Outline a Novel

How to Outline a Novel

Writers are always looking for formulas. 

It’s part of our wiring. We love telling stories, so that’s rarely the hard part for us. 

The hardest part is knowing what to write. 

Maybe you’re just starting your search now, or maybe you’ve scoured the internet looking for the solution that’s right for you already. 

Stop looking. You’ve found the only answer you’ll ever need. This page is about to become one of your favorite references. You might want to share it with all your writer friends: OH MY GOD! Did you see the outline template over at Sterling & Stone? That shit be CRAZY! 

You might also prefer to keep this page all to yourself. I believe in sharing, which is why I’m writing this for you, but I also understand the temptation to keep the treasure for yourself. 

Either way, this page is a forever page, designed to help you permanently improve your storytelling. There is a ton of advice out there on outlining, starting with the question of whether writers should even outline at all. But the big problem with all of that advice is that the people writing it have no idea who you are or what you actually need. 

The same is true for us, the difference is that because we’re a studio full of writers, we have a depth of experience to tell us what consistently works and what’s likely to send an average writer off the rails. 

Let’s start by addressing the battle between pantsers and plotters. 

Pantsers and Plotters

As with everything creative, there is a spectrum. There are pantsers who wish to sit at their desk without any idea as to their beginning, middle, or end, and are most interested in seeing where the story might take them. Then there are plotters who outline every beat for each scene in their story, with nearly every second of the narrative playing out in their heads before they ever get to Once upon a time. 

Plotters plan and pantsers fly, but there are pros and cons to both. There are no rules, but in general, plotters are more likely to develop an efficient creative process while avoiding hurdles like writer’s block. Yet, they also lack the freedoms that pantsers can bring to their pages, allowing the characters a strong enough voice to take control of the story.

Our studio is filled with both plotters and pantsers. Some of us outline, some of us don’t, and no two outlines are ever the same, even among collaborative teams that have been writing forever. 

Outlining component is like any other part of the writing process. It’s highly personal and your mileage will vary. Our job is to help you understand what you need from an outline so you have the tools to create higher quality work in less time. 

The goal isn’t to get you going on your next outline. We want to sharpen your approach to storytelling so that whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, your ability to craft a better narrative will be immediate, and something that follows you for the rest of your life. 

As we said up top, writers are always looking for formulas. The variables are up to you, but this page will give you a general storytelling equation to evolve the arithmetic of your writing.

Always be evolving … 

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime. Confucius might have said it. 

I’m going to give you a template. Please use it wisely. Many people will read this page then use the information as a temporary solution. I hope you’re better than that. I want you to read this page, understand the principles, so you can permanently develop yourself.

I never use this template, and yet it informs much of what I write. Being the most collaborative storyteller in our studio (according to number of active projects), I draft, absorb, and write the most outlines. And still, no matter who I write with, the process is unique. 

I’ve been writing with Dave the longest and yet our process has evolved the least. He’s a natural pantser and bristles hard against pre-production structure. It’s easier for Dave to write an outline for me than it is for him to craft one for himself. Most of Dave’s joy comes from discoveries he makes in the draft, so his outlines need to reflect that. When I write an outline for Dave, I know it should focus more on generalities than specifics, with plenty of room to play. His outlines for me are often a set of highly specific scenes intermingled with moments of dialogue (that usually make it into the rough draft) and many chapters that are barely more than one or two sentence sketch to tell me what has to happen and why. 

Johnny mostly wants character, settings, and interesting details. He only needs a prompt when it comes to what will happen next. Anything else is getting in the way. We’ve written together for more than seven years. I’ve always written the outlines and he’s always written the drafts. I’ll likely be writing to my first Johnny outline soon. We will learn something new and evolve our process further. 

I’ve never outlined for Bonnie, because she would prefer to think out the story for herself. That makes sense, she also crafts the most detailed outlines I’ve ever written from. If I’m working from a Bonnie outline, the story is already there. My job is to bring it into vibrant life. A 40,000 word novella might have 15,000 words worth of outline. 

