Outlining Your Novel: Why and How

How do you outline a novel?

How do you outline a novel?

Outlining is a matter of dispute among writers, but if you are just starting out – what is outlining, why should you do it and how do you do it.

This post is based on my research as I am currently writing my own thriller novel. I stalled in NaNoWriMo because I didn’t have a plan, so now I embrace outlining wholeheartedly!

Incidentally, outlining is used much more in non-fiction books e.g. creating a table of contents at the outset. It is not always used in fiction writing.

What is outlining?

It is basically the process of setting out the main events of your book and working out the plot from beginning to end. It can be a rough 1 pager on how it all works, or a series of post-it notes put into an order for writing. It can also be a comprehensive meta-document that you refer to throughout your book and keeps you to the point. It is basically planning your novel before you write.

Why should you outline?

The point of outlining is to help you with the actual writing of the book. If you think through the plot ideas, the characters, the various arcs of the story and how it needs to come together, then the writing of it will be easier.

Some people believe in organic writing only and still manage to write novels, but check out this post from Larry Brooks on climbing Mt Story. The metaphor of the climbers getting to the summit in different ways is powerful, and the planner gets there first.

Some reasons to outline:

  • You know what to write next. There is no sitting around wondering what to write. When you sit down for your writing time, you know what to write about next. Or you can write a future scene that you have already planned out. You won’t get so lost and end up down a blind alley with your plot. This is really important for those of us who struggle to find the time to write. If you only have a precious hour per day, make the best use of that time by knowing what you will write about.
  • Change plot or incorporate new ideas. If you plan it out, you can see ways to enhance the plot and add in new ideas. As you research, you will know where to put them in or what to change. These ideas could be lost with organic writing. A living novel outline document can be morphing all the time.
  • Find out the problems and holes in the plot or characters. Work out how things are meant to happen before time instead of as you write. This may enable you to see gaping holes in the plot or some problem with a character.

Here are some more benefits of outlining. With an outline, you can follow it to the letter and add to it or you can change your mind along the way, but at least it gives you a head start. It doesn’t have to be set in stone.

How do you outline?

There are a number of ways you can outline a book and you just have to pick the best for you. There is no ‘right’ way to do it. Here are some ideas:

  • Basic Document. Use Microsoft Word and just get it out onto the page. I am currently using this method. I have a table with the various chapters in which I have filled in with the key plot and action. I have a separate list of characters, themes, ideas and another document for research. I am basing this on Scott Westerfeld’s Meta-documents post which I found very useful in NaNoWriMo. You could also use Excel for a more spreadsheet approach.
  • Mindmapping. Use mindmapping to brainstorm in a non-linear fashion. You can mindmap on plot lines, ideas, characters and then organise the mind maps into a bigger picture. Write to each arm of the mind map. I found this useful for initial idea brainstorming but it is not detailed enough for me at this stage.
  • The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. “Good fiction doesn’t just happen. It’s designed.” This is a great article describing the process using a snowflake metaphor. Start small and then expand on each area. Start with a 1 liner about the book, then a paragraph, then expand it out from there. This method is quite scientific and gives you a very extensive plan. Definitely worth a look if you are struggling or you are a person who already likes spreadsheets.

Other good posts on this topic:

Do you have any tips for outlining? How do you outline a book?

Image: Flickr CC Jazzmasterson

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    • Ramona says

      I have the trial version of Scrivener on my PC and although I’m still learning how to use it, I love how it is set up.

  1. says

    I can say I have become a Scrivener convert. I initially used the beta for Windows as an outlining tool. I really like the corkboard layout, I am horribly unorganized and this helps. For NaNoWriMo 2011 I made the full move to using Scrivener for the entire project. It has made a huge difference in my writing.

    Scrivener Windows is out of beta and now available for both Windows and Mac. If anyone is interested I still have a limited time coupon that can get you 20% off the price. Fell free to visit my site and make use of it. Enjoy!

  2. says

    Liked the article – just to let you know that Scrivener IS available for PC and had been for a while now – I just wrote my first novel ‘Edison and the Dinosaur Zoo’ with it on my windows laptop.
    It’s a great piece of software – for outlining, planning and writing.

  3. says

    I’m about to jump on the outlining bandwagon. After four years spent in college of trying to “write by the seat of my pants,” I am willing to try any other method to get this story out of my system and onto the page, so I can start rewriting it and molding it into publishable quality. Thanks for the links and tips!

