Outlining your novel: a method.


Ok, let’s start by saying what this isn’t: it’s not a post about why you should outline rather than write by the seat of your pants (and it would be great if we could stay away from that particular debate in the comments). It’s also not about how you should outline your novel. It’s about how I happen to do it.

At Magical Words we often say that there are many different ways to approach writing and that not all methods work for all writers. This post is going to be a case in point.

As I’ve said before, I used to be a pantser, but found that my books often lacked a tightness and sense of purpose because I had a hard time getting enough distance from the first draft to really knock it into shape. In one fairly recent instance which I’ve mentioned before, I returned to a book I hadn’t been able to sell and stripped 22,000 words from it in a single pass, but it took me over two years to be able to see what was wrong with it. (Good news: I subsequently sold the book. It’s a thriller called The Tears of the Jaguar and it will be out later this year.)

But opting to outline a book doesn’t present a single formula to work by. I’ve heard of writers (I think the excellent thriller writer Jeffry Deaver is one, though I don’t know that first hand) who spend as long or longer on the outline as they do on the novel itself, producing an outline which is sometimes a couple of hundred pages long (about half the finished novel)!

I don’t work like that. For me, the actual writing of the novel is the fun part, and it needs to stay very organic and subject to change, particularly if I make a discovery along the way, or otherwise want to deviate from my outline.

Some authors talk of their outlines as if they are blueprints which nail down every feature of the final book or roadmaps which outline a journey, but permit some deviation along the way. I prefer to think of mine as a thumb nail sketch, and an impressionistic one at that; it’s light on detail and packed with wiggle room.

I’ve just completed the second in my Darwen Arkwright middle grades series so I’m able to look back on the outline I constructed and see pretty well what changed in the drafting and revision (though since the book won’t be out till fall, I’ll be avoiding spoilers!).

Some specifics:
The finished novel came in around 92,000 words or 370 pages. The outline is 5,000 words and is 18 pages. It’s written, for the most part, as a narrative summary and concludes with a couple of charts listing character names, their nature and functions in a few words. In short, the outline reads like an extended pitch letter, a summary of the story told as colorfully as I can manage it, not simply an outline of the plot. This is partly because I wrote it to show my publisher what I planned to do with the book, before I wrote it, but I think I’d use the same method even if it was strictly for me.

I know some people use charts and diagrams and other things, but for me something linear and narrative, something that feels almost like an overdense (in terms of plot) and sparsely detailed short story works best. It lays things out in roughly the same way I will construct the novel: sequentially and in coherent prose. This way the leap from the outline to the book is smaller than it might be if I worked from, say, simply a list of events or scenes (though that is how the outline sometimes starts until I have the whole thing figured out).

Though a paragraph of outline might indicate a theme or series of events which are dotted throughout the book, it usually stands in for an extended sequence or major event, so the chronological progression of the outline is almost the same as the finished book.

The outline is dotted with adjectives and phrased so that the feel of each scene or beat in the story is clear, not just the events. I’m trying to get a handle on the shape of what I plan to be the reader’s experience, not just a listing of what happens, and that is particularly true  in terms of the main characters’ emotional journeys.

The narrative is broken down into three acts, and assumes that the second is twice the length of the first and third. The first act thus sets up who the characters are, their major conflicts, goals and needs, and does so in 880 words. The second act contains the bulk of the stuff which is going to happen once the story really gears up and is comprised especially of obstacles, discoveries, and suspense or action sequences (2700 words). It also depicts the world in which the story will take place and builds on the emotional journeys already hinted at. The third act (1,000 words) maps the resolution of the story, particularly the final showdown, what is won and lost. The whole thing reads like the summary of a novel that already exists.

Sometimes I will add more charts to this document, tables of the students’ class schedule, for instance, brief summaries of the monsters’ key features, world notes or matters of the story’s internal logic, but these are as much research and world building as they are outlining, and though they may wind up in the same document, their function is a little different.

What the outline I’ve described above provides me with, then, is not just a skeleton, but something that already has some muscle and sinew on it. It shows me how the story is supposed to move, and how it should affect its readers. Rereading it now, I find that the book I wrote in 2-3 months adhered to the shape I sketched out in about a week surprisingly closely. I did move some things around, and I made a couple of key changes to character and action when I realized that my sense of who the good/bad guys were needed tweaking, but that (admittedly extensive) change didn’t happen until after the first draft was complete.

