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5 Essential Story Elements for a Foolproof Novel Outline

How on earth do you write a novel outline without pulling your hair out or getting so bored with the story you don’t even want to write it once you’re done? It’s way easier than most people think—even if you consider yourself a discovery writer. It doesn’t require the gnashing of teeth or pulling of hair, and in fact, you can write a foolproof novel outline in an afternoon!

Why Should I Even Outline My Novel?

One of the most unfortunate things I hear from fellow writers is that they “can’t outline” because they need freedom to be creative when they write their novels. They don’t want to be trapped into a grid that doesn’t evolve with their story.

But that’s not how outlines work.

Outlines are not the straightjackets of the author world. They’re the key to the straightjacket.

Novel outlines don’t trap you; they set you free to be creative, to think bigger, to have extraordinary characters doing extraordinary things in a believable way. An outline won’t take the fun out of writing a novel. An outline will make it even more fun because it’ll give you a guide that sparks new ideas.

Think of an outline like a skeleton. Without the bones, you can’t add the muscles, organs, blood vessels, fat… tattoos, nose rings, hair styles, personalities. Without the bones, you’ve got a pile of messy goo, all blending together.

Check out: How to Use the Heroine’s Journey to Improve Your Book

There are only 5 elements you really need to write a foolproof novel outline. The rest is great, too, but just window-dressing.

Quick Note: This novel outline structure will work for all genre fiction. But you’ll also want to consider your genre’s conventions and obligatory scenes, such as if you’re writing romance, I recommend Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat for Romance obligatory scenes.

Create a Foolproof Novel Outline with Just 5 Elements

1. The Midpoint

I always start with the Midpoint. Why? Because it’s what your novel hinges on. It’s the pivot point that takes the story from “what was” to “what can be”. It’s the moment your protagonist truly understands their plight. Sometimes the plight is with themselves, sometimes it’s external. Sometimes both. Either way, this is the moment things swing and you need to know what it is first because your beginning and ending will reflect one another around this scene.

Want to know more? Here’s a great podcast interview with Gabriela Pereira from diyMFA and James Scott Bell on how to Write from the Middle.

2. The Inciting Incident

The next story element you need for your foolproof novel outline is the Inciting Incident. This is what starts the story in the beginning. It’s the catalyst that forces the protagonist to take up the story in the first place. On this side of your Midpoint, you have both a character and a problem that are existing before a profound change. Before the pivot, there is a tension that rises up right here and will be reflected in the Climax.

3. The Climax

Which brings us to the Climax. The Climax reflects the Inciting Incident. When you write a novel outline, you want to pencil this in third. And yes, you do need to know what will happen (at least in broad terms) at the Climax of your novel before you start writing because without this change and reflection, there is no story.

(Which is something that took me a long time to learn! Don’t make my mistake!)

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4. Two Plot Points

On either side of your Midpoint, at the points where Act 1 transitions into Act 2 and Act 3 transitions into Act 4 (on a 4-Act story) you have two plot points. The plot points are often called “doors of no return”.

In the first one, your protagonist has to finally accept that they have to act. They have to go through the door of no return.

And (wait for it!) at the second plot point, just as you transition to the 4th act, your protagonist will again have to make the decision to keep going. Another door of no return! The second plot point happens right at the Dark Night of the Soul, when your protagonist feels like there’s no hope left.

5. Two Pinch Points

And finally, to make sure your tension is so tight your reader’s fingers are squeezing the life out of their Kindle, your foolproof novel outline needs a couple of Pinch Points. These fall between each Plot Point and the Midpoint.

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3 Things You Don’t Need When you Create a Novel Outline

So you now know what 5 story elements you need to write a novel outline, but you might be wondering about a few other things. I’ve got some happy news for you: you don’t need anything else! There’s plenty of freedom left for you to be creative and learn your story and characters as you go, while still making sure your first draft results in a tightly-woven story!

Here are 3 things you don’t need for an epic novel outline!

1. To know exactly what happens in your novel

Don’t be afraid to start your outline or your novel because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s so much room left for you to be creative, discover, and tweak your ideas as you go. As long as you’ve been intentional about your 5 story elements above, then I guarantee they will adapt to whatever new ideas you get as you write!

2. To know exactly how you’ll get from A to B

Are you a little worried that your protagonist gets a mysterious letter at the Inciting Incident but somehow turns down a new job as a Witch Attorney at the midpoint? Don’t worry about that right now. All you need to know are the major story elements I mentioned above. You need to know those because they’re “reflection points” that tell the story. But how your protagonist gets from the first plot point to the second plot point? You can discover that as you write!

(Or not, if you’d like to fill it in more!)

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3. To know what happens after the Climax

The Denouement is a softening of your story. Things wind down, strings are neatly tied up—or not, if you’re planning a series. You don’t need to know what’s going to happen there right now. As long as you know your Climax—and therefore the big reflection of your Inciting Incident—then you’re good to go. Once you’ve written the rest of the novel, you’ll intuitively know what needs to go here.

Outline Your Novel without the Scaries

Does this help make outlining your novel feel less scary?

I want to hear from you. If you’ve felt like writing a foolproof novel outline was scary, or made the process boring before, how do you feel about it now? And if you’re already an outliner, does this simplify the process for you? What would you change?

Let’s change some lives,

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Holly

PS — 🩵 When it feels right, here are 3 ways I can help you turn the page:

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Holly Ostrout is a book coach with a vision of changing the world one book at a time, by teaching big-idea entrepreneurs, coaches, speakers, and authors to create a book in a gentler, more effective way. A way that takes both you and your reader on a profound journey.
Holly Ostrout

Hi I’m Holly. If you’re going to change the world with your book, fiction or nonfiction, I can help you do it.

I'm a book coach for high-achieving, creative coaches, consultants, service providers, speakers, and authors who want to build a sustainable business around their book—whether that’s fiction or nonfiction.

I help you share your wisdom, ideas, and gifts by writing & publishing a life-changing book that helps you streamline your business, bring in more money, and change more lives.

I believe books are the most important human invention. And yours can change the world.

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Joyful, Easy Writing Can Be Yours​

Find that magical zone when the words flow like honey + everything you want to say comes across in perfect harmony. Write your book joyfully + easily with this Writing Ritual Tracker & keep the flow with my helpful newsletter.

Joyful, Easy Writing Can Be Yours

Holly Ostrout's Writing Ritual Creator. You can change the world with a book, but you've got to write it first. This Writing Ritual Creator will help you do just that.

Find that magical zone when the words flow like honey + everything you want to say comes across in perfect harmony. Write your book joyfully + easily with this Writing Ritual Tracker & keep the flow with my helpful newsletter.

Holly Ostrout's Writing Ritual Creator. You can change the world with a book, but you've got to write it first. This Writing Ritual Creator will help you do just that.
Before you go...

If You Want to Change the World with Your Book, You've Got to Write It.

Find that magical zone when the words flow like honey + everything you want to say comes across in perfect harmony. Write your book joyfully + easily with this Writing Ritual Creator & keep the flow with my helpful newsletter.