How To Outline Your Novel: The Options

(Disclaimer: NAPLO YONOMO is the protagonist of STAR WARS AFTERMATH TWO: EWOK SNUGGLEBOO. He’s a fancy gentleman Gonk Droid with a debilitating spice addiction!)

Next month is National Novel Writing Month, aka, NaNoWriMo.

This month, I am declaring to be NaPloYoNoMo, or National Plot Your Novel Month. Or, if you prefer the more profane edition, NaPloYoMoFuGoDaNoMo month.

I want you to think about the planning, plotting and scheming of your novel.

I want you to think about outlining that novel.

Now, some of you are resistant to the idea of outlining. I know. I get it. Some of you upon hearing the word “outline” clenched up so hard, your buttholes permanently sealed shut. Now it’s just a smooth patch of flesh like bubble gum stretched across a puckered mouth.

BUT NOW HOLD ON.

Calm down. Unseal thine buttocks.

Outlining fucking sucks. I fucking hate it. Every time I do it I have to grit my teeth and swig whiskey and engage in a movie montage where I ragefully punch frozen beef and run through snow. And it takes me like, a day or two — three, tops — and then it’s done and suddenly I don’t fucking hate it anymore. It’s probably like building a house and starting with the basement. Building the basement has to be super shit-ass boring. It’s a basement. It’s just a cinderblock prison. It’s a horizontal dirt cave. The house itself above it — oh, that’s fancy. You get to think about where doorways are and which room will be the living room and the dining room and the SEX TARP room. You get to place windows and floors. But the basement: Ugh, fuck the basement. And yet, you need the basement. You need the foundation.

I need outlines. I am a pantser by heart, a plotter by necessity. I engage in the misery of extricating an outline from the hot pile of skull-meat I call a brain, and then I slap it onto the page and suddenly — boom-bam, there’s the book. Not in its entirety, but in its sheer potential. It makes a book feel possible. It makes a story feel a bit more manageable.

Plus, sometimes a publisher will ask for an outline. Work-for-hire will demand it. And often, pitching an unwritten novel (which becomes hypothetically doable once you’ve sold your first novel) may require an outline, too. So, it becomes a skill worth learning. I’m asking you take this month — October! — and try however much it chafes your particular genital configuration to outline your upcoming book. (Or, if you’ve already written a book, practice by outlining the one you already wrote. You’d be amazed at how clarifying this can be.)

Time, then, to talk about outlining.

But first, we need a few items of shared understanding regarding outlining. These are not so much golden rules as they are things I want you to grok regarding the plotting of one’s novel.

They are:

1. Outlining is a non-essential process. By which I mean, some writers like it, some don’t. Everybody has their own way forward. I’m encouraging learning the skill, not adopting it permanently. Writing and storytelling offer few absolutes.

2. Outlining will not “destroy the magic” or any of that wifty supernatural pegasus shit. I believe very much that writing and storytelling feels like magic while at the same time being a wholly and gloriously mundane activity. Further, if something like outlining is capable of stealing the lightning from your story, then what you had wasn’t so much “lightning” but a “static electric spark” like when you rub your footy pajamas on the carpet. Call me back when you have contained actual lightning — at which point you will learn that no amount of outlining is capable of diminishing its ELECTRIC FURY.

2.2. If outlining destroys your writing magic, editing/rewriting is going to fucking obliterate it.

3. One of the values of outlining is that it gives you a map forward — a fraying rope to reach for and cling to in the long darkness of the writing process. Another value is that it lets you muddle through the mistakes of your story early on — it’s a lot easier to fix a 2-3 page outline than it is to fix a 300 page novel, I promise.

4. When plotting any novel, remember: let the characters lead. You have heard me (er, read me) say this 100 times, so here’s #101: PLOT IS SOYLENT GREEN. IT IS MADE OF PEOPLE.

5. No battlefield strategy survives contact with the enemy, and no outlines survive contact with the story. Every journey across the country will require detours and unexpected stopovers — you should expect this, too, when you jump from the outline to the actual novel at hand.