I’m fortunate to work with many amazing writers. It’s a massive benefit, getting to tell a wide array of stories, but my favorite part about having an abundance of great creative relationships is how much it forces me to constantly grow. I can only produce the way I do thanks to excellent systems and spectacular partners. 

I can’t offer you my collaborators, but I can still share our process.

I was a copywriter before I turned to fiction. I wrote a lot of sales letters, and even wrote a book about how to do it. Fiction is cake compared to sales copy. I can fly through a story I’m just making up, but words that need to drive a reader down the page before moving them to take a specific action at the end is both a science and an art. 

Starting was always difficult. I could write the rough draft for a 5,000 word sales letter in a couple of days, but it would sometimes take a week before I finally started. Eventually, I learned the lesson I now apply to every fiction project: writing is rewriting. 

The most important part of the process was getting the ideas down. I needed a system to do that, so I built one for myself. Interesting thing was — and this is exactly what I want for you — I only needed that template a couple of times. 

Once I understood what made the template work, the knowledge was there in my head. 

That’s why I never use what I’m about to share with you. I hope that you use the hell out of it, then toss the template and never need it again because you’ve developed a deeper understanding of story. 

For now, this can be the only outlining template you need. But please, use it to build muscle memory, and fish rather than eat. 

Before you start plotting …

A lot of storytellers focus on “what should happen next,” especially when they’re starting out. This is natural. When we read books, watch our favorite TV shows, or go to the movies, that’s the question we’re constantly asking ourselves. 

But construction and consumption aren’t the same. There are a few elements that will help you craft a better, because even if they aren’t what the audience is actively thinking about, it is what they will ultimately care about, and that’s what matters most to the long term relationship you want to develop with your audience. 

Better stories make for better fans, and better fans help us storytellers to write the best possible life for ourselves. 

To start your story off right, make sure you know the following:

  • Who your protagonist is — what makes him special, what he wants more than anything, and what he fears most (i.e. he’s an adrenaline-junkie smuggler who’s determined to strike it rich, but his fear of being a sucker means he keeps everyone at arm’s length)
  • Your protagonist’s external goal (i.e. to complete the K-run in less than 12 units of speed — not parsecs, because parsecs are a unit of distance)
  • Your protagonist’s flaw or backstory-inflicted wound, and how that flaw/wound is keeping him stuck in a rut and causing him to fit/not fit into his everyday world (i.e. his inability to trust others comes from being abandoned by his con-artist father)
  • Your protagonist’s coping mechanism(s) he uses to deal with the pain that’s eating him (i.e. drinks, gambles, jogs away the hangover while his one-night stand is still snoring)
  • Your protagonist’s misbelief — the flawed way of thinking that warps his understanding of reality, which arises from his backstory-inflicted wound (i.e. everyone else is looking out for number one first, so I need to protect myself by doing the same)
  • The same things for your antagonist, plus how he embodies what’s wrong with your protagonist’s world (i.e. in a galaxy dominated by a totalitarian government determined to keep its citizens “safe” by micromanaging their lives, this control-freak cop believes that rule-breakers create chaos that rots civilization from the inside out)

Put twists in wherever they make sense, but never ever force them. If you’re looking for spots where story structure tends to support a twist, those have been noted in the template.

A note on structure: 

You’ve heard of the three act structure, everyone has. Problem is, the fallacy of stories adhering to those three movements has too many writers struggling through the middle of their books. We like three acts because it’s logical. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Clearly that lines up with three acts. 

Yet storytellers wrestle through their narratives. They know where to start, and they maybe have an idea for a killer ending, but that endless second act sees them crashing into walls or running in circles. 

I use four acts because the math is more obvious. In just about every diagram on structure we see that the first and third acts account for around half of a story, while the middle or second half accounts for the rest. But it’s more than the second act being split in two, because in our studio the second and third acts have different purposes. 

