The ultimate guide to quickly & easily outlining your novel

Are you a plotter or a pantser? One of the most common reasons writer give up on outlining is that it feels difficult and confusing. Outlining is important and it doesn't have to be painful. Here's the ultimate guide to EASY novel outlining.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? One of the most common reasons writer give up on outlining is that it feels difficult and confusing. Outlining is important and it doesn't have to be painful. Here's the ultimate guide to EASY novel outlining.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Either way, this novel outline guide can help you strengthen your novels!

A lot of writers forgo outlining when they start writing their books. There are tons of reasons why, but one of the most common is that outlining your novel feels difficult and confusing.

And I get it—There’s SO MUCH information out there on outlining that you’re overwhelmed by it all. Do this method, no do that method. And each one is more complicated than the last. How do you write a freaking outline that works and doesn’t take an entire NaNoWriMo to get on paper?

Outlining doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, after years and years of experiments, I’ve hit on a simple method to outline your novel in an afternoon or less. The best part is it still allows for tons of creative choices as you write.

If you have tried other outlining methods and they didn’t work for you, then give this a shot. If you’ve tried the seat of the pants (“pantsing”) method but always end up with half-finished books or a draft that needs tons of revision, then give this a shot. It’s flexible, customizable, and most importantly: It works.

Here’s the ultimate novel outline guide.

3 things that often happen when you don’t outline your novel

  1. You don’t force yourself to really learn what your story is about, so your story meanders.
  2. You don’t force yourself to learn your characters, so their actions are gratuitous.
  3. Your middle sags because you don’t know what pillar you’re writing to.

How to write a foolproof novel outline (in an afternoon!)

Humans have been telling stories since we developed language. That’s millennia of storytelling history. The interesting thing is that we all expect a certain path, a melody of rising and falling, to every story. We anticipate certain story elements, usually without even realizing it.

If you hit these story elements (“Plot Points”), your readers are evolutionarily predisposed to like your story.

If you miss them, it stops feeling like ‘story’ to them, and they lose interest.

It’s not about selling books. It’s about making your reader happy. Outlining isn’t conscriptive. It’s how you make sure you hit those points in the right order, when your readers are expecting them.

Hitting those story elements doesn’t have to be hard. There’s a formula for it.

There are tons of outlining formulae and methods out there and any one of them can help you write an amazing novel. But if you’re here, you’re probably overwhelmed by them. Maybe you’ve tried a dozen different methods and still can’t figure out why your book feels flat. I get it. I’ve been there.

I’m going to show you the most basic way to outline a novel. You will learn not only what a “Pinch Point” is, but what kinds of scenes go in one. We’ll hit all of the story elements your readers, who hopefully evolved from the same early humans as you did, are expecting when they open a new book. The best part: You can do it in an afternoon or less.

What’s Your Premise?

You have an idea for a book. It might be pretty new and vague—maybe a fuzzy image of your main character, their current life, and something interesting that happens to them. This is how JK Rowling started Harry Potter. She once said a picture of a boy with knobby knees came to her, and she knew he was a wizard. Harry Potter, all seven books (and, regrettably, all post-canon additions) came from that one image. That was her premise.

Your premise may be something like:

  • A 40-something jewelry maker receives an engagement ring and an anonymous marriage proposal in the mail…and it’s a ring she made and sold five years ago.
  • A pair of identical twins who grew up off-the-grid and have no history with the federal government start killing off the CEOs of major oil companies.
  • The heir to an ancient alien kingdom takes a gap year on Earth to learn about the people his nation is preparing to invade.

This is where Pantsers usually start writing, and you could as well, but we’re going to go a bit deeper.

While these are interesting ideas, they aren’t stories. There’s no action, no pressure, no tension. For that, we need story elements. And there are 5 basic elements to story (2 of them repeat, technically making 7, but that’s confusing, so I go with 5).

  1. Inciting Incident
  2. Midpoint
  3. Climax
  4. Pinch Point (x2)
  5. Turning Point (x2)

Okay great, but what the Faulkner do you do with them?

Grab a cup of tea and settle in (a small one, because this is quick and easy).

Ask yourself what major flip/change/evolution your character is going to make

(This is your middle, ta da!)

Going back to our 3 examples, we can expand them to…

  • A 40-something jewelry maker receives an engagement ring and an anonymous marriage proposal in the mail…and it’s a ring she made and sold five years ago. The search for the anonymous sender reminds her of the reason she started making jewelry in the first place.
  • A pair of identical twins who grew up off-the-grid and have no history with the federal government start killing off the CEOs of major oil companies. Mohr Energy Co.’s CEO’s hidden agenda to bring down the North American energy grid leads them to reevaluate their plan.
  • The heir to an ancient alien kingdom takes a gap year on Earth to learn about the people his nation is preparing to invade. The relationship he develops with the mother of the child whose body he invaded makes him realize there is more to humanity than his nation thought.