So, with that being said, let’s talk about the various styles of outlining. Each have different benefits and disadvantages. Every book I’ve written has demanded a different kind of outline. Sometimes they’re ten pages long, sometimes they’re hastily scrawled on the drywall in my own body’s leavings. Note that these outlining modes are not necessarily exclusive to each other — they can be used together, if need be. Also, various pieces of software can be used across these outlining methods — Word, Scrivener, Excel (yes, you can do some of these in spreadsheets), Index Card apps for your phone, Mind Mapping apps, etc.

If you want some general tips and tricks first:

• Practice these by outlining movies and books you’ve already seen and read.

• You can Google up some examples (I’ve provided some, but I am confident that you know how to use the MAGIC GOOGLEMACHINE to make information appear.)

• These don’t necessarily need to be for public consumption. Write them as cuckoo bananapants as you want. Mine are not fit for public eyes and probably read like the Unabomber’s manifesto. That said, maybe I’ll ask you to share…

• If one style doesn’t work, flip to another. You can remix them together if you prefer.

• You’re not married to anything. It’s not like the Outline Police are watching from the trees, sniper rifles ready to peel your scalp in case you deviate from the well-lit path of the outline. The outline is you making shit up. Don’t stress. This is Play-Doh and Crayola time, not CARVING TRUTH INTO DIVINE TABLETS time.

The Book Jacket

Method: Emulate the text you’d find on a book jacket. Meaning, give 3-4 paragraphs detailing who the story is about and what the problem is. Not an outline, really, but a shallow synopsis.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ You can use it later on as your query letter.

+ The story feels unburdened by heavy plotting.

+ You have this to return to as a throughline to keep the story on target.

+ Small time investment.

– Actually, fuck that, it can be a huge time investment. I find writing three paragraphs of summary as time consuming as writing ten pages of outline. Because rendering your 500 lb. pig into a 5 lb. bucket is hard and frustrating and will make you want to print out your word garbage just so you can crumple it up into an origami boulder, cram it into your mouth, choke on it, and die.

– Too shallow to be highly functional.

The Proper Synopsis

Method: A synopsis will run about 2-3 pages, and detail the overall narrative thrust of the book. (Please be advised: “The Narrative Thrust” is the name of my patented sex move. It is illegal in six states. It is popular in Poland.) A synopsis is less about the sequence of events and more about the scope of the book. Detail the main characters, their arcs, the POV, the conflicts, the time and setting, maybe touch a little on theme. Broad strokes are necessary. You’re gonna have to skimp on plot details, but the synopsis isn’t entirely about plot. Give a sense of the beginning, middle and ending.  Bring all your writing talents to bear in case you want to one day use this with an agent or editor. Write it in 3rd person, and yes, most synopses are written in present tense. Rankle all you want about that. Go on, squirm. I’ll wait.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Can be used with agents or editors.

+ Broad, encompassing strokes are valuable to know even if you don’t want the nitty-gritty of the plot laid out in front of you — writing one of these before you write the book can really help keep you on track.

– The synopsis is almost always a giant fucking lie, meaning, you write it knowing full well you’re plotting a journey to another country half-drunk and blindfolded.

– Because it lacks a proper sequence of events, fails to function as a testing ground for whether or not the fiddly bits of the book actually work or suck moist open ass.

The Beat Sheet

Method: You literally outline every plot point. You list them with minimal detail. BOB EATS CAKE. MARY BETRAYS HIM. DON PUNCHES A MONKEY. They can cover major plot points only, or drill down and encompass every little beat of action that occurs. You can find a fairly minimal one here at John August’s site. Or, here’s Another good example at John’s site, this time of Charlie’s Angels (film). And here’s a list of Save the Cat! style beat sheets, too.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Lets you drill down into plot points and see where shit works and where shit fails.

+ Actually helps highlight potentially boring parts — when your beatsheet suddenly becomes BOB SITS and MARY CALLS FOR PIZZA, and it’s a whole lot of that, you can gain a sense that there’s too long a lull where not much is happening — you need to get back to the part where DON IS PUNCHING MONKEYS. Because monkey-punching is exciting. That is gospel truth. Take that to the bank and smoke it. /mixedmetaphor

+ Forces you to think about plot mechanics.

