How to Write a Novel Outline that Tells the Whole Story
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
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 or 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:
1. 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. Again written in present tense, Chapter 2
should be a summary of what happen next, and should show how the story moves along, like
2. Jennifer is upset not only for the young mother’s death but also 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.
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