Book Outline: How to Outline a Novel [+Templates]

Book Outline: How to Outline a Novel [+Templates]

Are you ready to overcome writer's block with a book outline template?

Let me preface this by saying that while this article is about book outline templates, it’s not a “this is how we do it” article. Not everyone needs a novel outline template for their book road map, but they do help.

Like books, authors and their writing styles are unique and numerous. Even basic things like the programs we use to write in can be diverse. Many prefer to write using a word processor, whether paid or free. Others prefer to use something like Scrivener or Squibler.

Having said that, many new writers are overwhelmed by the writing process and aren’t sure how to write a book. For that reason, templates can help them get started. Even seasoned authors can find templates helpful, too.

Some simply prefer to write from an outline.

Benefits of Using a Book Outline Template

Despite your writing style and whether or not you’re an author who typically relies on a book outline template, it’s probably safe to say there are times you might wish you had one. Maybe.

I should note there are a few definitive cases for having at least a loose outline of your book. Even those who hate to outline will agree to this.

  • Keeps Your Plot Outline Fresh in Mind

There are times you start a book and for some reason, you put it aside. Maybe you have another story burning to be told. Maybe you had to deal with sickness, your own or a loved one’s. Your mind map of your book disappear, and you feel the need to start fresh.

Assuming you don’t have total recall, after months—or perhaps years—do you remember your story? It’s plot and all its details? Or have you completely lost its thread? If you have an outline, it doesn’t matter what you’ve forgotten.

  • It Can Aid in Writing a Synopsis

Perhaps you’re intent on having your books traditionally published. If so, agents and publishers will often request a synopsis of your book.

Imagine this. The publisher you’re interested in requires a query letter, three chapters, and a synopsis. I know several authors, myself included at times, who would only have those first three chapters written.

Back when I started writing—this hasn’t changed, by the way—you could wait for months to hear back from a given publisher and depending on how quickly you wrote that was plenty of time to finish the book. Or at least motivate you to write faster. But you had to write your synopsis first.

That’s much easier to do if you have a detailed outline in place already.

  • It Can Help you Ease into Writing in a New Genre

Templates and outlines might be especially useful to writers new to a genre. Some genres have very specific structures and arcs that need to be developed and followed. For example, if you’re thinking about writing a romance novel you need to meet reader expectations. An outline could help you meet them.

Let’s recap some reasons why templates or outlines may be good for some:

  • Some writers, new or seasoned, are lost without one.
  • If you have to leave off writing your book, you can come back to it any time.
  • It’s much easier to write a synopsis when you already have an outline.
  • If you’re new to a genre, an outline could be very helpful.

Which Novel Outline Template is the Right One for You?

The following is by no means a comprehensive list, but I’ve culled a fair selection. So no matter what you write, from academic treatises to screenplays, there should be something for you.

Also, note that book outlines are known by different names. Depending on the genre, they might be called beat sheets or something else, but they all serve the same purpose.

Since I’ve mentioned romance, let’s start there.

Scrivener – Romancing the Beat Template

A romance book outline template courtesy of Gwen Hayes.

What makes a romance novel a romance novel? Just a bunch of lovey-dovey stuff, right? A couple makes eye contact, they fall in love, the end.

Not quite.

There is a very specific romantic arc that needs to be followed for a book to be a true romance novel.  And the overall plot or arc of the story needs to be wound around the romantic arc.

Sound confusing?

That’s why using a romance beat sheet is so popular.

From the introduction of your main characters, through the meet cute—when and where they first connect—to all the reasons why they shouldn’t and couldn’t fall in love. To the maybe this could work, the this will never work, and finally happily ever after.

And that wasn’t all the points in the arc that need to be addressed.

The beats are broken out and provide you with sections like:

  • Meet cute
  • Adhesion of the plot thrust
  • No way
  • Deepening desire
  • Retreat
  • Breakup

Since this is a romance, you know it doesn’t end with a breakup.