– Doesn’t really force you to think as much about character mechanics.

– Stripping down a story to these beats can be useful as hell, but also a little rote. Reducing the narrative to THIS HAPPENS WHICH RESULTS IN THIS BUT THEN THIS HAPPENS again has value — but if you’re one of those people who worries about the glittery unicorn magic of writing, this will definitely dull some of that sparkle.

– Works very well with film, TV and comics. With novels, the beat sheet tends to be longer.

– Further, novels tend to operate more strongly on an internal dimension — and beat sheets really aren’t meant to map the mental, emotional or intellectual dimension as well.

The One With The Roman Numerals

Method: This is the one you learned in school. The one with the Roman numerals (I, II, III) and then beneath that, in indented order: regular old numbers (1, 2, 3) cap letters (A, B, C), lowercase letters (a, b, c). This isn’t a hard-and-fast design — you decide exactly what fills these spaces. Each Roman numeral might identify a chapter and then you drill down into the events of that chapter. You might outline acts, sequences and scenes or some other aspect of story structure. You might just outline a series of emoji and dick doodles, I dunno. You do you.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Simple, easy-to-understand format.

+ Clean, versatile format that lets you do basically whatever you want.

– Ugly as shit, let’s be honest. Roman numerals are utilitarian. Can’t we use something cooler? Occult symbols? Nordic runes? The aforementioned emoji and dick doodles?

– Will remind you of high school which for me is like, a surefire way to get me to hate doing anything. Suddenly I’m getting cardboard cafeteria pizza and hours-of-homework flashbacks.

Scenes And Sequences

Method: Scenes and sequences are narrative measurements. Yes, you can measure narrative. It isn’t as clean as a math problem or using a a measuring tape to determine the length of something (elephant trunk, desk, dresser, snake, height, wang-length, your parents’ disappointment). A scene generally is set in a single location in an uninterrupted span of time — it is contained. A sequence is a gathering of scenes that fit together. c3p0 running into R2D2 on Jabba’s sailbarge is a scene. Luke walking the plank on the skiff above the Sandy Fanged Butthole just before R2D2 ejaculates a lightsaber into the air is a scene. Hutt-Slayer Leia is a scene. All those scenes add up to the LUKE MAKES GOOD ON HIS PROMISE TO STRAIGHT-UP MURDER JABBA THE HUTT sequence. A film tends to have eight sequences, roughly 40-60 scenes, and those add up into three total acts. You’re not writing film and the rules for film are pretty godsdamn flimsy anyway. The goal here is to write out every sequence and then build into that what scenes comprise each.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Gives you a feeling of how all the pieces large and small fit together.

+ A bit more nuanced than a beat sheet.

+ Plays well with the One With The Roman Numerals (above).

– Fits well with film, TV, comic book — can get a little leggy or sprawly with big novels.

Tent Poles

Method: Easy. Your novel requires a certain number of MAJOR PLOT THINGIES to be the story you envision. It’s like, VAMPIRE DAVE HAS TO USURP THE WEREWOLF PRINCE OF UTICA, and then THE WEREWOLF PRINCE HAS TO KILL VAMPIRE DAVE’S MOM and then ROBOT INVASION and man, I dunno, it’s your fucking book. Point is, the book is like a tent and it only remains aloft and functional when a certain series of tentpole plot points hold it up. Right? Right. So, you just need to write down the four or five big holy shit things that are utterly absoflogginglutely required for this thing to function. That’s it.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Gets you thinking in big, broad strokes — is the whole thing sensible? Here is your test.

+ Leaves you a lot of room between the tentpoles to roam, play, babble, wander.

+ A good outline for people who don’t want to outline much.

– Doesn’t deal much with character or the more finicky plot bits.

– Leaves a lot of uncharted territory where heinous fuckery can take root.