  4. Rikky Levesque says

    When I did my first Nanowrimo book last month, I already had a concrete plan stuck in my head and the rest was all flowing through into the word document. I’m doing 2nd draft of it right now but at the same time, I’m also outlining other projects that I wanted to tackle with, like a fantasy novel for instance. And character journaling sounds like a great idea since it can make characters more richer and life-like.

    On side note, I’m loving Pentecost a lot. Can’t wait to read Prophecy and Exodus.


    • says

      I’m currently re-outlining the novel I started in NaNo :) which I should have done prior to writing. I’m definitely moving more to outlining over time, as I can see how it speeds the writing up. It still leaves room for development, but it means fewer re-writes e.g. I am already having to rewrite some scenes since I have moved the introduction of one character later in the book.

      [I’m so glad you’re enjoying the ARKANE thrillers!]

  5. says

    I think this is one of the hardest parts of writing. I’ve tried the seat of the pants methods and sometimes I do ok on short stories. But on longer works I usually stall unless I outline. For the past year I have been playing with yWriter and have been very happy with it. It’s a nice blend between useing a database and a word processor. Thanks for the great write up on outlineing.

  6. says

    I kind of outlined my first book. I knew what was the plot, what the main events were, how it was going to end, the twist etc. But if I just wrote all that I would only end up with 10 chapters—half a book. So a lot of the in-between was organic, and then it’s funny how I changed several scenes when one just crystallized out of no-where — I thought wow, this was even better. So I also understand when some writers like to write organically but since I write romance/action/thrillers I have to plan the plot well for a believable resolution.
    Right now, for my second book, I was stuck on the fourth chapter. I knew what I wanted to happen midway through the book and what the ending would be. After I sat down yesterday to plan the chapters, I came up with a big action scene. And when I woke up this morning, a better ending came to mind. Now I am unstuck and ready to write. :)

    • dan says

      I feel your pain.
      I don’t like to outline, or I don’t like that term. What I do is set up benchpoints. I know where to start and I know where i want to be forty or fifty pages later, i just don’t know how to get there and I like to bumble stumble my way there.

      The details of how are simple. I want to identify all the plot threads, the main one and all the side threads. For each thread I like to fill out this chart

      Beggining– Someplace to start. Introduce everyone and everything you’ll need later
      end of act 1– This is when the exciting stuff starts.
      end of act 2– Climax
      end of act 3– Final scene.

      I like to do this for every thread then see if I can combine beginnings and endings. If I can come up with a scene that accomplishes everything that all the individual openings and closings acomplish then I’ll tear up the old for the new.
      Next I order them and voi la (spelling?). Usually eight or nine points and if you’ve got a scene that you know will be in it, slip in it. Normally I have twelve benchmarks. Now you just write scene one and make your way to bench mark two. ALong the way things will change, they always do. Don’t necessarily go by the benchmark list, use it only when you need it.

  7. Kat Arnold says

    I’m actually getting prepared to do NaNoWriMo this year (2013)! I’ve been looking for an idea on how to write an outline for a novel, because I’ve never written that way before, but I think I need to for this, otherwise, I know I won’t finish. So, thanks for this!

  8. Mekonnen says

    That is a great article. Thank you. An outline is as you said and as others say. It is not one-good-for-all. I think that outlining is building your novel bone by bone so that you can fill the flesh in later on. Mind you, the bones are not easy to find and build and much less the flesh. One can outline if only she sees the whole events of the novel, which is the core and very difficult task. So, outlining itself becomes organic. You may sit on and on organically thinking about the events. If you complete the organic, then outlining is much less difficult. Planning and even scheduling your novel writing comes next. You can only plan the flesh filling. The bones are organic. Outlining in research is different and easier as researcher knows his thesis, which is not so in novel writing. In novel writing you create events and characters from nothing while in research you discover what is already there.

  9. says

    I honestly feel that I wouldn’t be able to write a novel without outlining it all first.

    The structure of my first novel was very important to the plot, and so I needed to have a clear outline – literally chapter by chapter – so that I wouldn’t get carried away and start taking the story in different directions.

    For my second novel, I created an outline but this time allowed myself to be a bit more lenient with this, and there were definitely times I deviated from what I had planned. Even so, I always had the outline document open so that I never strayed too far away from the premise and idea behind the story.

    The only exception to this is short stories. Sometimes I plan them, but most of the time I just sit at the computer, write, and see where the story takes me.

    I genuinely wish I could write novels the same way – it seems like a much more fun way of working! – but due to the complexity of all the various characters/story arcs/etc in a full length novel I just find it too difficult.


  1. […] how outlining made her productive. Her entire article makes an excellent case for planning. Do check it out. At the beginning of her article, she writes: I stalled in NaNoWriMo because I didn’t have a […]

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