About How I Outline My Novels

A while back I asked if people were interested in finding out how I outline. There were responses via comments and emails, so I take it that people are interested. With any hope they are interested just because they want to know how another process works. Note that I said another. This is because there is no magical formula on how to outline a novel, just like there is no magical formula on how to write a novel at all. That being that the case, I made the choice to name this post How I Outline My Novels and not How to Outline a Novel. What works well for me, may not work well for you. In fact, it could end in a total disaster. For those interested, here’s how I go about outlining my thoughts for an upcoming project.

Step 1: The Brainstorm
I’m calling this the first step, but it continues long after this phase. In the very beginning, when the idea of a story first comes to me I open a file and jot down my notes. Very often these are incomplete thoughts, however, even at this stage I force myself to write it out as a sentence. I find that rather than putting down only a few words, a full sentence will not only provide me a greater context of what I meant when I look at the note later on, but it often leads to another idea. sometimes I can have paragraphs of scenarios and aspects of the world or characters in these notes. When I have a long list of notes and possible events for a story, I begin to shift from this note file to a more structured location.

Before I transition into step 2, I’d like to note that I’m a heavy user of Scrivener. It keeps everything together and allows me to open multiple files inside one “file” and thus my environment is easily managed. The steps I entail next become a little bit more difficult if using a plain word processor, but is still totally possible (I’ve tried).

Plot Point Template

How I Plot a Chapter

Step 2: Formalizing
The brainstorm phase is incomplete and leaves a lot of blanks and uncertainties. It is meant to do that. The purpose of the brainstorm is to get the idea out there. Once it is, I take that file and put it at the very beginning of the formal outline. As I continue to brainstorm during the formalizing phase I will update this outline in the new document.

The process of formalizing is simple. I go into my precreated templates for characters, plots, locations, and plot points and add in information. This is particularly important for the plot point template. Out of all the templates these are the templates that make up the back bone of the outline. They are the outline. I will look to my brain storming notes and find any event that works as a plot point. Sometimes this means picking and choosing or merging conflicting points. Each idea is then molded to fit the template. I use a who, what, where, when, why plot structure of the main event and a description of the conflict and result. If either of these two areas do not feel satisfactory or don’t move the story forward, they are out. This helps with eliminating unnecessary scenes. A scene that doesn’t satisfy the needs often is completely unnecessary.

Step 3: Fill in the Blanks
At this stage, the brainstorming finally stops, at least the notes do. Now that the existing notes have been formalized an understanding of the plot emerges by looking at the plot points. I make sure that I order them properly. At this point, rather than passively brainstorming, I begin actively filling in the plot points that need to bridge gaps in what is already there. I tend to think relatively linearly, so I generally am then coming up with how to stage the ending of the novel.

When all of that is done, I have an outline for a novel. I can then go through each point and understand the structure of the novel and what needs to happen and my general plan. Each plot point I create tends to act as a chapter placeholder and the summary in each gives me the baseline of what happens in that chapter. Since the summary is only a long paragraph, it grants me the freedom of structure, while allowing me then to fill in the dots of everything else.

What Outlining Does for Me
Outlining is a way for me to legitimize an idea. Until I go through the outline process, an idea is nothing more. They are plot bunnies hopping around in my head bumping things around and taking up space. By outlining, I give those plot bunnies a pasture to roam while maintaining order. I like order, but I also like a bit of chaos, which is why my outlines are not too strict. As you probably figured out, I do chapter by chapter outlines with guiding points to verify that the chapter is in fact moving the plot forward. I still like to let my tangents go. I think that is important for every writer whether they are an outliner or a panster. The ability to go where the plot wants is important and freeing.

Do you outline? Do you have any more questions about my outlining process? Or do you prefer letting the story take you from the very start?

If there are Fantasy Writers that would like my Scrivener Fantasy Template, let me know.

8 thoughts on “About How I Outline My Novels

  1. Nice post. I’ve never written a novel before but I usually start most of my writing by brainstorming a bulleted list of incomplete thoughts (assuming I don’t know what I want to write well enough to go straight into prose). Then I usually outline chronologically with a roman numeral style numbered list approach before I start writing paragraphs. I don’t consider myself a writer so it was interesting to see what your process was. I’ve also always wondered and been amazed by how authors are able to write such long books in a way that’s coherent, makes sense, and maintains the story all the way through. I’ll definitely have to try out the Scrivener thing to see if it helps me organize better.

    • Scrivener is a blessing when it comes to organization. It is available on trial. If you do try it, don’t get overwhelmed by all the features, but don’t be afraid to use them either or it will seem like a run of the mill word processor.

  2. I’m about to get back into a WIP I’d previously written three drafts on, adding a lot of new information as well as incorporating suggestions from a beta. So, time to definitely outline. I want to be more organized in my outline approach this time, more detailed.

  3. Word (see what I did there?) [I know you can’t withhold your laughter]. Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. I’m sure using it’ll be better than what I’m doing now but I guess we’ll see.

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