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.


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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.)


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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.


+ 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:


  • My 3rd grader will read anything he can get his eyes on, but if given the choice between licking soggy kale off a skunk’s ass, or writing an essay he’d likely choose the kale. He came home with an assignment that included a writing prompt, and a blank bubble (mind) map. Once I explained the concept, he sat down and wrote a great story.

    I tried it for my own story, and found the mind/tree maps made more sense to me than the Roman Numeral thing, or my previous “bag full of post-it notes” system.

  • Funny this post should publish now, as this is exactjy where I am at right now: Planning for my NaNoWriMo project.

    I have to outline, at least to some extent. I’m not a discovery writer. I’ve tried. I end up with a convoluted, twisted mess of wobbley stuff that makes zero sense. I have tried this with several things and there has been only one I’ve been able to rescue and resucitate. So, planning is the way for me.

    I use kind of a combination of some of the methods in the post. I write out a short synopsis that hits the main plot points. Then I get some feels for the main characters. I start to work out my plot structure, and this often ends up looking more like a mine map by the time I am done- arrows, connecting lines, crossed out stuff, highlights. I have a workbook file that I use to store most of this stuff, but I also have a real folder, since I tend to do the earlier stuff better with pen(s) and paper. Chapters are given short, descriptive paragraphs. By then, I have a pretty good idea what I’m doing and where I’m going. And, of course, once I start, a good bit of the above veers off course. But there is always that guide along the way to keep things (sort of) on track.

  • I used to hate the idea of outlining so very much. I still had this vestigial childhood memory of a blank page as the magic carpet that took me away from my crappy life. I abhorred the thought of ruining that. Then over two decades later I abandoned YET ANOTHER really fun novel because I’d written myself into a corner. I loved the characters, the setting, the story so far, and I wanted to keep writing and make it good. Which was impossible, because it would require months of rewriting the whole damn thing. And this just kept happening to me over and over again for twenty+ years. For a very smart person, I really am a big ol’ thickie.

    So I tried it. I loved it. I had to admit that I freaking adore spreadsheets and bullet points and lists and colored tags and folders and I don’t even care. Outlining didn’t erase the magic for me. It just moved it around. Instead of doing all my creative right-brain stuff while at the same time trying to impose structure on it, they now each get a turn. Creative me gets to go nuts in the brainstorm-outline phase where everything goes and there are no stupid ideas. The me who loves structure and mechanical pencils and spreadsheets gets to have a go during the actual writing process. Creative me gets to ride shotgun, but she’s not allowed the wheel again for a while.

    Give outlining a try, pantsers. It can actually be a lot more creative and freeing than it sounds.

    (I usually don’t buy or read any of those writing “craft” books, especially if they’re the only book the author has ever published, but I’ve also had a lot of help from this book: I recommend it, if you’re a reformed outlining newbie like me. The author really focuses on the creative fun of plotting and outlining and has many practical suggestions for different styles of outlining.)

  • I usually have: Color-Coded Chaos Reigns.

    The first outline usually begins on a giant whiteboard laying on the floor that I split it into as many columns as I have character groups. Each character is given a color, then I freewrite the plot for each group to see how their timelines line up and intersect. Ah, the joys of having a billion characters. Then I transition into a typed up scenes and sequences outline to figure out a coherent order to my chapters (and to clear the office of a huge cheeseball-covered whiteboard rug).

  • I am always inspired by Chuck and other writers to outline better from the start. It’s zero draft for me, and then note cards…which is a bit backwards. Next new thing will be note cards from the start. While he’s a screenwriter, I admire Dustin Lance Black’s process and think it transfers to novels rather well. (Go to YouTube, search “Dustin Lance Black Creative Spark,” and be envious of his organizational skills!)

  • I hate outlines, not because they’re intrinsically evil, but because–for me at least–they’re intrinsically boring. The main reason is they keep me from doing the thing that makes want to write stories: that whole making-characters-do-and-say-things power trip.

    I meant empathy trip. Yeah, empathy, definitely.