An outline like this helps me to see the whole story at a glance and helps me get a good sense of the structure, major conflicts and big ‘visual’ moments. I can usually tell from this if the action is all packed together and there are likely to be long, slow sections elsewhere, and I can fix those issues fairly easily. When I come to write the actual book, the outline provides me with a kind of safety net, something that allows me to press on knowing that I’m roughly on the right track. It also makes it almost impossible for me to have anything like writer’s block when I really don’t know what to do next.

Again, this is just how I do it. I hope you find the model useful.


25 comments to Outlining your novel: a method.

  • By the way, I continue to be under the weather and expect to be in bed for much of the day, so please forgive me if my response to comments is less frequent than usual. I will get to them: promise.

  • DizzyMia

    AJ, sorry you’re feeling under the weather still, hope you feel better soon.
    Thank you for putting up this post! I was just wondering about methods of outlining the other day 🙂
    While I definitely like the way you outline, and might very well incorporate it into my own toolbox, do you know how others outline? I don’t think outlining methodology has been talked about too much on the site rather than the pros and cons of panster vs outliner.
    P.S. Congrats on selling Tears of the Jaguar!

  • Cool. Sounds a lot like what I did for my sci-fi novel. I think my synopsis I wrote before I started writing the novel ended up being 5-6 pages and another three of character and tech information, so I could keep that all straight while I was writing. I ended up taking that synopsis later and shortening it to where agents/publishers wanted it for their sub requirements. It was like pulling teeth, actually felt harder than actually writing the novel, but it kept me on track with where I wanted to go. There was one area I moved and another that I hadn’t written into the synopsis at all because as I was writing, I hit upon a scene that tied some things together so I went with it. Kind of one of those instances where the characters sort of gave me a direction I hadn’t planned based on how they would have reacted to certain information.

  • I think you read my mind this morning, A.J. I am just beginning trying to plan out a novel and your method sounds an awful lot like what I am attempting to do with mine. Thank you for writing this when you did. It will help me a lot.

    I hope you get to feeling better!

  • Julia

    AJ, this was really helpful. I’ve resolved to do something by way of outline or plan before beginning my next novel, but I’m really looking for a method that will continue to feel sufficiently organic and interesting, so that I don’t strip the fun out of writing the book. There are a number of ideas here that I’ll play with, to see if I can adapt them to they work for me.

    Hope you feel better soon!

  • Chicken soup. Seriously, my people know what we’re talking about on this one — it cures all ills.

    Thanks for this glimpse into your process. I outline as well, though I must admit that my outlines tend to be far, far less detailed even than what you describe here. I will usually break down my plot into as many parts as I want there to be chapters in the book — usually 20 to 25. And then, in one or two sentences, perhaps three, I will describe the narrative significance of each chapter: “Ethan encounters Sephira and her toughs on the street. Fight ensues.” “Ethan finds the stolen gem at the town gate, only to realize he’s been duped into leaving X unprotected.” Why so little detail? Two reasons: First, as I’ve said before, if I do much more than that, if I spend too much of my creative energy on the preliminaries, I find that when I go to write the book my writing and pace suffer. And second, I find that by around chapter 10, the actual book has deviated so much from the outline that I need to outline the book a second time. At chapter 15, I usually have to do it again. So investing too much time in that first outline makes little sense for me. Now it’s possible that if I spent more time on the first outline, the manuscript would deviate less, but then it comes back to the creative energy thing.

  • A timely post. I expect to have finished the outline for my current WIP within the next week. I’m very excited.

    So far, the outline is touching on 9,000 words (at about what I believe is the 3/4 mark). However, the outline includes not only short descriptions of scenes and character actions, but in several places there are notes (in curly-brackets {}) to myself about additional things I think I need to be cognizant of while writing that scene. In a couple specific instances, the curly-brackets actually contained a long dialog written with myself about where I want the plot to go, what could be motivating certain characters, and so on. Basically, I used this as a method to figure out what happens next and why whenever I got stuck on the outline.

    This 9,000-word (and growing) outline, however, is on top of about 40,000 words worth of worldbuilding material, background notes, and character profiles. The results of all of that is that the world the story takes place in feels real to me, and I feel more confident about writing in this world and about these characters. And I find that the world interacts with the plot, driving and shaping it in the same way that the actions of the characters do, so that the world is a character in its own right.