I don’t think in terms of three acts, not just because I believe that’s an unreasonable ratio of time devoted to the second act, but because I see them as the different sections of the book dealing with separate thematic elements. I treat each as unique, dramatic movements. 

The general outline I use for this template is divided into four acts, with ten chapters per act. This can’t be stated enough, so here we go again: This is one way of doing things among a billion possibilities. This does not mean your book needs to be 40 chapters exactly. This is an exercise to get the story out. Some chapters might need to be expanded, while others should get collapsed. Understanding the template will direct your efforts better than painting by the numbers. 

Subplots are optional. You can keep all 40 scenes focused on the main story. But if you’d like to include a subplot — a romance, a bromance, or some other smaller story line — you can use the following scenes to develop your subplot:  5-7, 12-13, 17-18, 22-23, 27-28. 

I’ll cover the outline first as the what that needs to happen in each chapter, followed by the why at the end of this page. 

The Only Novel Outline You Will Ever Need

ACT ONE

1. It’s business as usual for your protagonist, who’s being his sympathetic self while he chases his dream … until something throws him off-stride. Could be someone messing with him, or he might’ve slipped up.

2. We see what’s special about him as he does his best to recover from the stumble, but we also see what sucks about his current rut, and how his flaw or wound is holding him back.

3. He thinks he’s getting his groove, but instead he staggers face-first into the inciting incident, which irrevocably ruins his life and starts the clock ticking on his story goal. 

4. He didn’t handle that very well, so now he indulges in one or more coping mechanisms as he muddles through the aftermath, resolving to get his life back on track.

5. Your protagonist has a new plan, and it’d be a great one, if it wasn’t based on his misbelief. But something has changed, whether he recognizes it or not, and things get a little rocky as he executes it.

6. He leans on his usual allies and resources, but they’re not enough; even worse, the trouble he gets into triggers his flaw or wound — this new situation feels a little bit like that thing he never got over.

7. Taking a step back, literally or metaphorically, your protagonist tries to figure out how he lost control of this situation. He might go looking for advice, or advice might come looking for him … but either way, his misbelief prevents him from understanding it.

8. Realizing it’s time to pull out what he thinks are the big guns, your protagonist does something that he would normally consider to be a last-ditch effort to get his life back on track — but instead, whatever he tries ends up backing him into a corner.

9. He might have a moment of false success before he finds himself stuck outside his comfort zone, exposed and vulnerable. Maybe he wasn’t expecting there to be a twist here? He’s made his situation ten times worse, and none of his usual allies can (or will?) help.

10. Maybe he has no choice, or maybe they’re all bad choices — either way, your protagonist has to choose between letting his everyday world become intolerable or stepping into uncharted (for him) territory. He commits to entering the extraordinary world.

ACT TWO

11. Your protagonist immediately stumbles on unfamiliar terrain — everything feels different here, even if it looks the same: new rules, new problems, new dangers. He dusts himself off and his insecurities sing a song of future failure.

12. Moving onward, he meets a representative of this extraordinary world — the antagonist, a minion, a mentor, a former ally or enemy who’s comfortable here, or maybe even a random stranger who embodies the spirit of this place. Your protagonist starts to understand the new yardstick that he will be measured by, and that he’d underestimated the dangers.  

13. Your protagonist plots what he thinks will be a safe course through the extraordinary world, recruiting whatever allies and resources he can, and sets off in a new direction. 

14. He seems to be making progress … yeah, he was freaking out, but he’s getting the hang of this place, so maybe it won’t be as bad as he thought. The new world throws a problem at him, and he handles it almost competently. Or was that beginner’s luck?

15. Crossing paths with the antagonist — or stumbling into a mess the antagonist has left behind — your protagonist is caught off guard. He gets a glimpse of the antagonist’s true power for the first time, and realizes he’s in over his head after taking significant damage.

