How to Write a Story Outline that Works: 9 Steps

Learning how to write a story outline is the key to a successful writing project, and this guide will show you step-by-step how to do just that.

If you are going to write a story, whether it is a short story or a novel-length book, before you start writing, you need to start with a story outline. Yet for many writers, learning how to write a story outline feels out-of-reach. Here is a straightforward, step-by-step guide to writing a story outline that will win.

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Exploring the Snowflake Method

How to Write a Story Outline that Works 9 Steps

Best-selling author Randy Ingermanson teaches writers how to write novels and tackle the outlining process using what he calls the “snowflake method.” This outline for writing a story method teaches the writer to start small, then build the story until you have a full, enjoyable book.

The Snowflake Method gives you a way to organize your thoughts. In a way, it teaches you how to write a story outline and take all of your ideas, and put them into an organized form.

1. Create Your Premise

Before you start writing a novel outline, decide the basic premise and roadmap of your story. To do this, ask yourself some key questions:

  • Who will the main characters be?
  • What is the basic plot?
  • What is the inciting incident of the storyline?
  • Where is the story set?
  • What point of view will you use?
  • What will the conflict and who will the opponent be?
  • Is there any important backstory to include?
  • What character arcs are you going to add?

The answer to these ideas will help you nail down your basic story idea and help you see the big picture, so you can start writing your outline. Summarize the answers of these questions into a two-sentence summary synopsis to get you started.

If you need a place to keep your ideas organized, consider a book writing tool like Scrivener. With its digital index cards and book outline templates, you can quickly get started on your book.

2. Expand Your Synopsis

Now you are ready to expand your synopsis, as you start building your snowflake. Sit down for a set period of time and expand that synopsis into a long paragraph. Having a longer paragraph will give you a foundation for a more detailed story outline.

3. Detail Your Setting

Your story’s setting is an invaluable part of the entire story arc, so spend some time planning it. Outline details about the setting such as:

  • Physical location
  • Season and weather
  • Time period

When detailing your setting, use as many senses as you can. How does it feel, taste, smell and look? These questions will help you put down the details you need for your setting.

Make sure your setting has a clear impact on your story. It should be a central part of the story, play a role in moving the narrative forward and help shape the characters as they develop through the story. Add your setting to the expanded synopsis paragraph.

4. Conduct a Character Interview

Use your imagination to interview the characters you are thinking of. Ask them the questions you would ask a real-life interviewee, and record the answers. This might feel awkward, but it will give you valuable insight into the direction the story will take, and it will also help you keep your characters true to themselves as you write.

Again, this is information you can put into Scrivener to pull from later.

5. Detail Your Plot

Story outline
Detail your plot once you have your characters and settings established

Now that you have characters and a setting established, you are ready to start detailing your plot. Here, you need a solid beginning, middle and end. Here is how they will look:

  • Beginning: The beginning is where you introduce the characters, the main problem and the setting. It needs to move quickly to keep the reader’s attention.
  • Middle: This is the last part you will write, so you can keep the story flowing. Keep it short and keep the story moving from the initial problem to the climax and ending. The middle is where the action of the story and the character development takes place.
  • End: The end is the climax, where the problem of the story comes to a head, and the resolution. It is helpful to write it after the beginning, so you know where your story will end up.

When writing these plot points, remember that you need to be flexible. As you write your story and develop your characters, your ending or the middle of this plot outline may change, but these are a good starting point. At this point, you could use an outliner app.

6. Sketch Out Some Scene Ideas

Using everything you’ve gathered to this point, you are ready to start your scenes. 

If you’ve had the idea for your book for a while, you likely have an idea of what it will look like. Now start sketching out some scenes in paragraph form. Use Scrivener to keep them organized as you go.

These scene ideas don’t have to flow or even make sense as a whole. You’ll use them to create an outline soon. Having the scene ideas allows you to determine where your plot holes are so you can fill them.

7. Make Your Long Outline

Using everything you’ve compiled up until this point, you are ready to create a long outline. You will use the plot and scene ideas you’ve already created and organize them into outline form.

In this process, you will likely find places with gaps or missing information. Now is the time to fill those in with more details. Patch those plot holes and make sure that the big picture of your story makes sense.

Here you can use a book outline template to help guide you, but be careful of getting tied in too tightly to any particular template. You can always adjust your outline later.

8. Condense the Outline

After writing your long detailed outline, take time to condense it. Cut down as much as you can to make it a streamlined road map for your book. Eliminate extra information that does not help drive your story forward.

9. Start Writing

Now you should have a flexible, but workable outline. You’re ready to start writing.

That said, starting your first draft can still feel overwhelming. Randy Ingermanson recommends using a spreadsheet to start organizing and writing the scenes of your book. Once you have them, put them into story form, and you’ll have your first draft.

Don’t let fear keep you back at this point. You already did the work pf creating an outline for writing a story. Now it’s time to put that work into practical form and write your story.

The Final Word on How to Write a Story Outline

Remember, learning how to write a story outline takes time, but you must remember that the outline has to be flexible. Soon, you will have a workable story on your hands, and you can start fine-tuning your book, but it must start with an outline. For more, check out our guide to the best story-writing apps.

FAQs About How to Write a Story Outline?

How long should a story outline be?

There is no set length for a storyline outline. The length will depend on the length of the final book or short story, the number of plot points and the overall setting of the story.

Does a story outline include the story’s subplots?

Eventually, a story’s outline needs to include subplots, so it can provide a roadmap for writing the book. However, some of those subplots may not reveal themselves at the beginning of the writing and outlining process. For that reason, outlines need to remain flexible as writers tweak them while developing the story.

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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.