How I Outline My Novels
To outline or not to outline is a popular point of discussion in the writer community. So much so that there are two known camps:
Plotters vs. Pansters
Plotters are writers who plan/plot their novel before they start writing.
Pansters are so called because they “fly by the seat of their pants” with no (or minimal) plan before writing.
I’m a plotter.
Or am I? Maybe I'm somewhere in between. A planster?
Most of the time, I outline my stories. I do have one or two books that I wrote without any sort of outline, simply because I felt inspired to write it that way, and trusted my writer instincts.
Most of the time though, those same writer instincts demand some sort of plan. As far as how detailed my outline gets, it really depends. It’s a book-by-book basis. Generally, books with trickier plots require more detailed outlines, whereas books that are more character-driven, I can get away with a loose outline.
Not always though. There are no rules here, and that's really the trickiest part of it all! What works really well for the next book, might not work for the next. If there's no one right method for a single author, it goes without saying that there's no single right method for all authors!
I get a lot of questions about my outlining process, and I’ve always shied away from specifics, because there’s really no one process that I apply to every manuscript. I just sort of trust my gut on what format I want to write my outline in, if at all.
People tend to hear “outline,” and assume it means you’ve got to create one of those weird Roman Numeral-esque lists you created in college. They also tend to think that once you’ve created your outline, you’re married to it, like it's laminated or something.
I don’t use outlines like that. In fact, I don’t even like the word outline. I prefer “pre-writing (although I’m using outline for purposes of this blog post, since it’s a more common search term). Pre-writing is a more general way of describing the “stuff” you jot down before starting you manuscript. That could be scribbling a scene idea on a dirty cocktail napkin, or it can be creating an elaborate color-coded database, etc. All count as pre-writing.
Below I’ve summarized all my various methods of pre-writing. I don’t use all of these methods for every book, but all of them have seen plenty of use over the course of my writing career.
And again, I emphasize, some books only get one or two of these processes completed before I dive in, other books get ALL of the below outlining treatments applied before I type “Chapter One.” It really just depends on the story and how clear it’s feeling in my head.
My four outlining processes, in order from Panster to Plotter:
(1) Scene list/Brainstorm (Evernote)
Evernote is one of my most-used tools. I use it for everything from grocery lists, blog posts (like this one!) style sheets for my books, my dog's rabies vaccination info, favorite wines, book ideas, and so on. So it’s really not that much of a surprise that it’s usually the first place that any outlining for any book occurs. My scene list isn't fancy. In fact, at this stage, I make sure not to let myself get too rigid (something I’m often guilty of). Usually it’s as simple as starting a new note, and naming it, “[BOOK NAME] SCENE LIST.”
Then I simply write a list of scene ideas as they come to mind, in no particular order. Usually it’s just a word or two such as, “Argument in flower shop,” other times I’ll include a bit more detail if there’s a specific conversation I know will happen in that scene.
I don’t worry about POV or timeline in the story, or details of the setting. It should be noted that while I’m mostly very organized, sometimes I’m simply not; if I’m frazzled/stressed/lazy, sometimes when I have a new scene idea for my upcoming book, I don’t bother to put it in the “main” note with the other scenes because that feels like just "too much for my brain right now, damn it." I’ll just create a new note, something like, “Scene Idea for I KNEW YOU WERE TROUBLE, putting dresser together.” Like, that's literally what I type. That's the note. That's my outline.
For this approach to work well though, I highly recommend using Evernote tags. For example, anytime I create a note related to outlining, I include the following tags: brainstorm, outline, scene, [book title]. That way when I’m looking for “that random idea I had in the grocery store,” I can just search those tags to find my idea, even if the note itself was gibberish.
While Evernote is great for quickly jotting down scene ideas as they pop into your head, there’s a downside: it’s not great for re-arranging, or for ordering those scene ideas. For that, I prefer Trello. It’s a free service that allows you to create boards (think bulletin boards). On that bulletin board, you can create cards (think, index/note cards/sticky notes). You can write your scene ideas, and … wait for it … drag and drop! I use the Trello approach most often for stories where the timeline is really important. Or anything with a bit of mystery to be unveiled, etc, so I can see everything in order. You can also create color codes, which is great for labeling POV or specific plot elements and make sure you've got a good progression.
