Literary agents and publishers may ask you for an outline, so it’s important to know how to write a novel outline that tells your story and shows how it moves along from beginning to middle to end. You may also use outlining techniques to structure your story as you write it and as a way of expanding and keeping track of scenes, characters, subplot, and plot.
How to Write a Novel Outline for Literary Agents and Publishers
An outline requested by a literary agent or publisher is typically a numbered, formatted summary of each chapter or significant event. The outline should “tell” the reader exactly what happens in each chapter and does not dramatize it or leave a mystery for the reader to figure out. As with writing a synopsis for your novel – if you have written a mystery, for example – you disclose the resolution to the mystery, i.e., “who done it”.
Literary agents and publishers often have different guidelines for the length and details of the outline they want to see, and you should check their websites for submission guidelines to ensure that you are giving them what they want. You may find requests for a two-page outline, which may be more like a synopsis of only the most significant of story events written in outline format, or you may see requests for up to 20 pages of outline. They may prefer a single-spaced or a double-spaced outline. If they make no mention about spacing, I would double-space the outline, making it consistent with manuscripts, which you should always double-space.
Knowing how to write a novel outline also means knowing how to write the one literary agents and publishers want, no more and no less.
How to Write a Novel Outline from Story Chapters
To outline your novel, write a summary – a few lines – of what happens in the beginning, middle, and end of each chapter in your novel, starting with chapter one and ending with the last chapter. If the chapter is composed of one scene, what issue/problem is presented in the scene, what obstacles were present, and how did your character resolve it? For example, in an outline for my novel Intimate Murder, the summary of Chapter 1 looks like this:
- Lead character Detective Jennifer Strand is enjoying time off at home when a young boy’s break-your-heart wail coming from the cul de sac interrupts it. 4-year-old Joshua has found his mother lying on their kitchen floor, her face and body horrifyingly distorted. Jennifer hurries to investigate and finds that the boy’s mother has been murdered, ending Jennifer’s day off.
Notice that the summary is written in present tense. Chapter 2, again written in present tense, should be a summary of what happens next. It should show how the story moves along, like this:
- Jennifer is upset about the young mother’s death. She’s also peeved that the neighborhood she’d just moved into no longer offers the peace and separation from her job she’d intended it to have. Worse than that is the realization that she will have to interrogate her new neighbors. With that at the back of her mind, she settles the young boy into her home while she locates his father. She also calls in help to investigate the crime scene, feeling a rising urgency to solve this case before anything else happens.
The Expanding Outline – How to Write an Outline for Yourself
Writing an outline as you write the novel is a great way to organize your scenes and keep track of the events that move your story to its end. I work with what I call an expanding outline, which means that at its start I may jot down the answers (at least the beginning answers) to 3 things:
- In the beginning…What is my lead character’s problem to solve?
- In the middle…What obstacles – emotional, physical, other people, events, etc. – do I foresee keeping her from solving the problem?
- In the end… How does the lead character eventually solve the problem?
After I have the answers to this initial list, I begin to fill in the details, either as I write them or as I think of them. Question 1 initially describes the problem to be solved in a few sentences, but after you write a chapter or two introducing the problem, go back to the outline and expand it by summarizing those beginning chapters.
In the middle of your novel, you will be presenting obstacles that keep the lead character from her goal through a variety of scenes showing the struggles she’s up against, and you would replace question 2 with a list of chapter summaries that depict the conflicts.
The same goes for expanding question 3 into summaries of the chapters that climax to the stories end.
If you are constructing an outline as you write, it is important to be flexible with it, adding to scenes, taking scenes out that don’t work, or rearranging scenes for more impact.
Writing a Novel Outline Helps Solve the Unresolved
People often ask me how I keep track of all the details of a novel so that no detail is left hanging somewhere unsolved for the reader. My answer is that I have an outline, maybe more than one, and an ongoing list of issues to resolve and scenes to write. And as you learn how to write a novel outline, you may find the outline to be a great tool for keeping track of details.
For further information on how to write a novel outline, look for my upcoming article on beginnings, middles, and ends.
If you found this article helpful, please share it with your writing friends! And if you have questions or your own novel outlining tips to share, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment, and let’s get a discussion going!