The blank page. The blinking cursor. Whether you still write the old-fashioned way on pen and paper or type your masterpiece on your laptop, the fact remains that beginning a novel is hard. You have your premise, your main characters dominate your daydreams, and you’ve done extensive research—but taking it from your head to the page can be overwhelming, leaving some newbie novelists frozen, staring at a blank page as white and daunting as a bleak winter scene out of Fargo.
Many writers agree we are split into two camps: the planners and the pantsers. The planners outline their novel’s premises, themes, and characters before ever typing “Chapter 1”. Some people are natural planners and organizers, and it comes through in their writing practice. The pantsers are just the opposite, sitting down to write with only a kernel of an idea to start, and following their creativity wherever it leads them.
There is no right or wrong in either approach. Whatever helps you write, go for it! If you find planning completely squelches your creativity, don’t force yourself to do it and remain true to your own style.
That being said, there are benefits to planning your novel. Some benefits include, but are not limited to:
If planning still seems daunting or you’re worried that you might box yourself into an idea, remember that your outline is never set in stone. It is yours to change whenever you need to. If you do decide to alter the plot halfway through your novel, just make the necessary changes to your outline and get back on track.
So if you are looking to plan your novel, or you’re still on the fence, take a look at the following outline templates (links included!) that will help you pen your next masterpiece like a pro. Try out more than one to find the one that resonates with you.
Every story starts here. Created by renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey is the archetypal basis to literally every story ever told, as this is the common foundation in comparative world mythology and religious narrative elements. Your favorite heroes’ stories have all been told using this basic structure, including Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Neo (from The Matrix), and the Lion King’s Simba.
The hero’s archetypal journey is comprised of these basic ideas:
Even if you don’t use this template for your novel, it is a great idea to at least study the basics of this methodology, as it has been the foundation of basic storytelling for thousands of years.
The story premise worksheet is a great planning tool for beginning planners. This template aids in building the premise of your story, what your protagonist wants, and the conflict they will overcome. Using a story premise template also helps you condense your story idea into two sentences, perfect for crafting your book proposal later.
The premise template includes:
You don’t have to worry about the resolution yet—just get your basic premise and let your resolution come organically. This is perfect if you’re in the beginning stages of planning and have some holes in your premise. No overwhelm here—this template is very simple, quick, and not overly detailed.
Adapted from a popular screenwriting method, this fun, quirky template allows writers to plan their novel focusing on key events, scenes, and the symbolic milestone moments your characters must meet to resolve the action.
This template begins with you designing the opening image—your visual of the scene that sets the tone and introduces characters. Imagine if your book was made into a movie or the newest Netflix show—what scene would you want to be the first?
The template has theme development, inciting incident, the b-story, crisis, finale, etc., all broken down into acts. This is great if you’re transitioning from screenwriting to novel writing, or if you have a novel idea but you’ve mainly focused on individual scenes or events instead of the big picture. This will help you flesh out your novel’s main story points while developing your theme, breaking it down into manageable sections, keeping you free from feeling overwhelmed.
Also based on screenwriting techniques, the three-act paradigm is another sure-fire way to get all those brilliant ideas for your novel into an organized structure. The three-act structure is the most basic writing structure possible, so it is a great template for beginners and writers who are having difficulty with the overall big picture theme of their novel.
The acts are broken down like this:
While this is a basic structure for writing either a screenplay or a novel, using a template like this helps you structure the biggest, most important moments of the novel. So if you’re drowning in small details, this template will help you lay the groundwork for the big picture.
This would be perfect for intermediate to advanced novel planners, as this one does go more in-depth and may intimidate someone who has never planned a novel before. This template is ideal for novelists who have a great idea but feel overwhelmed by so many details. The snowflake method, based on fractal geometry, begins with one sentence and expands from there, step by step. So this is great when you’re excited by all your ideas but have no idea where to start.
With the snowflake method, you start small and methodically build to the grand picture. This method also teaches you how to craft your elevator pitch by spending time condensing your novel idea, its characters, and themes into one sentence that is fifteen words or fewer. While this sounds simple, writing with brevity is an art form—and more difficult than you think.
Your one sentence will then build to a paragraph, which builds to two, then a page, and so on. This template can help you really dive into what your novel is about, your characters, their motivations, and the deep theme. This template also includes writing a one-page summary of the novel from each character’s point of view, which may help you see your narrative from many different angles. The result? Masterful storytelling.
This template is broken down into thirty chapters, a good average for most novels, with guiding questions in each chapter designed to keep the action in your novel moving as it should. This is a great template for newbies who struggle with structuring their novel.
Originally only offered in subscription-only writing software like Squibler and Scrivener, sci-fi novelist Damien Ledoux created a Docx version you can download for free and use in Word or Docs. This template includes a simple list detailing each chapter, and a table to use at the end for your own notes. If you do use software like Scrivener, the Thirty Chapter template usually comes free with the software.
Each chapter is helpfully labeled to help get the creative ball rolling, with chapter titles like “Intro to MC” and “Normal Life”, followed up by chapters like “I Know What I Want” (mc’s goals and dreams), “I’m Getting What I Want” (how it’s going for the mc), and the “Inciting Incident” to name a few. This is probably the most detailed template for any novelist, but especially for first-time novelists who have a great idea but are having trouble figuring out how the action will unfold in their novels.
If you’re a sci-fi or fantasy writer, you know how important worldbuilding is for your readers. Because sci-fi and fantasy realms are so different from our everyday lives here on Earth, it is imperative for writers of this genre to take the time to vividly plan the new world they are creating for their readers. Middle Earth, the Outer Rim, and Hogwarts weren’t created in a day—they were methodically built.
Don’t let the painstaking details overwhelm you. Instead, use a template like the worldbuilding master guide that will make worldbuilding a much easier process.
Worldbuilding templates include sections like:
This template will help you slow down and craft a vivid world your readers will literally be able to step into—if only in their imaginations.
Without characters, where would your novel be? Since your characters drive the entire purpose of your novel, it makes sense to spend time lovingly creating complex, unique characters that will resonate with readers.
There are many different types of character outline templates structured around different genres, so you can play around with different outlines until you find one that works for you. Some character outlines are basic sketches to help you get a general grasp on your characters, while others are in-depth character analyses that go beyond physical appearance and general backstory.
To create a truly rounded character, you should look to the core of your character’s psychology as well, and a well-crafted outline will help you do just that. A character outline would be a good second step for newbie planners, after finishing a general outline first.
While there is no right or wrong way to write a novel, it never hurts to have a little assistance. Having an outline—whether it’s a simple bullet list or a complex snowflake—will help guide your writing, keep your story on track, and save you time editing later. The most important part of writing, however, is to write, so use whatever tools you need to help you meet your writing goals.