There’s More Than One Way to Plot a Novel (Four Outline Styles for Your Next Book)
Outlining a book is no easy feat.
Breaking your epic story into a skeletal structure isn’t exactly fun (unless flow charts are your thing. No judgement). You don’t even like to plan your vacations, so planning out the next year of your creative life seems pretty dismal.
But you can’t take a trip without consulting the bus schedule, and many writers will never finish their book without an outline.
Even after you’ve admitted you need an outline, there are dozens of ways to go about it. Getting started can seem impossible. Never fear! While the wealth of outlining options can seem intimidating, all those choices just makes it easier to find a method that works for you.
Today, we’ll revisit the argument for an outline. And we’ll talk about a handful of popular techniques that might help you out of your rut.
Why Use an Outline?
For a lot of people, just the word “outline” rockets them back to elementary school: sweating over a sheet of loose-leaf and breaking a two-page essay into bullet points was the worst busy work ever. But you’re not writing 400 words on your state capitol. You’re trying to finish a 400 page novel. The bullet points are no longer pointless.
Crafting an outline is a powerful tool that’s essential to many authors. We all know that one pantser who seems to chug through every draft with no issue, but there’s no shame if that’s not you! You’re juggling exposition, narrative structure, character arcs, and subplots, all at the demanding pace of a modern novel. It’s natural to get lost.
Whether you tend to get stuck in the sagging middle or wander in the final acts because you can’t find the end, your outline is the solution. Knowing what comes next lets you write every stage of your draft with confidence and clarity.
Tried and True Outlining Methods
Writers are individualists. Outlining, like any part of your process, is about finding what works best for you. You may have to try a few different styles before you settle on the best method. Luckily, you’re not doing this on your own!
The biggest difference between the four techniques we’ll discuss is length. Some outlines barely take a page, while some can fill whole planners. What you choose will depend on your needs. Fit is about comfort, after all.
The Bookend Method
Do you have a lot in common with the semi-mythical pantser we talked about earlier? If you work best freestyle but you’re still a little lost, the Bookend Method might be your friend. It’s exactly what it sounds like: You plan out your beginning and your ending, leaving the middle open so you can experiment and discover your story along the way!
The Snowflake Method
This method is pretty popular. You start with a small piece of your story idea, and then you add on layers, building bit by bit until you have a whole story outline.
Start with a single sentence summary of your book. Then, expand that into a paragraph blurb. Do the same for each character and significant plot point, from the opening to the conclusion. Continue building these up until you have a detailed look at the important elements of your story.
One of the big advantages of the Snowflake method is that it can be both weighty and organic. You’re building your plan around what you, personally, feel are the most critical parts of your story. Along the way, you might learn a lot about what central relationships, themes, or ideas matter most to you.
The In-Depth Outline
This could be considered the “traditional” style of outlining. This method is pretty lengthy, though just how long it will take (and how many binders it will fill) are still very much up to you and how in-depth you want to get.
You’re making a literal plan, whether it be act-by-act, chapter-by-chapter, or even scene-by-scene. You’re plotting out the wheres, whys, and hows of everything you write. Where will the scenes take place? Who’s present? What happens? What changes? What information is revealed? How will the characters react?
You could consider it a mini first draft. The skeleton of the story. However you think about it, you will definitely have a plan.
The Synopsis Outline
A good option for discovery writers who need a little more detail than the Bookend method. Rather than noting down every little detail, you write one or two pages that cover the important story beats. Then you can pants your way from point to point without getting lost!
One last bit of advice:
There’s no right or wrong way to write a book. Whether you use a scene-by-scene outline or discover the story as you go, what’s important is that you do what works for you. And your creative process may change over time. Some writers find that once they’ve outlined their first few books, they can pants their way through the rest of their career with confidence. Some writers find that every book is different.
Learning what’s best might take some trial and error. Don’t be afraid to experiment with these techniques (or others). Use what works and toss out what doesn’t!