How on earth do you write a novel outline? It’s way easier than most people think. It doesn’t require the gnashing of teeth or pulling of hair, and in fact, you can write a foolproof novel outline in an afternoon!
5 Story elements you need to write a novel outline
One of the most unfortunate things I hear from fellow writers is that they “can’t outline” because they need freedom to be creative when they write their novels. They don’t want to be trapped into a grid that doesn’t evolve with their story.
But that’s not how outlines work.
Outlines are not the straightjackets of the author world. They’re the key to the straightjacket. Novel outlines don’t trap you; they set you free to be creative, to think bigger, to have extraordinary characters doing extraordinary things in a believable way. An outline won’t take the fun out of writing a novel. An outline will make it even more fun because it’ll give you a guide that sparks new ideas.
Think of an outline like a skeleton. Without the bones, you can’t add the muscles, organs, blood vessels, fat… tattoos, nose rings, hair styles, personalities. Without the bones, you’ve got a pile of messy goo, all blending together.
There are 5 elements you need to write a novel outline.
Quick Note: Are you writing a strict romance? Then you’ll want to adjust your outline slightly and I recommend Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat. Otherwise, this novel outline structure will work for all genre fiction. And, to be fair, it’ll work for romance, too, with a few tweaks.
1. The Midpoint
I always start with the Midpoint. Why? Because it’s what your novel hinges on. It’s the pivot point that takes the story from “what was” to “what can be”. It’s the moment your protagonist truly understands their plight. Sometimes the plight is with themselves, sometimes it’s external. Sometimes both. Either way, this is the moment things swing and you need to know what it is first because your beginning and ending will reflect one another around this scene.
Want to know more? Here’s a great podcast interview with Gabriela Pereira from diyMFA and James Scott Bell on how to Write from the Middle.
2. The Inciting Incident
The next story element you need for your outline is the Inciting Incident. This is what starts the story in the beginning. It’s the catalyst that forces the protagonist to take up the story in the first place. On this side of your Midpoint, you have both a character and a problem that are existing before a profound change. Before the pivot, there is a tension that rises up right here and will be reflected in the Climax.
3. The Climax
Which brings us to the Climax. The Climax reflects the Inciting Incident. When you write a novel outline, you want to pencil this in third. And yes, you do need to know what will happen (at least in broad terms) at the Climax of your novel before you start writing because without this change and reflection, there is no story.
(Which is something that took me a long time to learn! Don’t make my mistake!)
4. Two Plot Points
On either side of your Midpoint, at the points where Act 1 transitions into Act 2 and Act 3 transitions into Act 4 (on a 4-Act story) you have two plot points. The plot points are often called “doors of no return”.
In the first one, your protagonist has to finally accept that they have to act. They have to go through the door of no return.
And (wait for it!) at the second plot point, just as you transition to the 4th act, your protagonist will again have to make the decision to keep going. Another door of no return! The second plot point happens right at the Dark Night of the Soul, when your protagonist feels like there’s no hope left.
5. Two Pinch Points
And finally, to make sure your tension is so tight your reader’s fingers are squeezing the life out of their Kindle, your novel outline needs a couple of Pinch Points. These fall between each Plot Point and the Midpoint.
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3 Things you DON’T need to write a novel outline
So you now know what 5 story elements you need to write a novel outline, but you might be wondering about a few other things. I’ve got some happy news for you: you don’t need anything else! There’s plenty of freedom left for you to be creative and learn your story and characters as you go, while still making sure your first draft results in a tightly-woven story!
Here are 3 things you don’t need for an epic novel outline!
1. To know exactly what happens in your novel
Don’t be afraid to start your outline or your novel because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s so much room left for you to be creative, discover, and tweak your ideas as you go. As long as you’ve been intentional about your 5 story elements above, then I guarantee they will adapt to whatever new ideas you get as you write!
2. To know exactly how you’ll get from A to B
Are you a little worried that your protagonist gets a mysterious letter at the Inciting Incident but somehow turns down a new job as a Witch Attorney at the midpoint? Don’t worry about that right now. All you need to know are the major story elements I mentioned above. You need to know those because they’re “reflection points” that tell the story. But how your protagonist gets from the first plot point to the second plot point? You can discover that as you write!
(Or not, if you’d like to fill it in more!)
3. To know what happens after the Climax
The Denouement is a softening of your story. Things wind down, strings are neatly tied up—or not, if you’re planning a series. You don’t need to know what’s going to happen there right now. As long as you know your Climax—and therefore the big reflection of your Inciting Incident—then you’re good to go. Once you’ve written the rest of the novel, you’ll intuitively know what needs to go here.
Does this make outlining your novel feel less scary?
I want to hear from you. If you’ve felt like writing a novel outline was scary, how do you feel about it now? And if you’re already an outliner, does this simplify the process for you? What would you change?