If you’re new to writing romance, you may have an easier time at it when using a novel outline. Specifically, a romance novel outline.

If Scrivener isn’t your thing, Gwen does offer an outline in PDF format for anyone who joins her mailing list.

Regardless of format, this outline is based on Gwen’s book of the same name.

Key takeaways:

  1. Romance writers must follow a specific arc—a template will provide that.
  2. For those who don’t use Scrivener, a PDF is available if you sign up for Gwen’s mailing list.
  3. The template is based on Gwen’s book of the same name.

Scrivener – Romance Template

The second book outline template on our list that focuses on romance is courtesy of Jami Gold.

While it will ultimately get you to the same place as Romancing the Beat above, these romance authors each approach things in their own unique way.

From a pure romance standpoint, Gwen’s outline might be easier for some to follow.

Remember the two arcs I mentioned above? The romantic arc and the story arc? Jami separates out the two arcs. From Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer, she uses beats and terminology that play to the plot or story arc. They don’t deal with the character’s inner struggles and journey, which is central to a romance novel.

The advantage to you?

You can focus on the romance arc—the developing relationship between your main characters.

Some of the sections of the template are:

  • The intro
  • Inciting incident
  • The end of the beginning
  • Midpoint
  • Crisis

If you don’t own or are still trying to learn how to use Scrivener, you can still follow Jami’s outline. She also has it available for free download in Excel format. Even better, it has the functionality to track your word count too.

If you’re still learning how to write a book and you’re contemplating writing romance, why not see what the Romance Writers of America has to say about the genre.

Key takeaways:

  1. Jami’s beat sheet—template—breaks apart the two arcs in a romance. The story arc and the romantic arc.
  2. If you don’t use Scrivener, Jami also has her template available in Excel format. It’s a free download, no signup necessary.
  3. If you’re new to the genre, check out RWA.

Scrivener – The Great American Novel Template

This is a Scrivener template created by Michael O’Bryan.

His stated purpose is to help with the writing process itself. Or at least give you a vehicle to help you get together everything you need in order to write your book.

He provides an Idea Creation section that has even more templates based on some of his favorite methods and formats, like the Snowflake Method or Truby’s Anatomy of Story.

The Great American Novel template provides lots of ways for organizing your writing project including folders and color coding.

You have folders for:

  • Story Notes
  • Story Elements
  • Story Structure
  • Characters
  • Story World
  • Research
  • Front Matter

He also includes what he calls an Obsolete Files folder, which I think is an excellent idea. This folder acts as a repository for ideas you may have had and discarded, revisions, drafts, and so forth. These are maintained on the off chance you may need or want to readdress them for some reason. Which you can’t do if you have deleted all these files.

Key takeaways:

  1. An excellent template for organizing and structuring your story.
  2. Folders for every component of your novel.
  3. A folder for obsolete files.

Have you started writing your own Great American Novel several times? Perhaps using this template would help you to finally finish it.

Scrivener – The 30 Chapter Novel Template

This book template is courtesy of Damien Benoit-Ledoux.

This is a very clean, well laid out outline for a book. Each of the 30 chapters has a purpose, basically taking you by the hand and leading you through the creation of your masterpiece. At a very basic level, it can teach you how to write a novel.

You won’t be leading your readers in confusing circles.

To give you an idea, the outline starts off with the following chapters:

  • Introduction of the MC – who, what, where and when
  • I know what I want – the MC’s goals and dreams
  • I’m getting what I want – the plan to obtain the above
  • Inciting/life-changing incident – the plan is ruined
  • I’m not getting what I want – why?
  • Why did this happen – self-examination and a new plan

And continues on to chapter 30.

You will also find some of the typical ancillary templates and folders for things like character sketches, historical events, objects, and back matter.

For those without Scrivener, there is a Word document version of the template as well.

Key takeaways:

  1. A well laid out outline with supporting folders can help you learn how to write a book.
  2. MS Word version also available.
  3. Includes additional templates.