    Thus when I saw you recommend the screenplay/outline in a post some time ago, it caught my attention. I get to play with characters, dialog and all, while producing a relatively nimble story form I can then fill out with the connective tissue that is narrative? Sign me up!

    The only problem is that I kinda got into it and now the first one I produced is winning screenplay contests, for which I blame you, sir.

    I did finish the novel too, at least.

  • This is a post worth saving for future referencing.

    I went from anti-outlining to Roman numeral to beat sheets and finally landed in Excel. It took a few tries to actually wrap my head around using excel to plot, but once I got over the technical aspect of it, it felt doable. Excel lets me break the novel down into acts with the major plot points marked, then chapters and the chapters into scenes. Then there’s color coding the squares to track subplots and character arcs.

    It *seems* tedious until you do it a couple of times. But so worth it, IMO. I’ll never pants again.

  • I like using beat sheets as a start. I used to be a pantser, but then I’d end up tossing over 50% of my work (ACK). Not worth it. A short paragraph for each beat is enough to see my story at a glance, then I work from there. I work on characters separately.

  • Thanks for this!

    I’m like you, a pantser that needs to plan. I’m horrible at outlines. But a lot of my friends and peers are using this ‘snowflake method’ that I was going to give a shot. One told me it was the outlining method for people who don’t like to outline. So I thought, what the hell. I might as well at least try. So I get to start that today. Fun times!

  • I both hate and value outlines. I use a light-pencil (No. 3), Roman numeral thing in a lined journal I carry in my backpack. I leave a ton of space between I, II, and III (my book has three big beats), and then I fill the spaces as I know how I want to get from I to II to III. I write lightly because I erase things if I ponder longer and see that something isn’t going to work. It’s also a psychological tool: “I’m not locked into this outline because I’m not even pressing down hard as a I write it.” In the end, I almost barely use the outline. I just feel better knowing it’s there. It reminds me that I was going somewhere with all of this.

    Great post.

  • October 6, 2015 at 1:39 PM // Reply

    Wow, solid write up all around!

    I’m a big believer that structure and creativity can coexist. I recommend aspiring novelist learn how the pieces fit and then manipulate that structure to craft a story that connects with readers.

    Thanks for this massive piece (of goodness)!

  • I have a love hate relationship with plotting/outlining. I would love to be able to do it and create a story but I hate everything — and plotting is in there somewhere. Thanks for this post. I wasn’t sure if I would do Nano this year but if I can get something planned out — maybe I’ll give it a go. P.S. I have a love/love relationship with the em dash.

  • Great post Chuck. Have you considered posting an example of an outline you wrote for one of your books? I think that would be awesome…

      • Ok cool. Just thought it would be interesting to see the behind the scenes of one of your books. It would give me some ideas of where maybe my outlines aren’t doing what I need them to, or maybe mine are doing too much?

  • YES! Love it! I use a mixture of several of the above methods to plot my novels before I write them, and it enables me to write much faster and more efficiently than when I do not plot beforehand.

  • October 6, 2015 at 2:31 PM // Reply

    I wrote my first several novels without outlines (I made outlines later, in the editing process, so…). But when I decided to write a second mystery for NaNo a couple of years ago, I decided an outline would be a good thing. I read somewhere about a “question outline” that I decided to try, and it works for me (and editing the second mystery was SOOOOOO much easier than the chaotic wandering mule-trails of the first).

    It’s really a means of sorting out my thoughts about the story. I start with some basic questions (I have my characters mostly already, since it’s a series): who’s dead, why, who killed him/her? Then I make some answers, and list the new questions those raise. I do this for quite a while, handwritten in a notebook, before I sit down at the computer with all that mess and start putting scenes in order. With a mystery, this is a great way to lay out who and what the red herrings are, what everyone is lying about, and even who gets to uncover which clues and how they get put together.

    To me, the biggest problem with the Roman numeral approach is that it expects you to know what happens, in what order, before you start. (Though when writing college essays, I often started with outlines that literally read “I. Intro II. Body/supporting arguments III. Conclusion.” Obviously I had to fill in some blanks there :p ). The question approach is the spadework you need to reach Roman numerals.

