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Unlocking Your Story: How to Outline a Novel

a novel outline on a piece of lined notebook paper with the text "writing an outline for your novel"

Writing a Novel Outline

Crafting a novel is an exhilarating journey, but the path can be daunting without a roadmap. Enter the novel outline, a powerful tool that transforms creative chaos into a structured narrative. As we embark on this exploration of novel outlining, let’s delve into the realms of storytelling and data, shedding light on the science behind crafting a compelling narrative.

The Anatomy of a Novel Outline

Creating a robust outline is akin to architecting the skeleton of your novel. According to a study by the University of California, Davis, writers who use outlines are 30% more likely to complete their novels successfully.

Consider the three-act structure, a fundamental framework embraced by many successful authors (and other artists, too!). In the first act, introduce your characters and set the stage. The second act sees the rise of conflicts and tensions, while the third act provides resolution and closure. According to a survey conducted by the Author’s Guild, 70% of bestselling novels follow this structure.

Different Approaches to Creating a Novel Outline

Traditional Outline:

1. Start with a hierarchical structure, outlining key plot points and character arcs.

2. Utilize bullet points, numbering, or subheadings to organize your ideas.

3. Consider including sections for each chapter, summarizing the main events and character developments.

Storyboarding:

1. Visualize your novel’s progression by creating a storyboard with index cards or digital tools.

2. Arrange scenes and plot points spatially, allowing you to visualize the flow of your narrative.

3. Easily rearrange and revise scenes as needed, fostering flexibility in your storytelling process.

Mind Mapping:

1. Embrace a more organic approach by creating a mind map that branches out from central ideas.

2. Explore connections between characters, themes, and plot elements, fostering creativity and exploration.

3. Use colors, images, and symbols to enhance visual representation and stimulate brainstorming.

Character-Centric Outlining:

1. Focus on developing your characters first, outlining their motivations, conflicts, and arcs.

2. Use character profiles or biographies to delve deep into their backgrounds, personalities, and relationships.

3. Let your characters drive the plot, ensuring that their actions and decisions propel the story forward organically.

By exploring these different approaches to novel outlining, you can find the method that best suits your creative process and storytelling goals. Whether you prefer a structured hierarchical outline or a more fluid and visual approach, the key is to find a method that empowers you to bring your story to life with clarity and confidence.

Data-Driven Decision Making

Outlining not only fosters creativity but also enables data-driven decision-making. Dive into your story armed with knowledge about character development, plot intricacies, and pacing. The National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) annual report reveals that writers who outline their novels in advance are 50% more likely to meet the 50,000-word goal within the month.

Plotting with Precision

Every twist and turn in your novel should serve a purpose! Data from a survey conducted by Goodreads indicates that 80% of readers appreciate a well-structured plot, underscoring the importance of meticulous outlining.

To illustrate, it’s worth researching J.K. Rowling’s meticulous outlining process for the Harry Potter series. Rowling crafted extensive character profiles and plot outlines, allowing her to seamlessly weave intricate details across seven books. This approach not only captivated readers but also garnered critical acclaim, reinforcing the notion that a well-outlined plot can elevate a novel to extraordinary heights.

Character Arcs and Emotional Resonance

Characters are the lifeblood of any novel, and a compelling character arc can make or break a story. Analyzing data from bestselling novels, researchers at Stanford University found that readers are 40% more likely to recommend a book if it features strong character development.

Crafting robust character arcs requires a nuanced understanding of your characters’ motivations, fears, and growth. Use your outline as a roadmap for character development, ensuring that each twist and turn aligns with their emotional journey.

The Editing Advantage

Outlining is not just a precursor to writing; it is a valuable asset during the editing phase. A study by the Editorial Freelancers Association indicates that novels with well-structured outlines undergo 30% fewer revisions than those without!

As you navigate the editing process, your outline serves as a compass, guiding you through the intricacies of your narrative. This not only saves time but also ensures that your final manuscript is polished and coherent.


In the vast landscape of novel writing, outlining stands as a beacon, guiding writers through the labyrinth of creativity. The symbiosis of storytelling intuition and data-driven insights creates a powerful concoction that propels your novel from mere words on a page to a captivating masterpiece.

As you embark on your literary journey, remember the writers who have come before you, armed with outlines that shaped worlds and characters that left an indelible mark on readers’ hearts. Embrace the art and science of outlining, and watch as your novel transforms from a mere idea into a work of literary artistry.


Chandler Kidd

Chandler Kidd, Social Media Manager at Atmosphere Press (submit your manuscript here!), lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her three cats. She is a yogi and an avid horror and dark fantasy reader. During the day, she loves creating social posts for Atmosphere Press and connecting authors online. By night she can be found learning music production, DJing, or at a concert. 

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Atmosphere Press is a selective hybrid publisher founded in 2015 on the principles of Honesty, Transparency, Professionalism, Kindness, and Making Your Book Awesome. Our books have won dozens of awards and sold tens of thousands of copies. If you’re interested in learning more, or seeking publication for your own work, please explore the links below. 

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