How to Write a Novel: Start with a Novel Outline

by Suzanne Lieurance

Wanna know how to write a novel?

Every novelist has his/her own method for getting started. But generally it helps to have an outline.

Here’s a simple novel outline trick: Create an informal outline that contains ONLY 12 chapters.

That’s right, ONLY 12 chapters.

No matter how many chapters you end up with by the time you actually write the book, if you start with only 12 chapters in your outline, the planning and plotting process will be much more manageable.

You don’t need a formal, Roman Numeral type, outline either.

Just number 1-12 on a sheet of paper and leave a couple of blank lines between each number.

To Start Your Outline
First, decide how your story will begin.

Chapter 1 – Start with a character readers will love. Put this person in the middle of some sort of change. You’re setting the stage for the overall story problem. Write a few sentences about all this under number 1 on your paper.

Next, figure out how your story will end.

Chapter 12 – Where will your main character end up, and how will he/she change or grow by the end of the book? What has he or she learned as a result of facing all the conflict? Make a few notes about what's next for this character, too (just give a hint of this). Put all this information under number 12 on your paper.

To Fill In Your Outline
Go back and fill in each of the other chapters (numbers 2-11). Keep in mind that you want to create rising action up to the climax, then falling action and the resolution.

Here’s what you should have for chapters/numbers 2-11:

Chapter 2 – In the movies, you usually see the main character take a trip or go away somewhere soon after the movie starts, so, by chapter 2, the character is now in a different location than he/she was in the opening of the story. But this change in location can be something simple, like the character leaves his house and goes to town. It can be more dramatic, like he/she leaves home for the first time, or has to go on a far away trip for some reason.

Chapter 3 – The main character faces some sort of complication to the conflict. The action starts to rise.

Chapter 4 – We learn more about the complication and wonder how the main character will deal with it.

Chapter 5 – The main character deals with the complication and moves on. But the overall story problem still exists.

Chapter 6 – But now, another complication occurs and we wonder what he/she will do this time.

Chapter 7 – The main character deals with the second complication and the reader begins to think maybe things will be okay for the main character.

Chapter 8 – But just when we think things will be okay, they get worse.

Chapter 9 – Things reach a crisis point. An action is taken that brings about the climax.

Chapter 10 – The climax occurs – This ends the crisis in some way and changes things.

Chapter 11 – The Falling action begins – this can be the start of the resolution.

Once you have all this initial information about your novel in place, you can start thinking of scenes for each chapter.

Make a few notes to describe each scene you intend to write for each chapter.

Keep in mind that once you start writing actual chapters, you’ll probably find that you need more than 12 chapters. But that shouldn’t be a problem. If one chapter is too long, just divide it into two chapters.

You’ll probably also find that your climax comes closer to the end of the story – say, in chapter 11. But, when you’re creating your initial outline, put the climax in chapter 10 to make sure you don’t plan to end your story too abruptly without tying up all the loose ends. start writing your novel, look at number 1 on your outline to see what your opening scene should be for the book.

Next...write that opening scene.

That's all it takes to start writing your novel.

Try it!

Suzanne Lieurance is a full time freelance writer, author, speaker, and writing coach. If you need a coach to guide you to start and FINISH writing your novel, find out more about her one-on-one book coaching at


Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, Great advice. The way you explain it it looks doable! :) One day I'll try a novel - I do have plenty of fodder for one. :)

Heidiwriter said...

This does seem easier than a "formal" outline--I always get cold chills when I think about outlining. I'm more of a "pantser" in writing, although I think my first draft is a kind of outline as I usually need to go back and flesh it out on the second go-around.
Thanks for the tip!

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Suzanne. Your advice is always helpful. I will see if my WIP fits your criteria today!

Magdalena Ball said...

Sounds so simple Suzanne! Of course there's the filling in, but it definitely helps to have an outline and I like your 12 chapter structure.

Suzanne Lieurance said...

I also get tripped up by a formal outline. But when I try this outlining method for novels it helps me be sure to include plenty of rising action and turning points throughout the story. I hope it works for you other writers, too. Best of luck.

Unknown said...

Suzanne I love your take on outlining a novel. If I endeavor to do an indepth outline I feel like I have no reason to write the novel because I've already written it -- in my mind anyway. So this version does simplify and captures the essence of what will make the task doable. I can see my way to completion with this. Thank You for this article.

Anonymous said...

Hi Suzanne,

Wow, your advice just comes at the right time for me. I am just in the process of writing a new novel.

I will follow this scheme and see how I do.

Thank you so much for your wonderful article!

~ Irene Roth

widdershins said...

Love it!

Chloe said...

This literally helped me so much! Thanks!

Karen Cioffi said...

Chloe, glad this article helped you! Thanks for stopping by.

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