    But holy shit-cows, that pile of questions and answers and outlines and scenes and red herrings made it easy to write a coherent novel!

  • I killed a story once by plotting it out and outlining first, prior to writing. Apparently my imagination is such that each “scene” in a story can only be “played” one time, and because I was outlining, I ended up with a really crappily written series of events that conveyed none of the emotion of the moment. So for me, yes, outlining Kills the Magic in a great big way.

    Logically, it makes so much sense to outline and plan. Outlining allows a writer to be precise, and it is a great way to write without plotholes. I envy plotters! My creative method is, in a word, stupid.

      • Once the scenes and story are captured (it feels like I’m passively witnessing events and jotting down what I’ve observed), I can do whatever I want with it. Edit it. Chop it up. Move stuff around. Editor mode and Writer mode are two different settings.

        I have basically no control over what the characters do or how the plot moves, but I can polish sentences, revise and reduce sections that are overly verbose… etc. So I’m not completely powerless.

        So the process is this: Create the characters (though many pop up fully formed). Build the world (geography, technology, physics, people, culture, tradition, religion, politics… etc). Set the stakes and then… What happens, happens. The scenes play out and it’s all cause and effect from there.

        Backstory I can write. It’s okay to have a vague, shadowy idea of what the end goal should be and what the end of the journey should look like. Characters can have their potential arcs of development and that’s okay too. But actually doing an outline kills it.

        Rewrites? As in surgically removing entire chapters and rewriting that section? That’s not doable, though fortunately so far, I’ve never had the need to do so.

        • “Rewrites? As in surgically removing entire chapters and rewriting that section? That’s not doable…”

          Your process is your process, and however you feel best writing is entirely on you. But I rewriting has to be “doable” — it’s a crucial part of a writer’s skillset. It’s like being a carpenter who can only hammer nails and not cut boards.

  • Epic as always, Lord Penmonkey.

    Ever since I discovered that a screenplay is an outline (this was a huge discovery for someone whose brain started to melt into bubbly KoolAid when thinking of writing an outline) I have tried to plug it into my writing process.
    I’ve reached some sort of order: I outline in Excel or Word (and melting my brain), before I proceed to write the first draft. Then I write another outline in Word for the second draft.
    My new plan involves writing a screenplay (as a third outline) to decide what works from the second outline.
    The screenplay will mentally serve as my second draft, so the prose will be the official third draft.
    I tried writing a screenplay before any drafts and it didn’t go so well. I have to have some experience as the characters first, which is why the screenplay (aka “zero draft”) failed.
    Let’s see where this new process gets me. 🙂

  • Great post and wonderful advice! I did a novelette this past April for the A-to-Z Challenge as a pantser and I had to keep going back, re-reading to find where my plot was, where it was going, the names of characters, etc. It was a major pain in the arse to be sure. At the time, though, it was a great exercise for me because this was the first time I had ever written anything from beginning to end. I have tons of novel starters sitting around in folders. I have decided that for NaNoWriMo this year I will do a sequel to my novelette, but this time be well prepared. I am planning a rough outline, but getting deep into the characters, locations, and the plot. I am actually excited to do this as it is hard during the writing process to get that deep into those things.

  • I am a reformed pantser myself. Last year was the first time I outlined my NaNoWriMo novel beforehand, and what do you know, it also turned out to be the easiest time I had getting through the month!

    I really like the Book in a Month three-act outline worksheets: I used that last year and then again this year for my NaNo planning, and this year I went a step further and started a full scene list, the writing of which is a bit like having the teeth ripped out of my head, but which I think is going to make a huge difference banging out a novel sans dread starting November 1.

    Yeah, planning ahead is painful for me, but you know what’s at least as painful? EDITING. And having a novel with a shape other than “soggy flan” at the end of November saves me a tidy bit of editing. It’s a trade-off I’m happy to make.

