How to Outline a Novel: 60 Index Cards Method

I used to be very against outlining books– novels– because I thought they had to be PURE and free-flowing and not sticking to any formula. But then last year, at the Hawaii Writer’s Conference, I attended bestselling author William Bernhardt’s outlining seminar. He said he couldn’t teach us the poetry of writing, but he could teach us the structure. (Yes, this was one year ago and yes, I am just now writing a blog about it.)

The structure are the bones on which the flesh hangs. It may seem counter-intuitive for a creative person to do a technical exercise, but it makes So. Much. Sense.

I will share with you this method of outlining as I understood it, minus Bernhardt’s entertaining delivery and graphics. (By the way, Bernhardt also gives workshops).

I then used this method to help me write my second novel. Results: It took about six weeks to write a draft of the novel I felt comfortable showing my agent (working full-time, pretty much). Granted, I’d been thinking about the idea and characters for about a year, so it was ready to flow.

60 Scenes in a Novel

Most novels have about 60 scenes and three acts (like a screenplay). The acts are a “series of sequences that culminate in a major turning point in a character’s life.” I wrote that down because Bernhardt said it twice.

  • Acts I and III have about 15 scenes each.
  • Act II is the longest, at 30 scenes.
  • Some novels have more scenes, some fewer. Some even have four acts.


1. Get 60 index cards out.
2. Write out one scene per card. Include notes forย  subplots, when characters are introduced, whose Point of View it is, etc.
3. Arrange them in an order of deepening intensity.

As I arranged, I paid attention to the following:

The Micro of Scene Work

Each scene is an event that changes the character’s situation in a meaningful way.

  • Every scene needs something to happen.
  • Each scene produces a change achieved through conflict.
  • Each scene shows how the character responds under pressure.

If the scene does not meet these criteria, take it out.

Also keep in mind:

  • There should be a sense of acceleration as the story continues
  • The obstacles should get more intense and the conflicts should escalate


  1. If you have multiple points of view, have the important events happen while with the main character.
  2. There should be a complete change in situations and should seem complete and irreversible. The protagonist should not be the same person at the end as he or she was in the start.
  3. Now, go back and take out the things that don’t help achieve these goals. Keep the things that do.

Plot Points

Then I decided where the following points are and marked them on the cards(or, if I didn’t have them, I created them):

  1. In Act I, mark what is called the Inciting Incident: an event that radically upsets the protagonist’s life and instigates the journey to the goal or desire. It sets the world into chaos, and the protagonist spends the rest of the story trying to set the world right. This is also the only time you get to have a completely coincidental out-of-left-field thing happen.
  2. In the middle of Act I, mark Plot Point 1. (PP1 for short). Plot points are big events that stimulate interest and make the reader think about the themes or plot.
  3. Plot Point 2, the next big event, comes near the beginning of Act II.
  4. In the middle of Act II, create the character’s Turning Point. This is when the character starts to overcome his flaw while dealing with a horrific event.
  5. The CLIMAX is comes near the end. “Don’t climax too fast,” Bernhardt warned. All the divergent subplots and plot must come together.
  6. The denouement is a quick wrap up. Don’t drag it out.

Also: You are allowed to break all the rules.

It looks something like this:

These are things I understood instinctively, but to have them explained made the proverbial light bulb come on.

Mind you, outlining won’t make your characters automatically interesting or improve your writing style. It won’t allow you to force bits of plot in just because it’s convenient or gets your character to the next plot point.

But it does force you to keep things simple, and focus only on important points of theme and plot.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

16 thoughts on “How to Outline a Novel: 60 Index Cards Method

  1. Ooh, love this method… thanks for sharing!

    BTW, I just read your book last week and really enjoyed it!! I plan on posting the review on my blog probably the week after next (since next week is book blogger appreciation week).

  2. This is REALLY helpful! I have an idea for a historical fiction piece I want to write and your description of the outlining process helped me “see” how to write it. Thank you! I’m now inspired to actually write something!

  3. What happens if you are writing a trilogy? How do these rules affect the arc and outline of that? Is there micro micro outline example?

    1. Essie, I haven’t written a trilogy, so I can’t speak to that. I do know that each volume should stand on its own, and probably the most important/exciting climax should occur in the final book, when everything comes to a head.

  4. I just took out 60 cards…I’ve been brewing on an idea for years! I also just read How to be an American Housewife….made me want to ask my mother to tell all of her stories and forgive. Thank you! I live in North County San Diego, and I’d love for you to come to our book club. I’ll contact you through email.

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