Chaos Reigns

Method: JUST GO BUCKWILD ON THAT SHIT. Like, free-write your way through the outline. No form. No meaning. Just you cranked up on the batshit adrenalin formed when you’ve got your teeth around a good tale, running like a hog on fire through the jungle of your story.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Fun, no rules, chaos is bright and alive and weird.

+ An amazing way to really cook your brain in the fires of this particular story.

– Not so useful as a reference document. It will end up reading like the fecal handprint wall of a conspiracy theorist — it’s all red yarn connectors and nutball phrases and also poop.

Zero Draft

Method: Kinda like CHAOS REIGNS v2.0. This is you writing the whole novel. Except not. You are going to write the book with little sense of what’s happening or any outline — in fact, your shit-ass half-ass draft will become your outline. It’s like a proving ground. It’ll either be too long or too short, and it’ll probably be too terrible to be functional.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ The purest way to just charge forward and embrace the power of sucking.

+ Will definitely show you the parts of the book that are fucked up.

+ If you invest your emotion properly — meaning, low — you don’t feel so bad about writing a bunch of hot sticky medical waste and then jettisoning it out the airlock to start anew.

– Not really an outline, and more a TRIAL BY FIRE TORNADO.

– Takes a long time and is messy as hell.

Characters In Control

Method: This is a character-focused outline. It says, “fuck the plot, let’s talk about these wandering hobos that fill my novel.” List out each character. Then write about them. Chart their wants, their fears, their needs. Chart their problems and their way to overcome their problems. Chart their arcs — who are they when the tale begins and what do they become in the crucible of the narrative? This is less about what happens next and more about creating a group of characters and setting them on their path together (or in opposition to one another) and watching the story unfold. (For your reading: the Zero Fuckery Guide to Creating Kick-Ass Characters, and my guide to creating great supporting characters.)

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Allows characters to take the driver’s seat; characters are why we read stories.

+ I find this is a little more fun and a little less proscriptive.

+ Less attention on sheer plotty event sequencing.

– Less attention on sheer plotty event sequencing. If what you need is to strengthen your plot, then this may not be the best way forward?

The Screenplay

Method: Write your novel as a screenplay. No, really, that’s it. A screenplay is, at its core, PEOPLE SAY SHIT and PEOPLE DO SHIT. It is dialogue and action with the sparest, barest description. A screenplay is an outline. It doesn’t seem like it, but consider: a screenplay is not the final product. A novel is, but a screenplay goes through various hands and phases before it actually ends up on screen. The script is just a series of suggestions as to what appear in front of audiences.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ An easy-breezy way to write a “zero draft” of your novel.

+ You’ll be amazed at how fast it is to write a book this way.

+ Flexes some different storytelling and format muscles.

– Um, it’s a screenplay? Which means you have to know how to write a screenplay. Format, etc.

– Screenplays are, A-DOYYY, not novels. So, you’re practicing with one format when ideally you should be learning to practice another. It’s like learning roller skating by training with a skateboard or with ice skates. It’s similar, and useful, but may not be a good fit for everyone.

As You Go

Method: Outline as you go. Finish a chapter and outline the next two or three.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Keeps your story loose and flexible, like the elastic in a comfortable pair of beloved underwear.

+ Never feels like you’re forcing yourself down one path (though again it is vital to remember that outlines are not sacred gnostic documents but just a list of made-up suggestions).

– It’s basically an act of drawing the map after you’ve started driving the car. It’s hard to see the deadman curves and blown-up bridges if you don’t plot the map ahead of time.

The Story Bible

Method: A giant-ass worldbuilding bible. No specific format, but assume it should read like the encyclopedia for a world that doesn’t necessarily exist. Focuses not at all on the plot of the single book and more about the overall world — including history, food costumes, design notes, religions, myths, traditions, holy dildos, mating parades, monkey-punching rituals, etc.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ It’s like, a big geeky bag of worldbuilding fun.

+ Lets you worry less about plot and more about creating a rich, fascinating setting that will spur the plot forward and give the characters an awesome setting in which to ROMP and GIBBER.