Scrivener – The Hero’s Journey

Got an epic story to tell?

This book outline template is based on Joseph Campbell’s theory that all stories are based on the foundation of a single story. This conclusion is reached due to an observation that there exists a common pattern in the narrative elements of nearly all great myths.

Mel Corbett wove that theory in with her own personal notes on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler to give us the Hero’s Journey Scrivener template.

Using this template or outline will help you create and clarify conflict and enable you to keep your characters moving forward on pace.

You probably know this outline without even being aware of it. Many of today's blockbusters are built on this plot pattern or outline.

To name a few you’re likely familiar with:

  • Star Wars
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Harry Potter
  • Spiderman
  • The Matrix
  • The Lion King

You’ve heard of one or two of those, right?

The template takes you through 3 key stages:

  1. The Departure
  2. The Initiation
  3. The Return

You also have folders for:

  • Characters
  • Places
  • Research

Key takeaways:

  1. Template based on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and Joseph Campbell’s theory.
  2. Will help you keep your story moving.
  3. Many great movies are built on the Hero’s Journey premise.

Scrivener – K.M. Weiland Template

An author of historical and speculative fiction, K.M. Weiland is also the author behind several books around the outline and structure of novels. The initial version of the book outline template that bears her name was created by one of her readers, one Stuart Norfolk. He based it on Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.

Yes, she has provided a lot of info for any who are learning how to write a novel.

Jump ahead and K.M. has updated the template to include info from her book Creating Character Arcs and a folder system that she personally uses for keeping track of her notes.

This template provides you with some initial folders meant to help in the prep stage. Help on creating your outline, notes on character development, and catchall for all your worldbuilding details.

Then she provides you with the manuscript section. If you follow this, you are pretty much mirroring her footsteps as she builds her story. There’s even lots of color coding.

Use the color coding to aid you in keeping track of any foreshadowing setups and payoffs.

Here’s an example of the setup and payoff color coding:

  • Setup: Foreshadowing, Hints (Yellow)
  • Opportunity for Hints (Yellow)
  • Misinformation (Magenta)
  • Revealed Later (Light Blue)
  • Setup That Must Be Fulfilled Later (Magenta)
  • Payoff: New Info/Revelations That Turn the Plot (Green)
  • Straightforward Facts That Don’t Turn the Plot (Magenta)
  • Character Evolution Turning Point (Dark Blue)

Key takeaways:

  1. Based on Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs.
  2. Folders for character development and worldbuilding.
  3. Some very useful color coding.

Scrivener – Novel with 4 Parts

Did you even realize there was so much help available for those seeking to learn how to write a novel?

Courtesy of Tony McFadden, we have this Scrivener novel outline.

According to Tony, all good fiction—at least good fiction written in the last 100 years—follows a specific development arc broken down into four parts.

  • Setup and hook
  • First plot point
  • Act two
  • Act three

Let’s flesh those out a bit.

In part one, you have a goal. Sure you’re going to introduce your main character here, but you need to grab the attention of your readers and hold on to it. We’ve probably all read—or started to read—a book where an author failed to do that.

If you’re like me you have a huge TBR file, and you just move on to the next book. There isn’t enough time to read all the books we’d like to read, and if an author has lost you in the first chapter, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

Again, grab and hold the attention of your readers.

The first plot point is where our hero leaves behind the status quo and his quest—whatever it may be—begins.

At about half-way into the book, act two should begin. Our hero is now reacting to whatever brought about the change of status quo.

Finally, in act three our hero knows what’s necessary to succeed and overcomes all odds to do so.

Clearly, there’s a lot more involved than that. Why not check out the template?

Key takeaways:

  1. All good fiction follows a special developmental arc.
  2. Grabbing and holding the attention of your reader immediately is imperative.
  3. Guidelines are provided to indicate where your new stages should begin based on word count.

