How to create a book outline (with a free template)

➡️  A book outline is a list of key plot points that help your characters get from the start of your story to the end.

➡️  Book outlines help you avoid plot holes and keep your story on track. They can also help you save time when editing your book.

➡️  There are many methods for creating a book outline. Most of these focus on at least 5 key plot points: setting the scene; the inciting incident; rising action; the climax; and the resolution.

The blank page can be a daunting prospect - especially for new writers. That’s why many authors choose to create a book outline before they take the plunge into writing a novel.

Book outlines help writers tackle novel writing with structure and clarity. It puts a clear plan in place to help you avoid plot holes, maintain character arcs, and create a vivid, well-structured story.

In this guide, find out how to create a book outline, and download our free book outline template to help you get started.

What is a book outline?

Think of your book outline as a map that will help you get from the beginning of your story to the end. Unlike a book synopsis, a book outline is written before you start writing your novel. It consists of an ordered list of key plot points that help your characters get from the start of their journey to their destination.

A book outline can take many different forms, but they’re all designed to do the same thing: give you direction and purpose when you’re writing your book. Outlining helps you understand your story from the start, so you can stay on track and avoid potential plot holes.

Outlining your book can also save you tons of time in the editing process. By having a clear idea of your plot points before you start writing, you can write with clear purpose and direction. As a result, taking a little time up front to create a book outline can save you lots of editing time down the road.

Should you create an outline for your book?

Not all writers believe an outline is necessary for writing a book. Known as pantsers, these writers prefer to dive straight into writing their novel. Stephen King famously relies on this approach — and it’s definitely worked for him.

That said, for planners, creating a book outline is a crucial step in writing any new novel, thanks to the structure it offers when you eventually jump in and start writing.

Pros of outlining a book

  • Stick to the story It’s easy to overwrite when you don’t have a clear picture of where your story is going. Outlining helps you stay on track and deliver the details that are needed.
  • Don’t get stuck — Having a concrete outline means you always have a reference point when you’re writing. So on those days when words don’t flow as easily, you can keep trudging towards your next plot point.
  • Keep your story straight — Avoid plot holes and maintain suspense by creating a book outline that shows you where each scene should slot in the context of your overall narrative.
  • Understand your character arcs and motivations — Make sure your characters stick to their script and don’t surprise you by making any out-of-character moves.
  • Make editing easier — If you work to an outline, your first draft is likely to be more coherent than if you don’t. This can make writing a second draft much more manageable.

Cons of outlining a book

  • Lack of spontaneity — Some writers find that their story lacks the spontaneous nature of an un-outlined book.
  • You can’t start writing immediately — If what you love about writing is the thrill of letting your imagination run wild as you write, adding an extra step to the process can make the writing process a little slower.
  • Straying from the outline can have dramatic consequences — If you start with an outline and decide to change your story halfway through, you could end up with just as many plot holes as if you’d written the whole story as a pantser.

It’s ultimately up to you whether you want to create a book outline to guide your story. But if you’re new to novel writing, having an outline to hand is a great way to help you maintain momentum in your writing, and keep your story on track.

How long should your book outline be?

The amount of detail you include in your book outline is up to you. You may want to include lots of extra detail to reduce the risk of plot holes. This can include splitting your book into scenes and chapters at the outline stage. Alternatively, you may want to leave your outline as loose as possible, so you can include spontaneous details as they come to you in the writing process.

As a result, there are no hard and fast rules about how long your book outline should be. As long as it covers all your major plot points and tells you who your characters are and what they want, your book outline will keep you on the right track.

How do you write an outline for a book?

There are tons of ways to create a book outline. But whether you choose to use online book writing tools to help you create an outline, or use a free book outline template to guide you through the process, there’s certain information you always need to include:

  • Your main characters, and their motivations
  • Your setting, and its limitations
  • Your plot points, and how they impact your characters

Before you start outlining, you should have a good idea of who your characters are, where they’re going to find themselves, and how they’re going to progress your plot. If you don’t have this information yet, work on getting to know your characters a little more. When you understand what makes them tick, you’ll see how you can make them propel your story forward.

There are a number of methods you can use to create a book outline, but most of them focus on at least 5 key plot points:

  • Setting the scene — This is where you establish the norms and setting of your story and introduce your main characters.
  • Inciting incident — This is the catalyst for the action that will trigger the rest of the story.
  • Rising action — This includes the twists and turns that ultimately lead to the climax.
  • Climax — This is the peak of the action; the make or break moment for your main characters.
  • Resolution — This is where your characters react to the climax; it’s the final denouement of your story.