    Right now, I’m trying to figure out if there’s a software package that will help me keep all of these details straight while actually writing the book – something that can take the outline and help me get a better feel for overall character arcs and plot threads and pacing and so on – and especially for the timeline as the timing of some events is important for the plot. I’m aware of the tools many writers use for these purposes (Scrivener, Liquid Story Binder, Storybook Pro, and yWriter are the tools I currently know about), but I’d rather not take the time to learn each one right now – I’m hoping to be able to figure out which is most likely going to suit my needs now and run with it.

    Regardless, I’m excited to be starting on the actual first draft after I finish this outline.

  • Cool post! I outline, but not in that much detail–or rather I outlined my last book. I found, though, that as I wrote my outline changed a ton. I’d reword it as I went, changing things and reworking the outline. Where it really helped, too, was in the revision because I already had notes of what needed to be done. This whole much longer, denser idea sounds really great. I broke mine down by chapters–aiming for about 30 chapters. As I wrote I found some things weren’t whole chapters, and others were definitely more than one. I think your three act structure makes more sense, really. This is something I’ll really try. Thanks!

    And sleep. Seriously. I’m all for chicken soup, it works wonders, but sleep. Feel better soon!

  • Be well, AJ. Excellent post. Thanks especially for the tip about using adjectives and mood/feeling notations in the outline. Good idea.
    I developed a 41-page outline (10-point, single spaced) for my current WIP, and this was the most detailed outline I’ve ever done. It contained 29 scenes. By the time I completed the first draft (4 months later), the actual manuscript contained 46 scenes, and had deviated substantially from the outline most in the latter scenes. The enting of the story I wrote is drastically different (better, I think) than the outline. But the outline was a fantastic tool that helped me write an 85,000 work manuscript in three months.
    But now, I’m in the revising stage, and the outline isn’t as helpful. I find I’m spending as much time revising the outline as my story. I like the idea of using the outline as a foundation for the synopsis, but in order to do that, it really needs to match the plot line in the manuscript. MY question is, do you go back and update your outline to match the story?

  • AJ, I’ll add to the chicken soup debate and suggest Vicks Vapo Rub on the soles of your feet and warm socks. Seriously. Mama suggested it with my last cold and I laughed. Until I tried it and I woke so much better. I also got well 3 days before hubby did, and he refused to put stinky grease on his feet. So there.

    Outlines – I’ve done so many different outlines over the years, but mine are now mostly like yours, present tense narratives. One thing I do different – as I write, I go back and color code things I’m done with (teal), and things I changed (red) and things I decided not to use (gray). Some of the ones like yours have been 30+ pages and some as little as 5, all single spaced.

    To answer Dizzy Mia, I’ve used:
    1. Linear outlines with headers and Roman Numerals and alphabet letters like they taught in school,
    2. Bubble outlines (grape, web, and many other names)
    3. Color coded simple sentence outlines, with each color representing something: Character development mike be pink, story arc movement might be blue. I didn’t like this one, BTW.
    4. Colored index cards I thumbtacked to a cork board.

    I am sure others have used other kinds, but I ended up with a method much AJ.

  • So~ft kitty, wa~rm kitty, little ball of fu~r.
    Happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr purr purr.

    Now, lets do it in a round.

    But first!

    My outlining method is still in its developmental stages, but I’ve got it hammered into a vague shape at last. Fine-tuning will come with experience, I expect. I’ve done half of the method with one book (which I’m revising), and I’m using it to outline and develop the next book I’m planning…which is a bit intense.

    I start with characters, their motivations, and the conflicts that arise from that. From there, I try to figure out what the plot is in terms of my characters’ motivations, and also what kinds of subplots are possible/necessary given the secondary motivations and conflicts of the MC, and the motivations of secondary/tertiary characters. Then I follow the note-carding method on Holly Lisle’s blog. Once I’ve note-carded, the process gets a little more wobbly. I’ll have gaps that need to be filled in, characters whose motivations need to change, but have no reason to, scenes I want to happen but can’t fit in.

    I work with a synthesis of the snowflake method, the Hollywood method (thanks, Lou Anders), note-carding, and some of my own discoveries about character motivation. I actually did an entire blog-series about it for NaNoWriMo, which helped me hammer out the methods that I’ve been working with to account for some of my weaknesses (structure / motivation).

    http://lscribeharris.blogspot.com/2011/10/nanowrimo-outlining-workshop-part-i.html <–it starts there, if anyone is interested in doing the workshop I developed for my NaNoWriMo group. 🙂

  • Ok, I’m up, for a while at least.
    Thanks to all for the good wishes, the congrats on TEAR, and the chorus of Soft Kitty (Scribe). Much appreciated.