16. Retreating, your protagonist finds temporary safe haven, but only after a sacrifice big enough to hurt. He licks his wounds, and if he receives advice, his misbelief keeps him from understanding how to apply it correctly. 

17. Your miserable protagonist reaches for one of his usual coping mechanisms, but even if it’s available in this strange world, it offers no relief. He might hide it well from those around him, but he’s on the verge of a meltdown and desperate enough to try something new, even if it means temporarily abandoning the misbelief that he’s been hiding behind.

18. A new door opens up for your protagonist …but the price of stepping through that threshold is steep, and might include losing allies or sticking his neck out in a big way.

19. An ambush waits on the other side of the door. Your protagonist survives by improvising, surprising even himself.

20. Past the ambush, your protagonist makes a discovery or has an epiphany that allows him to see that he hasn’t been playing the game wrong, he’s been playing the wrong game …and more is at stake than he ever imagined. This is an excellent place for a twist. 

ACT THREE

21. He might feel foolish for not seeing things clearly until now, but your protagonist makes a new plan. Unfortunately, now past the meltdown, he fails to recognize that temporarily abandoning his misbelief was a healthy thing, and he grabs onto it more tightly. 

22. Executing the new plan while gathering allies and resources as he goes, your protagonist hits a snag. It becomes apparent that his epiphany might’ve made him a wee bit overconfident.  

23. He must improvise again in the face of a dilemma: his misbelief wants him to choose option 1, but his epiphany suggests option 2 is the way to go. 

24. Whether he makes the wrong choice or fumbles after making the right one, he’s now on a collision course with the antagonist. He might be walking into an ambush, or he might be deliberately seeking the confrontation without realizing how seriously he’s outgunned.

25. The antagonist has the upper hand, and your protagonist feels his enemy’s true power — the antagonist is even stronger than before. Your protagonist might get a glimpse into the enemy’s end game, but he definitely realizes how deeply he’s in over his head. Another place where twists are often welcome. 

26. Your protagonist retreats in the face of his worst disaster yet, one that feels so much like that thing he never got over that’s he’s having déjà vu. He might’ve noticed a chink in the antagonist’s armor, but not soon enough to take advantage of it. 

27. As he’s gathering new allies and resources, something your protagonist did — or failed to do — in Act Two because of his misbelief comes back to bite him on the butt. 

28. He’s got to eat crow, beg for help, sacrifice more resources or improvise within an already imperfect plan — and he can only blame himself. He starts to question his misbelief: his biggest success came when he’d temporarily abandoned it, but the idea of surrendering it voluntarily is terrifying.

29. Your protagonist attacks that vulnerability he noticed earlier, and at first it seems he’s caught the antagonist unprepared — is victory at hand?

30. Nope. (Maybe there’s a twist here?) Either the antagonist was using that weakness to draw the protagonist in, or he reacted fast enough to protect it. Your protagonist gets one clear shot at the antagonist, but he must lose his misbelief to take it, and he isn’t able to make that leap of faith.

ACT FOUR

31. Forced to retreat or be taken prisoner, your protagonist experiences a moment of hopelessness that allows him to see his misbelief for what it is: a falsehood that’s kept him stuck in his flawed state ever since his backstory wound was inflicted. 

32. Something rekindles his hopes. Maybe he sees a way to defeat the antagonist, or perhaps he realizes he’d rather die on his feet than live on his knees. Either way, he’s ready to sacrifice everything to take his enemy down.

33. Your protagonist prepares for battle. Does a SWOT analysis for both sides, identifies the decisive blow that will be needed to win the battle, and makes his plan. 

34. As he takes the fight to the enemy, he may indulge in one of those if I die, I just want you to know moments. He arrives at the scene of the final showdown only to discover that the situation is different than he expected. Yet another great place for a twist, it’s practically built right into this beat. 

