Three Steps to Write Chapter Outlines That Work

Doug Landsborough
December 14, 2022

It’s no secret that writing a book can be a daunting endeavor. Even the shortest novels are still a lot of words, and you need to figure out how your story will fill those pages, how it will be broken up into chapters, and how to  make it worth reading!

But the payoff is that you get to write a book, and that’s pretty dang cool.

In this article, we’re going to chat about chapters—a fairly important part of your novel—and, more specifically, how to outline them. 

Outlining chapters is like outlining a book… but different. If you’re outlining chapters, odds are you already have your larger plot, your characters, your world, and your theme outlined. 

But being able to outline your chapters effectively can be a real game changer. It can be the catalyst that takes your story from just an idea to the perfect collection of plot, characters, theme, and more.

But enough with all the exciting promises. Let’s learn how to write chapter outlines.

When and Why to Outline Your Chapters

It’s always helpful to know the when and why before the how. It helps give you the bigger picture in full Technicolor. 

There are two scenarios  for writing chapter outlines, and the one you use largely depends on what type of writer you are.

If you’re more of a plotter (meaning you like to plan out your book before the first draft), you’re going to want to outline your chapters beforehand.

For those who are more of the pantser variety (meaning you like to see where your writing takes you), chapter outlines can come in handy after you’ve already written the chapter.

That might seem almost pointless, but let me explain with our first why: having a map of your book and its individual chapters ensures you’re hitting all the right story beats, weaving together your subplots, and penning cohesive beginnings, middles, and ends for each chapter.

Even hardcore plotters might want to revise their outlines after they’ve written a chapter so they can make sure they’re on the right track at a glance.

For authors going the traditional publishing route, chapter outlines can help you pitch your story to an agent, editor, or publisher if you’re already an established author. They can also help you write a synopsis for pitching if you don’t have those connections yet.

And even though this is more for my plotter kin out there, a thorough chapter outline is one of the best ways to get past an obstacle or block without hampering your creativity.

How to Outline a Chapter

Okay, let’s look at the how. Chapters are like mini stories that come together to make up your bigger plot.

At the same time, there are some things unique to chapters you should think of when writing an outline.

To create our chapter outline, I’m going to be drawing on a few ideas from the well-known Snowflake Method, though without getting as intense. If you want to know more about that outlining process, check out our article here.

Step One: The One-Sentence Summary

First up, we’re writing a one-sentence summary of the chapter. Not two or three sentences. One.

This deceptively difficult task really makes you think about the purpose of the chapter. What is it you want to accomplish, and how does this chapter contribute to the larger story?

Step Two: Expand Your Summary to Include the Main Events

In this step, you’ll write a sentence or two (I know, I’m being too kind here) to summarize each of the main events in your chapter.

These main events must include the beginning, middle, and end, but those are by no means your only options. Especially with the middle, there might be multiple events to include in your summary.

Outlining these main events does a couple things for us:

  1. Ensures there’s cohesion and momentum in your chapters. These events should make sense together and have a natural forward pace.
  2. Highlight any over-saturated chapters. If you have too many events in one chapter, it can either overwhelm or lose the interest of your reader. Summarizing them like this is an easy way to point that out.

Step Three: Condense Each Chapter to a Paragraph

Once you’ve summarized your main events, we’re going to expand our outline even more.

This time, we’re going to write a paragraph or multi-paragraph summary for each chapter. You can do this in point form, too. The idea is that we’re now getting to the point where you can start adding the finer details.

So go wild and include as much as you’d like. If you need some prompting (or guidance on what should be in there), below are some questions your paragraph-sized outlines should answer:

  • Are any new characters introduced? What is their purpose?
  • Does the setting change? How did the characters move from one place to another?
  • How has the protagonist or another character changed throughout the chapter?
  • Has any important information come to light? What impact does this information have?
  • Was there a revelation made in this chapter?
  • Were any questions set up in this chapter to be answered later?
  • Were any questions answered that were set up previously?
  • Are any subplots introduced or resolved?
  • What obstacles or other things have you put in the character’s way to make things more difficult?

If you find yourself struggling to figure out what should be in your chapters, I recommend bookmarking our article about story structures. Not only do we cover a handful of different structures, but we review the most significant beats and scenes in a story to help get your mind going.

Use the Plot Grid To Keep Things Organized

If you really want to take your outlining to the next level, let me introduce you to the Plot Grid. Now, this powerful tool is available to Dabble users, but even non-Dabblers can try all our premium features for fourteen days (without even putting a credit card in) by clicking here.

If you don’t like free stuff—no shade, really—you can do this all manually with a grid or something similar. 

Using the Plot Grid, you can set up chapter summaries and include broad categories like subplots, setting changes, questions that were answered or will be answered, and basically any of the points we’ve mentioned along the way. 

I know it might sound like organization is boring (unless you’re someone who likes color-coding things, which I can appreciate). But we’re not doing all this organizing and outlining just for fun.

Using the Plot Grid to keep all these summaries organized gives you that high-level overview of your story while letting you dive into all those details with just a single click.

But, if you’re up for the challenge, we can take it even one step further.

Optional Step Four: The Scene List

For the extreme plotters out there, this idea is taken right from the outlining depths of the Snowflake Method and integrated with the power of the Plot Grid.

A scene list is exactly what it sounds like: a list of scenes. Going this deep means you’re outlining each and every scene in your book, not just the chapters.

With a Book Plot Grid, we can attach notes to each scene. If you use this type of Plot Grid to build a scene list, it can look something like this:

You’ll notice a couple things here. Each scene has its own place in the leftmost column (thus why we call it a scene list). From there, we have a spot for a scene summary which you can fill out as much as you’d like using the information we’ve covered in this article.

Next to that is a list of characters in the scene. If you’re using the Plot Grid, you can open a Note Card to keep track of any details about their character arcs for easy reference.

Then we have the POV or the perspective the scene is told from. One of the great things you can do with the Plot Grid is attach labels to cards. In this case, I’ve tagged each scene with a label that color-codes which perspective I’m using in that scene. More than anything, this helps ensure I’m not using secondary characters too often or main characters when it isn’t as effective.

Finally, we have a card telling us where the scene takes place. Use this card to include any notes about how your setting influences the scene and the characters in it.

You’re also free to include other columns here if they help. Things like one-sentence summaries, which subplots are attached to those scenes, and more. The nice thing about a Book Plot Grid is that anything you put in a scene’s row will automatically show up in the Right Sidebar when you go to write (except when Focus Mode is on, of course).

That puts all your notes right where you need them, exactly when you need them.

Just so you don’t have to scroll back up, here’s the link to try out the Plot Grid and all Dabble’s premium features for free. Like free free. No credit card, no surprise charge when the trial is up.

Now go kick some outlining butt.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.