    Thanks also for picking up the comment slack and demonstrating so nicely that you don’t need me at all 🙂 Rather than respond to everyone individually, I’ll just agree that you guys are right on track, and add a couple of thoughts in rsponse to what has already been said.

    I should clarify that the outline I’ve described is the end result of a far less tidy process scribbled half-thoughts, ideas for scenes, core thematics etc. much of which won’t actually make the cut. I may have been jotting these down for weeks before I start to work them into the outline I’ve described here but they will be fragmentary and incoherent with none of the connective tissue required to hold them together. So the outline is a pulling together of scraps and a martialing of them into a story frame, and in all honesty, it often feels a little arbitrary until I’ve had chance to live with it a bit.

    As to updating the outline as I work on the book, I generally don’t unless it’s to add in a new idea (in bold, in square brackets so I can see where it deviates from the original) or unless I’ve really veered so far from the original outline that it has ceased to be useful to me and I need to start over. I rarely do that. Once writing, the outline is a safety net I can glance back at to reassure myself that I’m safe to keep going, but by then my focus is on getting the book right. If I’m unsure of it and am still in teh first 50 pages or so, maybe I’ll retool the outline, but after that I’ll just push on. The outline was there to get me started and provide some guidance along the way: once I’m well into the actual drafting, I don’t look back (or down) much.

    Again, thanks all and keep these great comments coming.

  • I agree – chicken soup and bed rest, a great combination!

    I think I’m going through a similar shift (from pants to planning)… For the longest time I thought of “outlining” a novel as just that, a bullet list of plot points like a research paper, fleshing out the story as I would write. But I (blessedly) had that notion shifted in the past year (I can’t plug “Uncle Orson’s Workshop” enough, here)… but I think “outline” is a bit of a misnomer, which is why it took me so long to find the light switch – what I think you describe (at least, how I have come to approach it) is that your process is telling the core story, then the writing of the actual draft becomes showing the story…

    I’ve been spending this month going back to a few older, stalled, WIPs – ones that I didn’t really know the core story that I was trying to tell – and applying a similar approach, and it’s done some wonders for the projects.

    Thanks for sharing your approach, great to see I may be on to something!

  • I’m still a ways from figurin’ out what works best for me, but I’m learning, which is good. In my main WIP, I focused on the outline. Big mistake for me, as was weak on defining my characters from the start. Once I hit revisions, I was totally head-to-desk, as my characters just weren’t real. I went back, and wrote fairly large character bios, and used those to adjust the story…resulting in major plot changes. Good stuff, but painful.

    With my NaNo project, I sat back and thought about characters first, and got through about a third of an outline before November 1st came around. Turns out the character work plus initial outlining gave me decent momentum, and I was able to transition to pantsing mode fairly painlessly. 40k words later, well, I like the story and the characters. (10k words short, but damn, 40k in a month. That’s a lot).

    Seems a hybrid of pantsing and outlining works for me, as long as I do my character homework. Pantlining. I thinks thats what I’ll call it.

  • Deb S

    I work up a loose, narrative style outline similar to David’s before my 1st draft, but I do a second, structured outline during the initial editing and revision process. First I break the novel down into a 4 or 8 act structure with the applicable chapters under each. Then I take each scene and jot down the following info:
    Writer’s goal(s):
    Physical Action:
    Character(s) goal:
    Conflict (both internal and external if possible):
    Once I have all that I can what’s weak or missing, what scenes can be deleted or combined and so on.

  • I hope you feel better soon AJ!

    I detailed my outlining process a couple months ago when I talked about scrivener, so I’m not going to rehash. I will say that even though my books always, without fail, change from outlined vision to finish product, my outline acts like a safety net as much as a road map. Knowing what is ahead gives me the confidence to work through the ‘now’ of where I am.

    And details are important for that.

    I recently had a scene in an outline with the only notation being something like “Characters set scooby-doo worthy trap for bad guy”, I spent the first 3/4s of the novel dreading getting to that scene because I had NO idea what was really going to happen. It took me most of the book to realize I’d been subconsciously dragging my feet writing because I didn’t know the answer to a key scene in the novel. So yeah, apparently details are important to me, even if I abandon them once I reach them. ^_^

  • AJ, feel better soon!

    I like this idea. I’ve been trying to create an outline for my next piece and all I have so far is a numbered list of events and lots of disorganized notes. I think I’ll try this method in the next little while to see how it works for me.