So these aren’t scenes yet, they’re evolutions the character makes. And the character needs to begin making his or her evolution at the very middle of the book. It’s the point where the Old Character starts to become the New Character he or she is by the end of the book. So how do you make this scene interesting?

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The Midpoint: An unexpected reversal and a character’s evolution.

Once you know the change your character is going to make, you can craft a scene around it.

Keep in mind: to be an effective midpoint, you need 4 things:

  • Character evolution
  • An unexpected reversal or twist
  • No possibility to turn back
  • An increase in motivation to win

Here are our 3 examples again:

  • The hunt leads her to her alma mater, where she finds an old photo of her and her friends—her ex + her metal supplier BFF—in the metalworking studio, wearing the prototype to her signature filigree ring. The style that catapulted her career and which she hasn’t crafted in 14 years, after her boyfriend ran away with another woman. She wonders what would happen if she tried designing like that again.
  • On the morning he plans to kill the CEO, a serial-killer twin catches her making a deal with a foreign agent to bring down the Southwestern energy grid. The twins realize they could do so much more to eliminate man-made energy if they work with the CEO instead of against her.
  • One afternoon, after another day of relentless bullying by his human classmates, the alien heir loses his composure and emotes in front of his human mother. The fierce and tireless campaign she wages against the community, the school district, and eventually the country, to stop bullying, makes him realize there is more to humanity than he thought, and it is, perhaps, worth saving.

Not too hard, huh? Think of it like this:

What is the most interesting thing that could happen to make my character change his or her way of thinking or being?

After you know you’re middle and how your character begins to change, you need to know how it ends.

What is the end state for your character? This is the culmination of the evolution they began at the Midpoint. How do they represent that in a profound and/or interesting way? Like with the Midpoint, you need to know both a) the evolution and b) a scene that clearly shows the evolution taking place.

  • At the party, she reveals to the journalist and all gathered that she still hasn’t figured out who sent her the marriage proposal. She says she’s learned she loves her work again and that matters more. Everyone’s happy for her, but she’s unhappy. After sneaking off to the bathroom to keep from crying, her BFF metal supplier comes to find her and her reveals himself to be the sender.
  • Our serial killer twins have reached for a bigger goal, but when their plan comes to fruition and the last power grid in the country goes dark, they bask in the satisfaction of having reached a higher goal. But it feels hollow.
  • Our alien heir, transformed by love for his new mother and guilt for having taken over her child’s body, destroys the tracking devices his nation left on earth and launches the planetary cloaking system around it so that his people will never be able to find the planet. But he’ll never be able to go home.

So, you know your midpoint and you know your ending. How did your story begin? Once you have the middle and ending, you can look back at your original premise and naturally.

An event that naturally begins your story.

The inciting incident comes at the beginning of your story, and it is the event that set off the motion of the tale. Your inciting incident needs to have two things:

  • A drastic change in the character’s life
  • Foreshadowing of the central conflict

These two things together create the call to adventure. The call to adventure is the inciting incident. It is the event from which the entire story flows.

Here are some examples for our 3 story scenarios:

  • The jewelry-maker gets the anonymous marriage proposal and ring.
  • The serial-killer twins snap after seeing yet another nuclear power station explode, leaving the region unsafe for hundreds of years.
  • The alien heir’s mother—the Queen—tells him that it’s time for him to do his duty and he must go invade the body of a human to recon for their planned invasion of Earth.

With these three story elements — the midpoint, the climax, and the inciting incident – you have created the foundation of your novel. Congratulations! With only 3 of these elements you have a story structure that holds itself up without sagging in the middle.

There are 2 more elements to round out this foundation, and we’ll get to those next. When yo put them all together, you will have an outline for a novel you can be confident will uphold a story readers actually want to finish.

Turning Points — Where your story turns on a dime

The next story element you want to add is your Turning Points. There are 2 of these. In a four act structure, the Turning Points mark the transition from the first act to the second act and from the third act to the fourth act.

These are also called plot points, doors of no return, or disasters. The key to these scenes is that they represent actions, decisions, or events that make it impossible for the main character to do anything but push forward.

The first Turning Point is the scene where your protagonist enters his or her new world. Their old life is behind them, and their new life revolves around this new quest, problem, or change. This occurs between the first act and the second act.

First Turning Point Examples:

  • The jewelry-maker reads that her ex just published a book on healthy relationships. Is she the reason she has been single and lonely ever since? Her BFF metal supplier convinces her the only way to find out is to discover who sent her the proposal…and why.
  • The serial-killer twins choose their next CEO target after reading an article highlighting the newest CEO of Mohr Energy + her grand vision to run a pipeline through Nebraska, where they grew up. This is personal now.
  • The alien heir’s human mom drops him off for his first day of kindergarten. He’s never been around so many human children before. They immediately sense his difference, dislike him, and call him stupid. He is surprised to realize this bothers him. He realizes he can’t just half-ass this mission; he has to try to fit in.

The second Turning Point, which goes between the third act and the fourth act, is the point where the protagonist rallies and pushes forward to succeed in their quest. This sometimes comes right after the darkest moment — the dark night of the soul – and sometimes, it happens at the same time.