35. No plan survives contact with the enemy — and your protagonist’s enemy has been crushing it ever since their last encounter. Both sides take damage, and when your protagonist redoubles his efforts, his forces manage to neutralizes one of the antagonist’s minion or resources.

36. The war of attrition begins as the antagonist’s forces fight harder and your protagonist is isolated from the allies and resources he was counting on. The antagonist’s minion or neutralized resource is brought back into play or replaced by someone/thing even more powerful.

37. Your protagonist steps forward to battle the antagonist mano a mano. The true extent of the antagonist’s power (and the depths of his evil) become clear, and the antagonist gains the upper hand. Twist it up if you want to. 

38. Your protagonist realizes how he can strike the decisive blow and defeat the antagonist — and he does. Last chance for a twist! 

39. Your protagonist reacts to the defeat of the antagonist, who is or has been disposed of, and out-of commission allies might be recovered or revived.

40. Your protagonist and any surviving allies may celebrate their victory and console each other on their losses as they tie up all remaining loose ends (including a romance subplot, if there was one). Your story ends with your protagonist reaffirming how he’s changed and how he’s remained the same as a result of his ordeal (through both his words and his actions). 

Now, let’s make it even simpler. 

Again, this is all about understanding. So while the above told you what to do in each chapter, knowing the why behind each chapter can help you understand the narrative verse, chorus, verse you’re trying to create.

In between the major plot points, you’ll find a series of complications. Use these smaller plot points to show the conflicts that fall out of the major points, or for a subplot. Just remember that all subplots must dovetail with the main storyline and enhance its emotional impact.

In the summary below, scenes are grouped in sequences that form short arcs within your story.

  1. Everyday world, everyday conflict
  2. Setup for the inciting incident
  3. Inciting incident
  4. Aftermath of the inciting incident
  5. Setup for the first complication
  6. First complication
  7. Aftermath of the first complication
  8. Minor dark moment
  9. Setup for the first plot point
  10. First plot point
  11. Aftermath of the first plot point
  12. Second complication
  13. Aftermath of the second complication
  14. Setup for the first pinch point
  15. First pinch point
  16. Aftermath of the first pinch point
  17. Third complication
  18. Aftermath of the third complication
  19. Setup for the midpoint
  20. Midpoint
  21. Aftermath of the midpoint
  22. Fourth complication
  23. Aftermath of the fourth complication
  24. Setup for the second pinch point
  25. Second pinch point
  26. Aftermath of the second pinch point
  27. Fifth complication
  28. Aftermath of the fifth complication
  29. Setup for the second plot point
  30. Second plot point
  31. Aftermath of the second plot point, part one: the dark moment
  32. Aftermath of the second plot point, part two: the resurgence of hope
  33. Climax, stage one: preparing for battle
  34. Climax, stage two: taking the fight to the enemy
  35. Climax, stage three: first contact
  36. Climax, stage four: war of attrition
  37. Climax, stage five: mano a mano
  38. Climax, stage six: from the ashes of disaster
  39. Resolution, stage one: sweeping up
  40. Resolution, stage two: reconnection

That’s your formula.

I hope it helps you to make starting more fluid and finishing easier than it’s ever been. 

Focus on the right things. Understanding the above outline is a lot more important than copying it. This isn’t a universal story, it’s one representation of how a narrative can unfold. A tool we use to teach our writers to become master storytellers, one project at a time. 

A tool I want to share with you. Because I understand that the hardest part of writing is getting started, and that a helping hand there can mean the difference between momentum and inertia. Like I said, I hope you share this, but if not then I hope it helps you to put better stories out into the world. 

Publishing is not a zero sum game. Another author’s success will never dilute yours. The better the standard in indie publishing, the more likely we are to keep people reading all of us. That’s another reason why I wrote this.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a plotter or a pantser. Try the above approach a time or two and see for yourself if it sharpens your understanding of story. 

In the meantime, may you never need another novel template again.