  • Excellent post – I hadn’t thought of doing it this way, but it sounds like a very effective technique. I may have to use it. When I’m outlining I often think visually – I need to see the story as a whole. (I plan articles this way too sometimes.) Once Emily and I literally drew arcs across a page for the MC, the Big Bad and the Love Interest and wrote event points on them to see where they intersected.

    I’ve also gotten benefit from using 3×5 cards to write down as many scenes as I can think of as they occur to me, whether they are chronological or not. Then I lay them out on the floor to see where the gaps are and where the clusters of related events happen. This also helps me see if I’ve got a good balance between different POV characters.

  • Razziecat

    I really like the idea of breaking the outline down into three acts! The outline I’m using now is great as a general road map – I know what’s supposed to happen next – but in the actual writing I sometimes find I haven’t envisioned something clearly enough. There are things that need more depth, but I don’t want to get too detailed in the outline; like David has said in the past, it lets all the fizz out of the idea. I’m starting to get an idea of what’s missing, and I think the three-act breakdown will help me with this. Thanks AJ! Hope you feel better!

  • The Mathelete

    As usual, I’m late to the party, but AJ, thanks for a great post. Get feeling well soon, buddy.

    I always thought of outlining like what I was forced to do years ago in school, but after reading your post, I think I actually do some measure of “outlining.” I’ve never been happy with the classification outliner vs pantser. Part of that is that I read pantser as panzer and get really confused, but I also think that beginning a story without any idea of where it’s going would be absolutely impossible for me. How would I ever know that I was done? The difference is that I don’t write my outline down. I know the end and about two dozen (on average) way-points I need to hit along the path for the narrative to make sense. These roughly correspond to 1-2 chapter chunks of plot. I also keep a database with character and location information so that nobody’s sultry brown eyes turn into piercing green ones twelve chapters apart (well, at least not without intervention of demonic forces or enchantment).

    The three act breakdown doesn’t usually work so well for me in longer works. I know a lot of writers use it very successfully, but I think those chunks of story just get too unwieldy for my “don’t write it down until you write it” philosophy. I think that also leads to some of the middle-muddle that Mindy talked about a week or so ago that never seems to plague me. If I’m planning on a 100kish manuscript, I’ll have 20-30 way-points to hit. That keeps the plot flowing and leaves the size of plot elements easily mentally manageable from writing session to writing session. I’m not necessarily suggesting that prescriptively, but it is what works for me.

    Thanks so much for sharing your methods. For those of us without formal training, it’s really helpful and validating to be able to compare and contrast methods and approaches with successful authors.

  • AJ, hope you’re feeling better soon. Keep resting, we’ll still be here when you return.

    I vowed after Shadowslayer to outline, and I did outline Song of Fury, but not enough. The little planning helped, but I think more time spent before might cut down on time wasted revising later. Not that I’m averse to revisions. I’d rather spend my revision time improving and polishing than tearing up and rebuilding.

    I actually might try something like what you discussed above, or maybe what David wrote in the comments. Either process would be helpful. Thanks,

  • Thanks, all! Feeling much better today. Glad you found the post helpful or provocative. As I said, this is just how I do it. Your mileage may vary.

  • Thanks for the interesting post. I HAVE to outline and plan and cannot imagine writing anything without it! I have a question, because when you said you wrote the novel in 2-3 months my eyes nearly popped! How long do you spend (approximately) on everything: planning, writing, editing – until you get your finished product?

  • Aderyn,
    it varies, and “finished product” is kind of a moving target, esp once an editor gets hold of it. My most recent book went through a couple of fairly extensive revisions before we got to copy editing, and that schedule was set by the publisher. For me, nothing to first draft in about 3 months is fairly standard, then another month editing for others to look at it. After that, I’m on the publisher’s clock and probaby working in 2-3 week increments on the next revision or two assuming there wasn’t anything too massive. My work is usually entirely done in 6 months of actual work, though that might be spread over a period of a year or so.

  • josephmcbee

    Great stuff AJ, thanks for doing this. I outline my stuff as well and I really like using index cards for that. I put scenes, lines of dialogue, descriptions, etc. on index cards and have the stack next to me as I write. I rearrange them as needed and even tear some up in frustration if they aren’t working. I carry some cards around with me as well so if I get an idea for my WIP, I just jot it down on the card and add it to the stack.

    In my humble opinion, the lowely index card is tragically underrated.

    Thanks again.