Some methods include other plot points, too, but these are the 5 key moments of any successful story — and the ones you’ll need to focus on when outlining your book.

Methods for creating a book outline

There are many different frameworks you can use to help you create a book outline. Here are a few of the most popular ways to structure your outline.

The Snowflake method

This method helps you create detailed story outlines from a single idea. Start with a single-sentence summary of your book, then expand this into a paragraph, then a page. Do the same for each of your main characters until you have a strong understanding of your characters and your plot. Translate these pages into a list of scenes, until you’ve created a thorough outline of your novel.

The Tentpole method

If you already have a good idea of the major plot points in your novel, the tentpole method could work well for you. Sketch out the major plot points — or tentpoles — of your book, then build the rest of the story up around these. The level of detail between tentpoles doesn’t have to be huge; you just need to know how you’re going to get from one plot point to the next.

The Skeleton method

Skeleton outlining is popular in all kinds of writing: it’s fast, easy, and gives you a good overview of your key ideas. To create a book outline with the skeleton method, simply write a list of headings for each plot point in your book which tell you the key events of each scene. This method is great for getting ideas down quickly — but it provides a high-level overview of your plot, so it’s not ideal if you want to include more detail in your outline.

How to outline a novel

When you’ve researched your characters and setting, decided on your key plot points, and selected your preferred outlining method, it’s time to get started on your outline. Follow these steps to create a book outline for your next novel.

1. Create a structure

Write down your key plot points, beats, scene headings or chapter titles in chronological order (or the order in which they’ll happen in your book). You may immediately see obvious gaps between plot points here. If that’s the case, add in new scene headings to bridge the gaps and create a coherent structure for your outline.

Use your framework to inform the way you set this up. You can invest in software, use programs like Excel or Google Sheets, or use a free book outline template. Our downloadable template is designed specifically for self-publishing fiction writers, which will help if you’re not sure where to start.

2. Fill in the structure

This is the fun part. Now you have a rough draft of your outline, you can start to flesh it out with character details and setting information. Don’t get too bogged down in the details — you don’t need adjectives or flowery language here. Just get the key actions down in words.

3. Check for plot holes and character motivation

Your outline needs a little polishing before you use it as the basis for your story. First, read back through your outline and check that there are no glaring plot holes. If there are, it’s much easier to fix them now than it will be when you’re 70,000 words deep. 

This is also a good time to check that your characters are acting in line with the persona you’ve created for them. If Alice is established as quiet and reserved, she probably shouldn’t cause a riotous scene that acts as the inciting incident. Tweak your outline until you’ve plugged all your plot holes and constructed your character arcs.

How do you outline a book quickly?

If you’re eager to get started on your book, but want to create a book outline before you start, there are a few tricks you can use to get your outline done quickly.

  • Keep your main character list short — The more characters you need to consider, the more complex your plot will be — which means you’ll need a more in-depth outline.
  • Use tried-and-tested formulas — Certain formulas — like Snyder’s Save The Cat and Freytag’s Pyramid — have been used as book outline structures by thousands of writers.
  • Use a free book outline template. Templates give you the bare bones of your outline — all you have to do is fill in the details. This is a foolproof way to save time on your book outline.

How to outline a book chapter

Outlining individual book chapters is useful if you want to create an airtight plan for your book, or if you want to understand what’s going to happen at crucial points in your novel.

To create a book chapter outline, follow the same principles as creating an outline for your entire book. Decide where the chapter starts and ends, and figure out what actions your characters will take to reach the end point.

Because your chapter outline will be significantly shorter than your book outline, you can dispense with the frameworks here. Simply create a list of plot points, and ensure your characters are acting in line with their desires and personalities. 

Find out more about planning your book chapters here.

Outline of a book example

When you’re researching examples of book outlines, make sure you differentiate between outlines and synopses. A synopsis is written in prose, and is created after the novel is finished — so when they’re writing a synopsis, the writer knows exactly what happens in the finished book.

Outlines tend to be written in list formats, and are far from a finished product. Take a look at some of these book outline examples from J.K. Rowling, James Salter, and Sylvia Plath to see how various successful authors approach outlining:

Free book outline template

Ready to create your book outline? Download our free book outline template to get started. This template includes sections for:

  • Major plot points — so you can get the key elements of your story sorted before anything else
  • Key character information — so you can make sure your characters act in line with their personalities
  • Chapter outline section — so you can plot the details of your book in greater detail

Get your book outline template and start planning your great new novel.

Advice from a published writer
This article is always evolving and being updated regularly by our expert writers. Information featured in it has been fact-checked and verified.
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