Writing Advice

Getting Started and How to Outline a Story

Some authors prefer making really intricate outlines; others prefer to sit down and write what naturally flows through their fingers. A loose outline can guide you and help keep you on track (this will save time in the long-run as you won’t have to be cutting out a lot of purple prose and it results in less plot holes). Outlining can kick-start your story and help you get started, here I’m going to talk about a few ways you can go about outlining and getting started with your story.

The pre-plan

Do you have a target audience/market in mind? If so this can make it easier for you as the genre you will write in affects your writing style and there are certain conventions in these genres that you will need to take note of. Therefore it is important to consider who you are writing for. Are you writing simply for yourself? What are the demographics of your readers?

A young demographics of 9-12 year old children would require a different level of language compared to targeting the over 60s. Doing some research now, and having an idea who you are writing for will also help with marketing your book later on.

Also consider this before you start outlining as it may save you some work later on :

What makes your idea original? What makes it stand out?

The reason for this is to avoid writing a novel that is going to end up immediately in the slush-pile, and avoid writing a completely predictable story that has been done one too many times before. Is it the plot that makes your story unique, the writing style or is it the characters?

Having said that, you will want to see if your book fits in to the genre you want it to be in. To do this, think about what the comparable titles are – keeping this in mind will help you later on when you pitch to an agent or editor.

Why Outline?

An outline has an element of accountability as it keeps you focused, helping to prevent you going completely off track from the intended story. One of the reasons that writer’s block occurs is a loss of direction, outlining can help prevent that by ensuring you know where you want to go.

In keeping with this, having a specific, measurable goal e.g. a long-term target word count (such as 50 000 words by the end of the month) can help you keep motivated to keep on writing. This is one of the reasons NaNoWrimo has so much success. You can then break this long-term goal into more manageable targets e.g. this translates to 1,667 words a day.

Having an outline means that you can write out of order. You can pick the scenes that you feel like writing such as that major battle scene you’ve been itching to write and return to the others at a later date. This helps to keep you motivated to write.

Your outline can be as detailed as you want: this could be from what happens in every scene of every chapter or just a brief summary. Your outline should have flexibility for changes in plot as you don’t always know what brilliant ideas you could come up with whilst writing. You might have to accommodate these changes if you want your story to go in a different direction, so keep in mind: don’t shy away from change.

Finally, a lack of planning means you are more likely to give up with the story as you run out of steam in the middle or hit writer’s block, and you run the risk of being stuck with a contrived/forced ending.


The Snow Flake method devised by the author Randy Ingermanson is quite popular amongst outliners. His article goes in depth into the method, and he even has a software developed to cater for this technique. In essence you start with a sentence describing the idea and then you keep on expanding it until you have a detailed synopsis, then chapter summaries and basically a novel by the end of it.

Story structure: There are certain structures that you could use to model your story that might help you in outlining your story. For example, a hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell follows this type of structures:

Plot outlines can be:

  • beginning
  • middle
  • end (reach a climax and then a resolution.)

It can be more detailed:

  • beginning
    • chapter 1
      • scene 1

It can follow the three act structure:

Or the Dramatica Act Structure:

There are other structure models out there, it might be worth learning more about story structure to help you understand the anatomy of a novel. Try reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks to get a better idea.

You can make your outline in Microsoft Excel, this can be helpful especially if you have multiple POVs in your novel. Each column can be the events that must occur for each of the main POV characters. You could make the outline in a Microsoft Word document or use cardboard and post-it notes.

Outlining tips:

  • There is no need to write in full sentences in your outline. You just need to write enough so you can understand what you want to happen when you refer back to the plan
  • It might also be helpful to include information such as:
    • location.
    • what impact the event in a particular scene has upon the plot.
    • the characters involved in the scene.
    • the POV it’s written in.
  • You might like to try yWriter software which allows you to do the above, along with other additional features.
  • Even if your story has only one main POV, try outlining for different points of view. Treat the important characters as if they were the main character in the story and see what must happen. This will give you a better understanding of your supporting characters and help with character development.

Finally, if you are still stuck on how to work out what are the key scenes in your story (what must happen in the story), you can think about:

  • The recurring themes: how you can exemplify this in the form of the character’s actions and dialogue? For example, say the theme was the different manifestations of love, your novel would need a scene between mother and daughter for familial love; husband and wife; best friends etc.
  • Characters motivations and backstory: understanding what your character’s goals are and what has happened to them in the past will help you understand what must happen in your story. Their goals will give you an idea of what will happen in the end e.g. do they achieve the goal – does the protagonist find the lost sword? does the protagonist slay the dragon in the end? Their backstory, their past gives insight into their actions in the present and future because actions have reactions and consequences. For example, the protagonist’s wife was murdered, now he/she wants to find the murderer and seek revenge.

Do you outline before writing? Do you find it helpful? Let us know in the comments below.



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