  • Somehow, I’m a combination of zero-draft and screenplay and tent poles and the scenes part of scenes and sequences. What I should do is that zero draft/screenplay part and break it into scenes & sequences and tent-poles during revision to make it something whole. And without holes. However, my NaNo project this year is going to be a massive undertaking, and I’m working out a basic Roman numerals for that one. It’s… thick? Three part paranormal that takes place over a lifetime sort of deals. I think. See? This is why I’m plotting this one out differently than the rest of them have been. Plus, this one started out as a short story for an anthology, but neither one of my MCs was exactly cooperating, until I figured out that I was trying to force them into a story that wasn’t theirs.

  • My method is a mix of STORY BIBLE and BEAT SHEET. I usually grab a new composition book — like the black-and-white ones used in high school (Sorry, Chuck) — and I begin to build my world. And like you said, it’s hella fun.

    Once I truly know and understand the world I’ve created, I go about plotting using a beat sheet. I am a fan of Blake Snyder, I must admit, so Save the Cat is my apricot jam. I don’t slavishly adhere to the beats, but they certainly help me along the way.

    Great post, Chuck. Thanks!

  • So… I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but any chance we could see one of your outlines. I just read finished reading the first Miriam Black book last night (along with the beginnings of all the others that are included). And if you’re up for sharing it, I’d love to see how your process works.

    • Thing is, they won’t be that useful, I fear. They’re not really for people to understand — well, they’re for *me* to understand, mind you. I should look and see if I can clean one up at some point. The #Zer0es one is probably the closest, since I had to turn that into a publisher.

  • I admit to being one of the unicorn believers previously but I’ve since tried outlining in a loose way and I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of doing so. Thanks for going through the various kinds, it’s nice to compare and get tips to strengthen mine.

  • Massive post of useful stuff and beer belly sweat and monkey punching. I would hug it but ya know.. anti-monkey punching. It just hurts my fist too much.

    Based on what you have posted here, I used a combination of 3 of these methods.
    I combine bits and pieces of The Story Bible, Characters in Control, and Tent Poles.

    The story bible helps me to understand the world the characters are living in and what they are likely to encounter.

    Characters in Control helps me to understand the characters I am building and what their history is and motivations are.

    By the time I set up the tent poles I understand why and how the characters fit into the story I want to tell. The tent poles give me the flexibility to enjoy the actual writing while having the structure needed to keep everything where it needs to be.

    Excellent post as usual!

  • lol. I love your posts. I particularly liked # 2.2 in this one 😉 Have done many beat sheets for scripts, but not for novels. I am strangely writing my first outline now for a thriller. Cool timing. Gruelling but liberating too. Who the hell can keep track of an entire novel in their head? I’ve tried it twice and had to do sooo much editing. Thanks for all your suggested approaches. Appreciated, Kym Darkly.

  • I’m a pantser-holic in need of a serious intervention. I’d rather eat worm poop than outline anything. That said, enough here for baby steps toward getting on the wagon. Bout time I guess.

  • I start out doing what you call “Zero Draft” because if I plan beforehand I get caught up in the planning and never start actually writing, and then make a loose outline once I’ve figured out where the story is going. This means the beginnings of my stories tend to need a lot more revision than the rest, which is annoying, but it’s working pretty well so far despite that.

  • I LOVE the “Save the Cat!” series. Between that and Christopher Voglers “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.”

    I don’t “outline.” I use Scrivener, so what I do is plot out “mile marker” cards for different points I know I need to hit in the story. Then I can add, subtract, rearrange, all as necessary in a visual way. (I also LOVE the Scapple software that works with it for mind-mapping.)

    Whenever I try to “outline” I find myself hitting snags when the plot wants to follow the characters in a different direction than is on my “outline,” even if the outline ends up sucking. But when I don’t “outline” and just make notes (even if it’s just a line of dialogue I know I want to use somewhere) it flows seamlessly most of the time.

  • I think I spend too much time on characters. I have characters who are fully grown (if not always physically described well). But I don’t have enough spots where they come together to conflict or plot. Like Character goes to work and works and comes home. I love writing shorts about characters as a part of planning.