(3) Scene Summary (Evernote)
I go back to Evernote for this one. It's often a combination of the two above it (although some books, I skip the Trello step if I don't feel I need it)
This is most often my “working” document — the outline I reference while I’m doing the actual writing (although for some books where I want spontaneity, I work off the bare bones Scene List mentioned above).
I create a new note (or update my old scene-list one), and create a short paragraph for each scene that I’m pretty sure I want to write. I learned this approach from James Patterson’s MasterClass (highly recommend, by the way, no affiliate kickback, just a huge fan!)
Before learning this approach, I used to get hung up on the fact that some scenes were outlined in more detail than others—For Chapter One, I might know POV character, setting, dialog, time of day, but Chapter Seventeen, I wouldn’t know more than the fact that it was a sex scene. I’d get it in my head that I couldn’t start writing until I knew the same amount of detail for every scene—I’d think they ALL had to be short summaries, or ALL had to be detailed.
However, with this format, I simply write as much as I know for each scene. Some scene summaries might get a lonnnnng paragraph, others might get one or two sentences and a bunch of question marks to be filled in when I get there.
The other thing that made this a game-changer for me was the free-form nature of it. As I mentioned above, the word outline implies a rigid, organized document. That didn’t work for me. But sometimes the ol’ bare-bones “fight in flower shop” also didn't work for me. I needed an in-between, and this is it. With this summary format, I can incorporate POV. I know, not only what happens, but how the characters feel about what’s happening. This “summary” format of an outline reads almost like a synopsis—you can read it all the way through and know exactly what the story is about, not merely “what happens.”
I’ll also mention (and it’s very important for me!!!!), that I never number the scenes at this stage. I almost always re-ordering/skipping/adding a scene as I do the actual writing, and if I have to re-organize the numbers on my outline, I get fussy. Or worse, I abandon the outline altogether because it feels like a pain to update, thus creating more edits later on. Skip the numbering! You can simply cut/paste, or insert a new paragraph whenever necessary.
(4) Spreadsheet (Excel / Numbers)
Eventually, most all of my books get an Excel spreadsheet (or Numbers, in my case, since I’m a Mac user). Sometimes I create the spreadsheet for first draft, but usually I won’t create it until after my first draft is with an editor.
Because I always use a spreadsheet for revisions.
Here's how: I create a new spreadsheet, and the far left column is a list of scene/chapters by numbers. The header-row across the top has the following headings:
Scene short description (i.e., “Opening/Meet-Cute.”
Scene Long description (a bit more context on what happens in the scene)
Timeline (what day of the week/month it takes place in, within context of story)
Revision Note (this comes into play when I get edits back from my editor, and note which change needs to happen for each scene).
Then I fill it in. Again, this is more often done after I've finished the draft, when I know what the precise chapter numbers are, etc. Most of the time, for me, this structure feels too rigid for the first-draft—it’s not flexible enough to adjust for all the “ideas” that pop into my head, and I feel like I’m spending a lot of time entering new rows, re-ordering everything, etc. But for revisions, when you need to start locking things down, it’s invaluable.
And, if if you're a TRUE plotter, if you like to know the nitty-gritty detail before you get started, you'll love this format. It's especially gratifying to include a column with "COMPLETE" so you can check off how many scenes you have done!
(Pro-Tip: The spreadsheet is also a great wordcount tracker!)
As you can see, there are four very different approaches to outlining/pre-writing, all for one writer, sometimes for one book!
The best advice I can offer if you’re struggling to figure out how to outline: don’t lock yourself in.
It’s okay to switch gears from one book to the next. Hell, it’s okay to switch gears mid-book! If you find you’re rebelling against the idea of having to plan everything out, don’t! Jot down the scenes you DO know, and dive in. If you’re sensing that you don’t have a grasp on the story, maybe spend a bit more time with the outline, trying one of the more detailed options!