How to Outline a Novel:

Or Anything Else I Am Going To Write

Gene Poschman and Muse
I am a Novelist or Author. I work in Fiction. The Outline Process I am going to describe to you works for me because it is simple and anyone can use it. I'm sure somewhere there was a teacher who provided you with outline structures. A great way to organize your thoughts. Start with a Roman Numeral one and then use capital letters, etc.

Nothing will stifle your creativity faster than trying to remember rules about how to outline. If formal outlining is second nature to you, then go for it and you can stop reading this article. On the other hand, if you keep chasing away your muse with the boredom of outlining then stop! Put down your pencil and take this short journey with me.

I am explaining this process for writing a novel, but it will work for any type of writing. If you are a writer, you will be able to figure it out.

First, have a title. It doesn't matter if it is a real title. Have a name for your work. Can't figure one out? Call it by its genre, one will come to you.

Page one; Title by Author.

Page two through some number of chapters; each chapter gets a title and a page. If you already have some idea of your book's scope then name a chapter and go on to the next. I am seldom that organized in my head. The following is what I do.

Chapter title; even if it is "Chapter 1". If you have an actual idea for a story, then name the chapters whether you have chapters or not. It is a section of your prose. Make it ironic, make it serious, make it funny, make it an inside joke only you understand. Write down a name. Even if you take a moment figuring out what the name is it helps develop where you are going. Now, what is this chapter about? Introducing the hero, the villain, setting a scene?

From "The Case of the Running Bag":

 "Chapter 1 - On the Dock by the Bay" 

Introduce Jonas Watcher, a bit of a down on his luck derelict who is more skilled then he is first perceived. He almost dies but fortune hands him money, clothes, and a gun from a "Running Bag".

 "Chapter 2 - Discrete Inquiries" 
Jonas crashes in a P.I.'s Office on a couch. He is woken up by someone knocking at the door. It is a cop, Lt Sanders. Introduce the "Sisters of Fate". The beginning of an impersonation by Jonas. It will be short lived. Introduce Betty and Daughter, Mrs. Stanton and Chaufer. Her husband is missing. Jason wants to split, but things get complicated.

 "Chapter 3 - An Uninvited Guest" 

Jonas visits with the police and things get complicated. He returns to the PI office and has an uninvited guest who attempts to kill him. He doesn't.

 "Chapter 4 - Paranoia Doesn't Mean You're Wrong" 

Deal with the shooting in the PI's office.

This goes on for 18 chapters. Brief sentences about each chapter. Once you have that done you have a working outline. This is the point where you identify the characters and give them names. Remember names at this point names are easy to change. See "Chapter 2"; identities are established, but no descriptions as yet. When you get to the last chapter, maybe, because sometimes that will change. But after what you believe may be the last chapter; center and write "E N D". No greater accomplishment and you are now ready to tell the story.

Note I did not say write, I said tell. I go back to the first chapter, but sometimes I will skip around, especially if I have come upon something I must include and I don't want to forget it. Anyway, go back to the first chapter. Like the name, move on. Tell what is happening in the first chapter.

"Chapter 1 - On the Dock by the Bay" 

Jonas wakes up on a dock in SFbay. It's late at night. He's hung over. Climbs up to the wharf and someone hits him with something and knocks him off the ladder and into the water. He's caught on a net and whatever knocked him into the bay, he has. He gets out, some drama here. Sitting on the dock he is cold and wet. he is holding onto a Running Bag. Tell what that is. He finds clothes, money, keys an ID and a Colt 45. He puts on dry clothes. Climbs up onto the wharf. He goes through the bag more carefully. He finds a business card. It's a PI office. He wants a drink, but he decides on food. After eating he heads to the PI office to see if he can get some answers. Did someone just try to kill him?

And I move on to chapter two and so on and so forth.

The Case of the Running Bag's eBook is free on the internet. To get it at Amazon, you can click here.

Take a look at chapter one to see how what I was telling became What I wrote. Telling does two things, it lets you quickly get your story told. Does it seem interesting? Make changes until it is.

Now write it. Use your sentences to show the story.

Jonas wakes up on a dock in SFbay. It's late at night.

     I was just waking up. I could hear twelve midnight being chimed in the distance. I was cold, wet, and coming down from the DTs. I looked up and could see the underneath of a wharf above me. What the hell was I doing passed out on a dock? I decided to quit drinking, cold turkey. The irony of the phrase leapt into my head. I needed a drink. I just couldn't get a drink. Now I remembered; I got kicked out of the bar because I had no money. I got arrested on a D and D, and then twenty-four hours later I got tossed out of the drunk tank. I don't remember much after that. Now I was lying down somewhere under a wharf, under a pier, waking up to the undulating motion of a floating dock and the stench of sea water and decaying vegetation. I was not the least bit happy.

This bit is a little unfair because this paragraph includes my rewriting, and my editor reading and making comments

When writing, don't worry about grammar and spelling, there will be plenty of time for that. Once you have your story written. Outlining is done at this point. Like I said it is simple. Once you have written your story, walk away. The amount of time doesn't matter, just what is comfortable for you. If it is more than a couple of days... 

Now it is time to rewrite. This is where you go from being a writer and becoming an author. Characters get depth in the rewrite, the story takes on color, your style comes out. Never look at rewriting as a chore but as a challenge to show and tell a great story. One your proud of. One you would like to read. 

Now take on grammar, spelling and such details. When you run into issues you find better ways to say something. Also, remember sometimes you have to break rules to make a point. Once you have done that, send it to an editor. Do you need an editor?  Yes, you need another pair of eyes to read what you have written for the first time. When you read your story, you read what you wrote, even if you didn't write it that way. The editor will tell you where you screwed up.

I hope this was useful. I am available for comments. It is pretty easy to get in touch with me.

Gene Poschman


  1. In this world of constant competition, it is difficult to survive as a self-pub author. Every detail matters and getting reviews is a big part of my marketing strategy. I ordered a few reviews from to get more visibility and sales this Christmas season..


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