If you wonder how to plot a novel, you’ve come to the right page.
Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, having some idea where your story is going is crucial. Especially when you come to the middle of the story, where it usually becomes a lot harder to figure out what’s happening.
But first, let’s address some questions.
Should I outline my novel before writing?
This depends on what you mean by outline. If you’re a pantser and the thought of a detailed scene-by-scene outline terrifies you, don’t worry. It’s not necessary; it all depends on how you write best. Some will like that detailed plot, while others only need a general idea and figure out the rest as they write.
That said, I count the beginning inciting incident, ending climax, and midpoint as the crucial parts you should have outlined before you start writing.
Yes, even when you’re a pantser.
Because then you always know which event you’re working toward. And, I like to combine the important events with a significant character change. That way, you also know your character’s arc beforehand.
(Don’t worry, you can still change it as you write—that’s the ultimate freedom you have as a writer.)
If you really don't want to make any kind of outline, you can always write the story, and use this method afterward to craft an outline for your next draft (or use the steps outlined here for a developmental edit).
How long should outlining a novel take?
This also depends on your process. A very detailed outline is going to take longer than just the basic bones of the story.
Some people daydream about their plot for a while and then write it down. Others just sit with it for a few hours and write it down in detail. There’s no rush—if you need to sit with your ideas for a while, then allow that to happen. Take some walks or exercise; I find these things usually allow my mind to work on the story for me until it comes up with something good.
I will say, try not to take longer than a month. If you’re still outlining your novel after that, it’s time to let the plot go and start writing. (Yes, I know that can be the scary part. But it’s okay, you’ll be fine.)
So, let’s get into some actual steps for outlining your novel that will give you the bare bones of your story!
Step 1: Decide on your main genre/plot
The first thing you need to do is determine what kind of book you want to write. In other words: what kind of plot or content genre you want to focus on.
For instance, a romance story, enemies-to-lovers, buddy comedy, heist, serial killer thriller, action-adventure, and so on.
If you’re not sure what you want to focus on, think about what you’d like to be at stake in the story. Do you want it to revolve around love? Then you’re dealing with a romance story. Life and death? Then it’s likely action.
Or, you can think about stories that you want yours to resemble. What kind of story are they?
Step 2: Determine your protagonist’s arc
As I’m a big fan of meshing the plot with the protagonist’s arc, you’re going to think about this before considering your beginning, middle, and end.
For their arc, you need to determine their false beliefs. This is something we all have: they’re how we see ourselves, others, and the world. They’re based on our experiences and lessons we’ve learned from those around us. Like our parents or teachers.
A false belief could be something like, “I’m a failure.” Or, “Others can’t be trusted.” Or something like, “If I’m not perfect, I’ll never gain my father’s approval.”
If you’ve already done some character-building, you likely have some good ideas for your character’s false beliefs. If not, you can just brainstorm a few for your character and pick one you like. This is the false belief you’d like them to change by the end.
So then we’d get things like, “I’m capable.” Or, “Trust can be earned.” Or something like, “I can make mistakes, I don’t need my father’s approval to know my worth.”
And don’t worry: as with all things, you can always change the false belief if you feel the story calls for it.
Step 3: Decide on your beginning inciting incident
Now that you know your main plot and your character’s arc, you can brainstorm your beginning inciting incident. This is the event at the start of your story that kicks off everything that follows.
What kind of event that will be, depends on your main plot. An action story, for instance, usually kicks off with an attack by the antagonist that impacts the protagonist in some way. A crime story will have a crime, and a romance story has a “meet-cute” between the two love interests.
If you’re unsure about the type of event you should begin with, have a look at other stories within your genre/plot. What do they have in common?
Once you have an idea about the starting event, consider how your character’s arc will fit into the mix. Is this event the thing that causes their false belief? Or did they already have it, and the beginning event mainly shows this to the reader?
Brainstorm a few options for your beginning where you mesh the plot and arc. If you’re a pantser, you can also write these options out as scenes if you want, to see which one feels better.
Step 4: Decide on your ending climax
Now you just do the same thing for your ending. What climax fits with your main plot? Again: if you need ideas about what type of climax fits with your plot, check other stories within your genre.
Generally, a love story has the proof of love scene, where the characters finally get together. An action story has the hero at the mercy of the villain, a crime story will bring the criminal to justice.
Once you know what type of event you need for that final climax, consider again how your character’s false belief fits into this. How does changing their false belief lead to a satisfying conclusion to the climax? How does it help them defeat the antagonist or get the love interest?
Step 5: Decide on your midpoint
Finally, you decide on your midpoint (also called the "Mirror Moment"). Now you know how your character starts and how they end. The middle is the crucial point where they start to change their false belief. It’s the moment they realize they need to change, both for the external event (e.g., in terms of strategy or how they act) and their internal arc (what they believe to be true).
What’s at stake in your middle? Is this the moment the lovers break up? Does the protagonist fail in a certain performance? Did their leads for the killer lead to the wrong person?
As always: if you need inspiration on types of events to use in your middle, check other stories within your genre. See what they have in common. What happened? And how is the character changed because of it?
Because that’s important: the event you choose here, should cause the start of their shift in their false belief. So, you need to keep in mind how what happens here influences your character in such a way that they start to alter their false belief.
Would you like some help with plotting your novel? Then my Easy Outlining workbook is for you! It uses my system to guide you through plotting your novel until you feel confident enough to start writing your first draft. It moves from a rough outline to a completed scene list.
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Need more help with structuring your novel?
With the above steps, you should have a great first beginning for your story’s outline. It’s certainly enough if you’re a pantser.
However, if you’re a plotter, you may need a little bit more.
One way to specify your story further is by looking at the conventions and expectations of your plot.
Remember I mentioned reading other stories within your genre to get ideas? This is where that’s even more important.
For conventions and expectations, you need to compare those stories and determine the things they have in common: certain types of scenes, archetypical characters, or certain settings.
Then, you can write down this list and brainstorm ideas for your own story.
Another useful practice is to write a synopsis for your story.
By writing out the events you’ve collected so far, you’ll start to fill in some of the gaps. These then become new scenes.
From the synopsis, you can write out a scene list. Any other gaps, you can fill in with subplot.
Want some feedback on your outline? Read here if a plot critique service is right for you.