David Trottier calls it the Crisis, and that’s a good word for it, too.

The key to the scene is that it pushes your character into the climax and act four. The second Turning Point is also the last place that you can give your protagonist any new information with which he or she needs to solve the main conflict.

Second Turning Point Example:

  • The night before the Valentine’s Day finale, the she plays around with the new designs she’s come up with, and invents another filigree even more beautiful than the others. She calls her sister to celebrate, but her sister and brother-in-law are having dinner with the jewelry-maker’s ex and his new wife, who invited them out to thank them for their help with his book. Betrayed, the jewelry-maker throws the prototype across the room and goes to bed.

All you have left now are your Pinch Points

There are 2 Pinch Points. The come between the Turning Points and the Midpoint.

(If this is starting to run together in your head, don’t worry—I’ve made you a cheat sheet graphic that lays it all out visually. It’s at the bottom.)

So the first Pinch Point brings the Antagonist (be it man, monster, mental, god, or nature) to the screen again. We are directly reminded that there is Something Or Someone Out There working against the Protagonist, and they are a Real Threat.

With the first Pinch Point, your Protagonist is going to feel “confronted” and he or she will get a new clue about the Central Conflict—though the Protagonist may not realize it yet.

First Pinch Point Example:

  • The jewelry-make trawls through her sales records from 15 years ago. The buyer is no one special, but a Google search brings up a divorce announcement for the man and his wife, only a year after their wedding. The jewelry-maker wonders if her jewelry brings bad love-luck to the people who buy it.

In this scene, you could drop a clue to the ending with an offhand note about the metal that went into the ring being special and her supplier (the eventual love interest) having to look really hard to find it.

The second Pinch Point works like the first. It reminds the Protagonist what he or she is up against and what’s at stake. It also foreshadows the second Turning Point. We have a little disaster (or sometimes, a little victory) that sets up the Second Turning Point to happen.

  • In this scene, you could drop a clue to the ending with an offhand note about the metal that went into the ring being special and her supplier (the eventual love interest) having to look really hard to find it.

The second Pinch Point works like the first. It reminds the Protagonist what he or she is up against and what’s at stake. It also foreshadows the second Turning Point. We have a little disaster (or sometimes, a little victory) that sets up the Second Turning Point to happen.

Second Pinch Point Examples:

  • A journalist finds out about her hunt to find her anonymous proposer and wants to run a feature series with a Valentine’s Day finale hosted at her boutique. She is mortified, but her metal supplier convinces her to take the journalist up on it as it could be good for business.
  • The serial-killer twins, having decided to help (rather than kill) the CEO, are annoyed to learn she still plans to follow through with the pipeline. Twin A wants to abandon their plan and kill the CEO after all. Twin B convinces him that it’s for the greater good to sacrifice their childhood home for the chance to do something even bigger: take out the entire US electrical grid.
  • The alien heir gets a message from his real mom, the Queen, asking for a status update on their plan to invade Earth. Just as he’s about to reply “all systems go,” his human mom walks in to read him his favorite bedtime story. He cancels the call before she sees him and spends the whole night awake, wondering if he’s doing the right thing for his people…or if he should sabotage the plan.

Link your plot point scenes together

At this point, you’ve got 2 choices:

  1. You could fill in all the scenes that will take you from Point A to Point B with each of the Plot Points, or…
  2. You could leave it as is and start writing.

The beauty of outlines like this is that there’s so much room for creativity and changes of plan.

Not quite sure how your characters will act in the upcoming scenes? No problem. You have a direction for them to go in, and the path they take to get there is loose.

You know a few key scenes that you want to make sure get in? No problem. Fill those in and leave the rest loose.

Here’s where you might get stuck

There are 2 areas you might get stuck on. Here’s how you can avoid that.

  1. Outlining in a Non-Linear Way: Why skip around from Midpoint to Climax to Inciting Incident, and so on? Because foreshadowing! When you start with the Midpoint, you guarantee your story stands strong against the dreaded ‘saggy middle’. Know your Midpoint before you start writing and you automatically cut 90% of all major revisions. Need some ideas on what to stick in yours? Try these ideas from Writer’s Relief.
  2. Connecting the Dots: Once you’ve chosen all your Plot Points, you might realize they don’t quite fit together. That’s okay! Put your scenes into the Ultimate Outline spreadsheet template I’ve got for you and read through them beginning to end. You may need to tweak a few things to make the story flow exactly how you want it. You’ll probably also come up with a few really cool additions you want to add in. Do it!

Did you get stuck somewhere else? Leave me a comment and I’ll help you untangle it!

Commit to your awesome new outline

Can you commit to giving this method an honest shot? You can do it in an afternoon (or less!) and it will absolutely change how you think when you sit down to write, which means way less Writer’s Block.

Say YES if you’re going to commit to a first draft that works and no more months in revision!

DOWNLOAD A COPY OF THE OUTLINE TEMPLATE HERE.

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