    This year I resolve to spend more time thinking about plot. Hopefully thing will be easier since I am doing a second in a series and so several of the characters are already developed. I’m thinking bashing out a Beat Sheet would be good for me. Though I don’t even know where to start on it…
    (My other word shaped thoughts )

  • Story bibles are great for young writers. I don’t mean “new” writers. I mean young, age-wise. If you’re fairly young and haven’t had to write the memo, talk to your boss, run a meeting, complete a mega-huge project, turn in budgets, keep money accurately, pay rent, fight the landlord, deal with the vet, etc., it can be harder to wrangle a novel if your world is mega-fantasy. It’s clearly very possible, but if I’m 19, I’m probably not used to a lot of mental short-cutting and being able to trust that I can take what I think on a broad scale and keep it there long enough to slowly draw from it as I write my novel. It’s why we all learned to outline during our K-12 years. Young folk just don’t have as much of a track record with thought organization. So, I think a story bible, in which they “throw up” everything and refer to it later, is a good thing. Meanwhile, they’re too impatient to stay with it for 16 years, so they’re very likely to move on from bible to novel.

  • I outline a little differently. I make a list of questions that I want answered in the book, whether tiny detail or huge story beat. Usually 100 or more questions. Then I put the questions in an order that makes sense. After that, it’s a matter of going through and answering each one.

  • Hate is such a strong word….nevertheless, I fucking HATE HATE HATE outlining. But, seeing as I’m stuck in a dark valley with my WIP, I think I will try employing a combination of the Beat Sheet and the Tent Poles to figure out where the fuck I’m going with this book. And for that I thank you. If it works I will pledge my undying LOVE to you. Love is a much prettier word than hate.

  • BTW, been employing the ZERO DRAFT aka TRIAL BY FIRE TORNADO method for, um, years, on my WIP and that document is living proof of what a fucking brutal and BAD technique this is. And, um, WOW, I just employed a BEAT SHEET approach that I will call the very broad strokes approach to a beat sheet (more details to come in the next draft) and my story is already clearer to me. Yowza! Bought your books too – thanks for the great deal on that. Looking forward to reading and learning more from you, oh Zen Penmonkey Master.

  • I’ve been trying to figure out for a year what type of outlining I want to do. Tried Roman Numerals, but the story ended up being a plotless sequence of events; tried being a tent poler, but my characters became kerfluffle; then tried to be a pantser, and ended up going back to the beginning over and over again to make the new material gel with the earlier material; then I tried to be a pantser with some tent poles, and the novel turned into one of those fake “free” cable channels your 80’s TV antenna sometimes plucked out of the ether–some story there, mostly static, but nothing that really makes sense.

    I guess the take away here is I’m always trying. Thanks for the method roundup, it gives me even more angles of attack!

  • I’ve tried to outline books for years; and failed miserably. I have found that I’ll get an idea of ‘What if _____ and _____ does this?’ and then think about the possibilities of how to go about it for about a week. this means a week of not sleeping, barely eating and not really noticing what is going on in the world around me… then, I’ll just open a page in Word and start writing from any spot in the book (not necessarily the beginning – just somewhere).

    I end up throwing a set of characters together in a ‘what if’ situation and watch them to see what they do. They firstly look at each other, look back at me like I’m off my meds and then figure out how the hell to get out of there. This is the fun way of writing a book or a story; and this is the only way I’ve found that works for me.

    Outlining and plotting a book just drives me nuts and the book is never finished when I do that.

  • thanks chuck. I shall book mark this for future reference.

    personally i like mind maps and roman numerals but i shall need to test the rest out as i go.


  • I love everything about the idea of outlining. Having the whole thing in neat little boxes, being able to open the outline when I start writing for the day and know exactly where I’m going, knowing that if something feels like it’s going wrong I only have to edit a few lines of explanation, not throw away pages and pages of story…

    … but I can’t write them. I sit down to outline and all my creativity dribbles out a hole in the back of my skull. If I stick at it for long enough, I can come up with the outline of a shitty, dead story that I look at and realise if that was the best I could do, I’d better take up a new hobby. I’ve never come up with anything I could write. To me, it’s not that outlining sucks the life out of an idea so much as that outlining never triggers the thought process that might create a spark of life.

