How to Write a Novel Outline – An Overview of the Best Outlining Strategies

If you don’t want to become a “pantser” who allows each novel to evolve naturally through the writing process, you need to learn how to write a novel outline. Even if you do want to write without a strict storyline in place, it’s a good idea to create a loose outline that can give you some guidance if you get stuck. In this case, you will give yourself freedom to deviate from the outline at any time while keeping that safety net nearby.

I have come across some great resources that have allowed me to create my own novel outlining process. My goal for this blog post is to introduce you to some of those resources, delivering valuable tips on how to write a novel with the efficiency that an outline offers.


The Loose Outline


I came across this novel outlining strategy in a private mastermind group dedicated to online marketing. It was presented as a lesson on quickly outlining nonfiction eBooks, but I have found that it works well for fiction writers who want to create a short outline that provides some direction without restraining the natural development of the story in the writing stage.

how to write a novel outlineHere are the steps involved:

  1. Create a brief summary of the storyline as you have it in your head at this time.
  2. Break your summary into 10 or more chapter titles, briefly noting the main plot points for each chapter.
  3. Write the story, moving from one chapter to the next as quickly as possible.

I like this method of outlining because you get to decide how much detail you put into it and how much time you spend creating it. The advantage of taking the time to add more detail to each chapter summary is that the writing process is faster, but more details may also make you feel more restrained while developing the story fully.

If you’re a pantser, you may use this method to quickly create a brief summary with basic plot points or character development ideas only. This gives you some direction as you start writing while giving you the freedom to go off on tangents and explore new ideas during the writing process.

This may seem too simplistic to actually work, but it’s intended to be bare bones and basic. It serves as a loose guide rather than a fully fleshed outline. It also works if you don’t want to spend much time in the planning phase.


The Fool Proof Outline System

Buy Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence)
I found this system in an eBook that I am using to write my first novel. It’s by author Christopher Downing and is called Fool Proof Outline: A No-Nonsense System for Productive Brainstorming, Outlining & Drafting Novels. You should know upfront that it is based on Scrivener, so you will need to purchase a copy of that novel-writing software if you don’t already have it.

This system includes a book writing outline template that you download right into your Scrivener program. If you have always wanted to learn how to use Scrivener effectively or would just like to see how one successful author uses the program, this is the book to follow.

Please note that this isn’t the fastest way to learn how to write a novel outline. The system includes brainstorming and character development in addition to outlining, so you will have a good understanding of how your novel should develop before you start writing. This is a far more detailed process than the loose outline method that we already discussed.

While you sacrifice speed, I would say that this is an effective way to learn novel outlining and book planning. I highly recommend it for first-time authors or those who may get lost when trying to keep track of the many threads and dimensions of a long, well-developed fiction story. If your novel is character based, this system will help you develop a plotline that is closely tied to your characters.


The Snowflake Outline Method


snowflake novel outlineThe official snowflake method was developed by Randy Ingermanson, who is now best known as the Snowflake Guy. The idea is to start with a small idea and develop it gradually through a 10-step process. Many of the steps have a recommended time limit, so you can accomplish a lot even if you only have an hour or two a day to work on outlining your novel.

I recommend this method for anyone who wants a detailed outline but doesn’t want to use Scrivener. You can use any word processing program or even plan it out on your phone in a note program, so the snowflake method is flexible when it comes to implementation.

snowflake novel outlineThere is a Snowflake Pro fiction writing software program that some people love, but you don’t need it to learn how to write a novel outline with the snowflake method. Start by learning about the method online and then decide if you want to use the software to organize your notes and summaries.



One Final Tip


Remain flexible as you learn how to write a novel outline using various methods. It’s possible that you will favor a different method for each novel that you write, or you could stick with one process forever. It’s important to experiment with all of your options so that you can pick the right outlining approach for the novel that you want to write.

6 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel Outline – An Overview of the Best Outlining Strategies

  1. Megan says:

    I have always wanted to write a novel and have a number of ones I have started but just sit on my computer to die a thousand deaths. I have read about the Snowflake method before and it seems to be a great way to get a story written. I just seem to lack the ability to get the idea to flesh out into something that will turn into a book even though I think the storyline could be great. What would you recommend to get me from starting and writing down my basic ideas to following through to the end?

    • Theresa Hammond says:

      I personally am using the Fool Proof eBook right now, and it is working very well for getting my idea and characters fleshed out. I am also doing the loose outline and tweaking that as I work through the Fool Proof plan,and that loose outline is what will guide my writing once I get to that point. 

      It ultimately comes down to discipline and making time to work on it daily, even if you only have 30 minutes some days.

  2. Darren says:

    I’ve been a writer of both fiction and various forms of non-fiction for many years now. When it comes to writing novels – my favourite type of writing, by the way – I’ve always struggled with outlining a story before starting. My notes tend to be a collection of rather abstract ideas that somehow end up coming together in the end.

    I know the outline process is important and can definitely make the actual writing process a lot easier, and you offer some awesome tips here. Another thing outlining a story can do is help you decide whether it’s even workable, or where potential holes in the plot might present themselves.

    Thanks for such a great article. It will definitely help me improve my processes for future writing.

    • Theresa Hammond says:

      You’re absolutely right in that outlining can help you see plot holes. It’s best to find those early because you don’t want them to become a major issue in the revision process. Thanks for reading!

  3. Jack says:

    Hi TraeH,

    I for one have never written a novel before. I also have never being very good at writing. It is one of my worst subject. The 3 steps you talked about will be very helpful to me when I am writing my blogs. I am using those steps now. It has truly helped me write my blogs in a structure way.

    Thanks a lot.

    – Jack

    • Theresa Hammond says:

      Yes, it will help with any type of writing that requires structure. I always write my subtitles to create some structure for a blog post, and then I go back and flesh out the details for full text.

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