– Not actually plot-based, so — kinda separate from an outline. Also means you’re likely to build in tons of things that have nothing to do with the plot or the characters. A lot of excess.

– A very good way to waste time productively. Most things like this have a horizon line of functionality, and it’s very easy to traipse past that horizon line and continue writing your worldbuilding story bible for 16 years while never committing word one to the actual book you’re writing. It feels productive. But after a point, it damn sure isn’t.

Draw Its Shape

Method: Story has shape. It has architecture. The narrative skeleton is pressed into the flesh of the story. So, design that. You might design lots of shapes — the classic Freytag’s Pyramid, or a more nuanced and jagged version of that. (Might I recommend this terribleminds post? Story Shapes: Four Ways To Think About Narrative Architecture.) You might also graph pacing — it’s valuable to think about slowing down and speeding up the narrative at key points.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ A nice, abstract way to think about your story.

– Aaaaand maybe too abstract? This might be better when paired with one of the other outline forms, just to give you something less theoretical and more comprehensive.

Mind Maps

Method: A mind map is when you drill into your own head in an act of narrative trepanation, and you stuck a bendy straw in there and let the sweet STORY NECTAR dribble onto the page. It’s like maple syrup, kinda, and the idea is — *receives note* — okay, that’s not what a mind map is so clearly I have been doing this very wrong. *plugs up forehead hole with cork* A mind map is a central bubble (YOUR NOVEL) with a lot of other bubbles branching off of it. You can track plot, theme, characters, really anything you want — and you can do so in an explicitly visual way. Here is a good example at Iain Broome’s site: “How I Use A Mind Map To Build Stories.

Pluses/Minuses:

+ Fun, easy, lots of software and apps to help you do it.

+ Abstract, but not so abstract it becomes a thought exercise — still concretizes ideas.

– Not really helpful in sequencing.

– Can get kind of noisy — may need to break out several smaller mind maps to make it work.

 And That’s That

There you go. A big-ass skull-crusher of a post about outlining. Use it. Abuse it. Ignore it.

And, if you like it, share it.

We’ll talk more about outlines and plotting as the month goes on — in the meantime, remember that I do want you to try at least one of these methods, just for fucks and chuckles. We will in fact be tracking some of this stuff and — if you’re brave — posting them online. (We’ll check back in a couple weeks on that front.)

* * *

Hey, look! Whoadang! The GONZO BUNDLE is on sale — it’s eight books total (not pictured but included: 30 Days in the Word Mines). This bundle normally runs for $20, but for the whole month of October, if you use coupon code NAPLOYONOMO you can get it for 25% off — aka, $15. Check it out here, or click the image below:

133 comments

  • Oh no! It’s telling me the coupon code for the book bundle isn’t valid, but it’s still October. How am I going to repeatedly kick myself in the brainpants without a higher-than-the-RDA dose of Wendig every few hours?

  • Really helpful, thank you! I’ve been outlining my current novel for ages, unfortunately: I have a lot of characters that I’m fleshing out, then the world, then the plot. I’m trying to shorten it now and I’m coming to a kind of mid point where I’m half finished with protagonists…. antagonists still to come and then the rest. I’m going to try combining a few of these and see how it goes!

  • I know this is a year old and that’s something like 500 years in internet time, but holy shit the screenplay method. It cuts right through the bullshit to the meat of the story and forces things to actually happen. And it’s tons of fun, none of the frustration. THANK YOU.

  • As i am an artist first and writer second, i am starting with sketches, mini random paintings of people and places (actually not so much people as creations of my imagination who seem to share people traits but don’t always look exactly like them…AND..i have been combining that with a little text written alongside them but, now, after reading this post, i am going to use the scriptwriting method along with the art method..i think this may really work for me ..thanks for this post and the comments…i, too, am going to use NaNoWriMo as a spur to get this thing out or my brain!

  • rats , missed the sale. I hate paying retail. i’m a possum, moved too slow. someone at nano suggested using your tentpoles… I came to peek this morning.

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