    All this talk about being in denial that pantsing is a bad idea and that eventually I’ll ‘see the light’ and come to love outlining… so when does that happen, then? Still waiting for illumination, wondering if I’m just not cut out to be a serious writer.

    • “I love everything about the idea of outlining. Having the whole thing in neat little boxes, being able to open the outline when I start writing for the day and know exactly where I’m going, knowing that if something feels like it’s going wrong I only have to edit a few lines of explanation, not throw away pages and pages of story…”

      You’ve described the siren song of the outline perfectly. The efficiency. The logic. The lack of potential for plotholes and mistakes. Who wouldn’t choose to plot their story out first?

      “All this talk about being in denial that pantsing is a bad idea and that eventually I’ll ‘see the light’ and come to love outlining… so when does that happen, then? Still waiting for illumination, wondering if I’m just not cut out to be a serious writer.”

      Now, now. You don’t get to say that, Siana. At least, not with any seriousness. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King describes being a pantser to a T. Also, Ray Bradbury said this when someone asked him if he outlines:

      “No, never. You can’t do that. It’s just like you can’t plot tomorrow or next year or ten years from now. When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.”

  • The advantage of outlining a novel via screenplay format is you can try to sell that outline to Hollywood as an actual screenplay. Because just trying to sell short stories and novels isn’t self-punishment enough.

    I’m being semi-facetious above. In my experience, a screenplay of 120 pages works out to about a novella’s worth if written as regular fiction. Depending on the novel’s length and complexity, a script version would be more like writing a mini-series.

    I’ve never completed a novel. Most of my fiction (aside from a few years in the 90’s trying to jumpstart a screenwriting career) has been short stories to a few novellas. Usually some rough notes (the “Post-It Notes” method someone mentioned above) suffice to give the story idea a solid enough shape to proceed. But it can vary from story to story. Whatever works.

  • 2.2 – Ooooh HELL yeah!

    I wish I could take this post and travel back in time with it to me about a year ago, where I would smack myself upside the head and yell “Read THIS before you write another word, you clueless!” Ah well… I’ve always learned best by doofing it up the first time around… or sometimes the second… 😉

    I never knew there were so many ways to outline. I also never knew that some of the things I did are in this list and actually COUNT as outlining, so that I WAS sort-of outlining even when I thought I wasn’t. However, since I started doing outlines I can actually USE to help me write my novel, I’ve found the index card method works great for me but mind-mapping totally doesn’t (which is weird, because I’ve always been an arty person so you’d think it would..?)

    This here page is duly bookmarked. Cheers, Chuck!

  • I remember before i started to write my book that i needed an outline of what i was writing as this would give me something to follow. Sensible idea, the only problem was that i came across something called the “snowflake” method. This is (if memory serves) a way that you start anywhere you like and slowly work in all directions linking plots, characters etc etc etc until you have an intricate web of your novel outlined. The bit that struck me was a phrase near the end that said something like, “at this point the novel will pretty much write itself”….well geez yeah it will, cos you’ve practically written it using this method. I quickly thought 2 things: (1) Hell, do i have to do that? (2) Hell no! i don’t have to do that.

    My first book was a tent pole arrangement, my second book i have done a chapter by chapter outline. I think it all comes down to the story you are trying to write, and that dictates the type of outline or plot you need.

  • Thanks Chuck, very helpful at this moment in time; I will finish (hopefully) my current WIP by the end of the year and will be considering the next. Having not truly found, at least I don’t think so, what works for me yet, regarding: plotting, planning, outlining, pantsing, writing, and just generally. This list will be helpful.

    Now, about Aftermath 2…?

  • Chuck, you sold me on outlining quite some time ago, but this post really helped clarify areas of “how to” that were vexing me. I think this is one of your best “Writing Advice” posts ever. Thanks.

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