First key plot point

  • Rising action

  • Midpoint

  • Second key plot point

  • Catastrophe (or “pre-climax”)

  • Climax

  • Resolution (or “denouement”)

The five-act structure

The five-act structure has a lot in common with the three-act structure. The main difference is that it has a stronger midpoint which divides the novel into two complementing stories. You can think of it like two three-act stories back to back.

This is what the five-act structure looks like. You’ll see some elements in common with the three-act structure.

Act One:

  • Exposition

  • Inciting incident

Act Two:

  • First key turning point

  • Progressive complications

Act Three:

  • Rising action

  • Midpoint

Act Four:

  • Falling action (ie. more complications)

  • Second key turning point

Act Five:

  • Climax

  • Resolution

Freytag’s pyramid

Freytag’s pyramid doesn’t use “acts” in the same way, but you’ll see it does have a similar overall shape. This structure consists of five key stages:

  • Exposition

  • Rising action

  • Climax (or midpoint)

  • Falling action

  • Denouement (or resolution)

Unlike the three- and five-act structures, the key points in this structure describe a section of a novel, rather than a singular moment. These stages might consist of a single chapter, or several.

The eight-point arc

The eight-point arc is similar to Freytag’s Pyramid, but uses different language and takes a more detailed look at the story’s rising action. This narrative structure consists of (as you may have guessed) eight key stages:

  • The point of stasis

  • The trigger

  • The quest

  • The surprise

  • The critical choice

  • The climax

  • The reversal

  • the resolution

By now, some of these stages are probably looking pretty familiar. The eight-point arc is simply another way of organizing these key steps. You can find out more about plotting with the eight-point arc here!

The hero’s journey

The hero’s journey is a classic and very character-driven story structure that sees the protagonist go on an adventure, encounter baddies and beasties and the occasional ally, and ultimately return home enhanced by their experiences. It’s based on world myth and traditional, legendary heroes, but you’ll also recognize it from contemporary stories like the Harry Potter and Star Wars series.

The hero’s journey consists of twelve stages:

  • The ordinary world

  • The call to adventure

  • The refusal of the call

  • Meeting the mentor

  • Crossing the threshold

  • Tests, allies, enemies

  • Approach to the innermost cave

  • The ordeal

  • The reward

  • The road back

  • The resurrection

  • The return

You can explore each of these stages in more detail in our lesson on the Hero’s Journey here.

Most of these structures share a similar overall story shape—the shape that’s been proven to engage and resonate most effectively with readers, viewers, and listeners. However, many writers will feel a greater affinity with one approach over the others, or see one that best suits the type of story they’re trying to create. Once you find the story structure that feels right for you and your current project, you can use it to build a detailed outline that gives you a clear path forward.

9. Explore your story’s theme

By this point you should have a clear visual outline of your upcoming novel. The next step is to isolate its central theme. This isn’t quite as intimidating as it might sound. Theme simply means asking yourself, “What’s this story really about?” What message or idea do you want your readers to come away with?

A literary theme might be something like the importance of family loyalty, or the difference between blood family and “found family.” Or, it might be the dichotomy between heritage and innovation, the stigmas against minority identities, or social expectation vs. authenticity. Consider the underlying meaning of what you’re trying to communicate through your creative writing work.

(We have some more ideas for common literary themes over here!)

Some writers prefer to discover the theme gradually as they move through their story, or examine it during the revision process. This is okay too—but, if you know your theme before you begin drafting, you’ll be able to enhance it even further through the imagery and language that you use. This means there will be less work to do later on.

10. Set some word count goals

Now that you’ve assembled your plot outline, it’s time to manage the writing process. A really helpful approach is to look at your structural outline and plan for where each major scene and turning point will occur in your draft. This keeps you from sprawling too far and ending up with a novel that’s unwieldy long, or cramming your plot points too close together and ending up with a novelette when you wanted a novel.

The first step is to set an overall goal for how many words you want your novel to be. 80,000 is a good general benchmark (most standard novels fall between 70,000 and 90,000 words); however, a middle-grade or YA novel might be a bit shorter, while a sci-fi or fantasy epic might be a bit longer. Then, lay your word count goal over your outline to see where each stage ends up.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a novel using the three-act structure and you want your novel to be 80,000 words. You can say that the first act will aim for 20,000 words, the second act 40,000 words, and the third act 20,000 words. It’s okay to be a little over or under, but this will keep you more or less on track.

Then, you can position the novel’s major turning points around these goals. This means your inciting incident happens at around 1,000 words, your first key plot point happens at 20,000 words, your midpoint at 40,000 words, your climax at 70,000 words, and so forth.

A word count breakdown will save you time in the revision process.

This step is optional, but it will make your life SO much easier when you move into the revision process later.

Start writing your first draft

Finally, the moment of reckoning is here! It’s time to move beyond the index cards and scribbles and sticky notes and get your first draft down on paper (or screen). You know where you’ll begin. You know where you’ll end up. You have a clear, concise roadmap of the road you’re going to take to get there. All you’re doing now is fleshing out your plot skeleton into a living, breathing story using your own unique writing style.

Because you’ve done all this groundwork already, your first draft should be pretty tight and cohesive once it’s finished. You won’t need to spend as much time editing and shuffling things around as you would have if you’d “pantsed” your novel without any structural support. Which means! You get to break out into the literary world and start connecting with readers that much sooner.

Outline your novel and launch your writing career

When it comes to writing novels, a story outline can make your work a thousand times easier—and the novel that comes out of it will be better, too. With this step-by-step guide, you can take your brilliant premise and turn it into a polished book that readers will love.