Scrivener – The Snowflake Method Template

As should be very clear by now, there are a number of methods and techniques floating around. Probably one of the most respected and well known is the Snowflake Method, inspired by Randy Ingermanson.

The concept behind the Snowflake Method is that great novels don’t just happen. They are based on sound planning and design.

The idea is you need to build upon an extremely simple theme and then layer on the complexities. It calls for some intense planning and research upfront.

Having said that, Randy freely admits that all authors are different and what works for him isn’t necessarily going to work for every other writer.

For those who would like to try this method, here’s a condensed version of the initial steps:

  • Write a single, big picture sentence that summarizes your novel.
  • Expand the sentence into a paragraph that includes the key plot points.
  • Develop your characters.
  • You now have the structure of your novel and will know if it works or not. If it does, continue to expand upon your sentence/paragraph outline.

Sound like something you would like to try? You can read Randy Ingermanson’s book of course, but you can also follow the book outline template based on his method.

Key takeaways:

  1. This method of outlining is one of the most popular today.
  2. Great novels are based on advanced design and planning.
  3. All writers are unique, so this won’t work for everyone.

Scrivener – Murder Mystery Template

This novel outline comes to you from writer Jennifer Mattern. A blogger and mystery writer, Jennifer writes both by means of an outline.

Her Murder Mystery Template provides you with all the necessary resources to plan, outline, and draft in a single file. If you also do any marketing for your book—and if you aren’t, you should be—there’s even a folder for promotional material.

  • Promotional Material Folder
  • Author Bio
  • Boilerplate
  • Press Release

There’s a lot of research and planning to goes into a modern murder mystery, and there’s a spot within the template for nearly anything you could think of at this stage.

  • Planning Folder

1.  One-paragraph Summary
2.  One-page Summary
3.  Subplot Summaries
4.  Suspect List
5.  Secrets and Lies
6.  Clues
7.  Red Herring

  • Research Folder

1.  Murder Method
2.  Police Procedure & Forensics
3. Other Research Notes

But if you write murders mysteries—or read them—you know there’s still more involved, don’t you? It hasn’t been forgotten.

  • Settings Folder

1.  Scene of the Crime

  • Characters Folder

1.  Protagonist
2.  Antagonist
3.  Victim

There’s still more to this template, but for any who may be writing a mystery for the first time, or even if you’ve struggled with writing one in the past, this is an excellent template to follow. You’ll be sure to hit all the key plot points of a good mystery novel.

Key takeaways:

  1. Adding folders and sections for marketing and promotion is a unique plus.
  2. If I were writing a murder mystery novel for the first time, I would definitely use this template.
  3. This comprehensive template will insure you don’t miss any plot points.

Excel – The One Page Novel Outline Spreadsheet

We’re leaving Scrivener behind and moving on to other book writing templates and novel outline formats. This one is provided courtesy of Eva Deverell.  One of her favorite writers is Joseph Campbell, mentioned above, who theorizes that all great stories are based on the foundation of a single story.

So it’s not surprising she is also a proponent of outlining. And as she points out, even “pantsers” typically work from some kind of preconceived plot or outline. Scant or encyclopedic, all writers need to follow some type of story structure.

This template is based upon a video workshop that Ms. Deverell offers.

In this video, she covers the following and more:

  • How to plot using one piece of paper—and just one side of it.
  • She provides some info on archetypal plot structures.
  • How to create a simple character arc.
  • She identifies eight story stages and how they fit together.

Using the spreadsheet, you are taken through different stages and scenes. For example, some of the stages are:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. Quest
  4. Bolt

The spreadsheet also gives you an idea of where you should be in terms of word count. The template is based on a 50K novel, but you could easily—depending on your math skills—adjust the final word count and where you should be at any given point.

Assuming your book was also 50K, when you reach the “Trigger” stage, you should be about 10K words in. This stage introduces a scene where your main character is involved in an incident that sets your story in motion.

