The benefits of creating a chapter outline for your novel

chapter spreadsheet template

Making a chapter outline is one of the best things I’ve done for my work in progress (WIP).

I’m in my second draft now, so this chapter outline (pictured above) is different than the one I made for my first draft. It’s a lot more focused on what I wrote, not what I planned to write, and it helps me to spot the strengths and weaknesses in my story.

To make the outline, I used Google Spreadsheets. First, I “froze” Column A and Row 1 (click “View” –> “Freeze”), which locks them in place. I set columns for chapters, color-coded by point-of-view (my WIP features multiple character perspectives). Then I created rows for all the major aspects of storytelling that I wanted to keep track of — plot summary, conflict (external, internal, and escalation), the quality and content of the writing (dialogue, body language or action beats, description or sense of place/setting, verb strength), worldbuilding, and character relationships and subplots.

Here’s how I color-coded the rows:

Plot = bright yellow
Conflict = bright green
Writing = medium blue
Worldbuilding = bright blue
Character relationships, arcs, and subplots = medium purple

I made a lot of different purple rows — for a character’s relationship to another character, a character’s interactions with and feelings about the world, and any side issues that I wanted to explore. Basically, these rows let me track a character’s arc, relations, and development, as well as any subplots.

I always colored in the cells for plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding and added notes — but I only colored the purple cells when something in the chapter contributed to those elements. For example, if Character 1 and Character 2’s relationship changed, I colored that cell and wrote how.

If one of the purple cells should have been colored in, or one of the main cells (plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding) weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be, I colored the cells orange and wrote notes on why they were lacking and ideas for how to address the problem. These orange cells are basically a “red” flag to tell me that I need to work on a certain aspect of the chapter — I just used orange because it’s a less stressful color than red. :)

This chapter outline has been crucial for getting me to analyze and reflect on how each chapter is contributing to the novel overall. Each chapter should pull its weight and be invaluable to the story. It should deepen character development and relationships, reveal a new aspect to the world, intensify or add conflict (or sometimes resolve it), and occasionally introduce or develop subplots. The writing itself should also be the best it can be. Filling out the outline for each chapter gives me a better sense of where the gaps are, which helps me determine where I should focus my self-edits and revision.

I made a separate spreadsheet for assessing each character’s relationship to another, which gives more “life” to characters other than the protagonist, but maybe I’ll cover that in another post. :)

Tip: This is just my personal strategy. Your spreadsheet (if you want to use one) can look however you want. In fact, I’d love to hear what you’ve done with yours!

But remember, anything you can do to help yourself revise smarter is important — because revision will make your novel awesome:

novel tv in your head

Do you make any spreadsheets to help you with writing/revising your WIPs? Let me know what approach you take in the comments!

4 thoughts on “The benefits of creating a chapter outline for your novel

  1. Hey, this is pretty neat. I’m currently trying to wrap up my own novel and have tried different approached to organizing and picking out weaknesses. In the end, however, I always fail to stick to it. Best of luck on your work!

  2. I’m less high-tec, just a load of cards on the floor (showing major events) and post it notes stuck on top (for each character’s storyline). It works fine until there’s a breeze, then…chaos. Spreadsheets would be a smarter way of doing it.

    1. I tried Post-Its, but I didn’t get much use out of them (probably for that reason you mentioned, haha). The spreadsheet allows me to see more information at a glance, which I find helpful. But everyone has their own method (or combination of methods) that they find useful for them. :)

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