Getting Started: Build Your Outline

I should start by saying that outlining isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who prefer to map out the story beats (possibly across a series of novels — as in my case) way before we fill in the details, outlining is a great way to push forward with your writing.

My weapon of choice when handling outlines is OmniOutliner (for Mac) by the Omni Group. Out of the package it’s simple and intuitive, but offers a plethora of formatting choices at the same time. However, if don’t want to part with the $40 (It only hurts a little) for OmniOutliner, any ol’ word processor with multi-level bullet points (i.e. nested lists), such as MS Word, will do.

I’m not going to go into detail here on how you can format your OmniOutliner outline (you can find several tutorial videos here). Instead, I’m going to focus on how to create a very basic, but powerful, outline that you can constantly expand upon as you flesh out your novel.

When going through these steps, keep in mind that your mileage may vary. These are guidelines, not rules.

  1. Title
    OmniOutliner — This will be written over the “Topic” field (double-click to edit).
    MS Word — This will go in the first line of your document.

    Give your outline a title (Usually the title of your novel).outline1
  2. Synopsis
    OmniOutliner — Click to the right of the first bullet point beneath your title.
    MS Word — Hit enter to go to the next line, and start your bulleted list with ctrl-shift-L.

    Here you will want to add a brief synopsis of your story (assuming you have one at this stage — if not, skip to Step 3). Later, each time you add a new beat to your story, refer back to this and ensure that the new beat fits under the “umbrella” of your synopsis and pushes the story forward. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance it doesn’t belong.outline2

  3. Chapters
    OmniOutliner & MS Word — Hit enter to create a new line and then tab to indent it.

    On this line you will type the name of your first chapter, or any chapter at all. It could be your second, third, even last. The idea here is to insert the content of the story that you do know, right now, in the order that you understand it will happen, regardless of the gaping plot holes in between. You can (and will — positive thoughts!) go back and add the rest later.outline3
  4. Beats
    OmniOutliner & MS Word — Hit enter to create a new line and then tab to indent it. After each beat, hit enter to create a new beat on the following line.

    Just like a novel, this is where the meat of your story will go — nested within the chapters. Here you can create a new bullet point for every little scrap of an idea that you have for a given chapter. Later, when it comes to writing the damned thing, you can “connect the dots” of your story, using these bullet points as your “dots.”outline4
  5. Rinse & Repeat
    OmniOutliner & MS Word — Hit enter to create a new line and then shift-tab to outdent it.

    This line should align vertically with the indent of the previous chapter. At this point, you’re ready to insert another chapter name and follow Step 4 to add further beats.outline5

Similarly, you can lay it out in WordPress.


  • This is your synopsis. Try to keep it relatively brief. Two to three sentences should suffice.
    • Chapter 1
      • Main character introduced
      • Main character finds herself in a heap of s#!t
      • Main character meets villain and dies a painful death
      • …or does she?
    • Chapter 2
      • Main character rises from her ashes like the phoenix
      • etc, etc…

With this outlining method, if you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can even add more books if you’re writing a series with an overarching story. The only problem with this approach is that you may end up with an excessively long outline. This is where OmniOutliner’s collapsing feature comes in to play.

With the simple click of the arrow on the left of each line containing sub-bullets or “children,” you can collapse entire chapters, or even the entire novel. This sort of visual compartmentalization can be very helpful when developing a story, as your thoughts aren’t muddied up with all the holes in your story at once, freeing you up to tackle them on a case-by-case basis.


I hope this little tutorial has proved useful to you. It’s a first for me, and a learning experience. I have a creeping feeling that my next blog post will be substantially more mundane.

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