Key takeaways:

  1. Even pantsers need to work from some kind of outline, no matter how brief.
  2. You are guided through the creation of an outline that would fit on a single sheet of paper.
  3. The spreadsheet provides the benefit of tracking where you are in terms of word count.

Scrivener – Blogging Template

This template is made available to us from Bryan Collins, a non-fiction writer who contributes to publications like Forbes.

Every writer isn’t a novelist. Especially in this content-driven world we now live in. We also have technical writers, case study writers, proposal writers and more.

Or perhaps as an author, you maintain a blog as well. Some offer priceless advice on how to become a better writer. For whatever reason you blog here’s an excellent template to use.

You do need to subscribe to Bryan’s mailing list to get his template, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it.

For all you bloggers out there, and especially those who have a busy blog you schedule for, you need to get this template.

I’m sure some of you are thinking a template for your blog is overkill, but here are a few ways it would be useful:

  • You can manage all of your articles in one place.
  • If you post to more than just your own blog, the included binder can be used as an editorial calendar, allowing you to quickly order and arrange your posts.
  • For those who may often need to write with two separate Word documents open, the template also allows you to open your current work and research at the same time—the process is just easier.
  • You can set word counts for each file.

The provided folders allow you to keep your workflow past and present neatly categorized.

  • Archives – contains individual folders for each month of the year gone by.
  • This Month’s Post’s folder, which includes the following:
  • Bonding Post
  • How to Post
  • Interview
  • Roundup
  • Future Blog Posts – individual folders for the months still to come.

Key takeaways:

  1. This template could be a huge asset to a busy blogger.
  2. An editorial calendar can help especially if you write for more than one blog.
  3. Complete organization for the entire year.

Scrivener – Screenplay Template

If you’re thinking of being the next George Lucas or James Cameron, you might want to consider using this screenplay template.

For those of you who already have Scrivener, you know this comes bundled with the software. For those who don’t maybe this will be some extra incentive to buy it.

It’s a fairly basic outline, but it has everything you need. However, some who actually write screenplays say it’s nothing to compare to using Final Draft, so you’ll need to draw your own conclusions.

I did find a last-minute bonus screenplay template though.

A Redditor has provided a Scrivener screenplay template that some are saying is much better than the one mentioned above.

You will need to be the judge of that yourself. You can download it using this link.

If you’re a beginner, this might be the one for you. It includes:

  • Extra info about story structure
  • Scene construction
  • Template Sheets including:
  • Character Sketches
  • Setting Sketch

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Do You Have to Use a Book Outline Template?

No.

At least that’s the short simple answer.

Should you use a book template or novel outline? That’s going to depend on the writer, especially when we’re talking about more of the complex outlines and templates.

But here’s the thing. Every writer should be writing from some form of an outline. For some, that could be a very brief outline consisting of nothing more than a handful of words.

Perhaps notes jotted down on things like the following:

  • Physical features of your main characters
  • Character traits of your hero
  • Location and setting details (especially if you’re worldbuilding, but more on that in a bit)
  • Motivations
  • Inciting incident

Your brief outline may have more or less than that, it depends on you. And it depends on the feedback of your readers too.

Are your reviews complaining about major plot holes? Or in one chapter your character is a plump blonde but in the next a sleek brunette? Then you have some serious problems, and it really doesn’t matter what you think of your story.

Criticism can be hard to take, but constructive criticism is gold. Learn from your readers and your peers.

And start to use an outline or template. Who knows, you might decide you love it. Or you may just think this is all terrible writing advice. But at least give it a try.

A final note on things like worldbuilding.

Depending on what you write, it might be easier to get away without an outline or template. But the more complex your novel, the more detailed, the chances that you should be using an outline template increase significantly.

While the above list is long, it’s by no means comprehensive. And while most of these templates are for Scrivener, with some searching there are a lot more formats available. We also discuss some book outline templates I haven’t mentioned here in another post.

Happy writing!