How to Outline a Novel Chapter by Chapter

Writing a novel is a massive undertaking that often requires planning before you start putting words on paper. In particular, a chapter-by-chapter outline lets you jot down the main ideas for each installment of your book, from what characters appear in each chapter to how its major scenes advance the plot. Outlining each chapter of your novel can lessen the stress of your project by giving you an idea of where your story might be headed.


Because a novel's plot is longer and more complex than a short story, it is also populated with multiple characters who serve different roles, from the main character to the villain to minor characters who are integral to specific scenes. Since a novel features subplots along with its main narrative, it can be easy to introduce characters, then forget to pick up their storyline. You can use an outline to keep track of them all by creating a heading that notes which characters appear in each chapter.

Point of View

Point of view is another critical element for a novel outline. The most common point of view choices for novelists are first-person, the use of the pronoun "I," and third-person, the use of "he," "she" and "they." If your novel is told through the eyes of only one character, outlining this part should be easy, but many novels also use multiple characters' perspectives, such as in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" and William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." If your novel has multiple narrators, be careful to note in your outline which one witnesses each chapter's events.


When screenwriters craft film scripts, each scene includes a heading that states where the action takes place. Similarly, your novel outline can include a brief description of what locations appear in each chapter. Determining a setting for each scene can help you figure out where the story's turning points might occur, as well as how the characters can interact with their environments. For example, setting plays a pivotal role in each chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," as the opposing neighborhoods of East Egg and West Egg reveal class distinctions and conflicts among the characters.

Chapter Objectives

Ultimately, each chapter is designed to move the action forward. Throughout most novels, the main character works toward an objective and encounters numerous obstacles along the way. In each chapter section of your outline, you can make notes about how the events of that chapter will advance the character's story. The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library's Community Novel Project also suggests outlining each chapter according to elements of the traditional fiction plot arc, including exposition, rising action, climax and resolution. Both techniques can ensure that each scene serves a purpose in developing your character's journey.