How To Outline Your Novel

You’ve been daydreaming about your story for ages, your ideas have been fed, watered and bloomed quite nicely and you’re itching to really start writing. 

So, do you outline or just jump right in?

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That decision depends entirely on your preference.  In truth, everyone works differently and some people prefer the seat-of-their-pants approach were they just write and the story unfolds.  Others prefer the comfort of an outline structure, a roadmap to guide them.

Personally, I like outlines – Yes, despite my writing style being considered pretty whirling-dervish-esque at times, even I plot my outlines.

They may not be clean outlines or ones that constrict me as my stories tend to grow beyond the original outline, I do still take the time to structure my novel with the help of an outline.

So… what is an outline? I hear you cry… silently.

The outline is the map of your novel.  It’s that simple.  The Novel is a journey and your outline the map to show you the way.

Why Do I Need An Outline?

Why do you need a map?  To stop you getting lost.  Okay, so you don’t NEED an outline, but they can be really useful.  I think it’s a good idea for writers to at least give the concept of outlining a try.

After all, writing by the seat of your pants can mean you are rehashing things over and over when you get halfway through the story and find you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Outlining is great for revealing plot holes and glaring errors you might have originally missed (we all do that).  It’s also good for keeping track of subplots and continuity.

Not to mention an outline will give you a good idea of where you’re going and what you need to write next… which means that you are less likely to be staring into space suffering from Creative Constipation.

How Long Should An Outline Be?

Again, that depends on you (annoying that I keep saying that isn’t it?), but that’s the truth. Some writers like several full pages of detailed timelines so it is just a case of going from step A, to step B, to step C etc.

Others just have a rough plan of which main scene follows on from the previous main scene.

So it moves like a wave, peaking at the conflicts and action, allowing the writer to fill in the rest later.

When Should I Write My Outline?

I personally think the best time to write an outline would be at the beginning.  When you know a good chunk of what is happening in your novel.

If you are still floating around with two or three threads of ideas and just one or two characters, then it’s too early.

In which case you should be spending your time daydreaming rather than actually writing and note scribbling until the plot is less fluid and more solid.

Okay, Okay I’ll Outline… But How Do I Do That?

You may need to try a few ways before you find what works for you. Here is my method:

Bite-Size Pieces

Photo of the tabs for Outlining a novelI start off with bite-size pieces and tabs.  Tabs are small pieces of card that have usually an event or even just one or two words.

Tabs are the size of business cards (because I’ve worked in a lot of offices that “rebrand” every few years and so would throw out shit-loads of business cards that had the old brand… I saved them all and find they are perfect for this).

While I don’t expect you to have a crazy stash of business cards at your disposal, you could use post-It notes, small index cards or just take paper and cut it into small tabs.  (I prefer card as it is less likely to go flying is someone suddenly opens a door)

Coloured Pens

Firstly, I love coloured marker pens so I use these when I’m tabbing.  I try and use a different colour for different characters, conflict moments, subplots – whatever works for that particular story.

My stories often have a number of subplots and character threads so in chapter one, you might be following characters A & B and then in chapter two you jump to characters C & D etc. By using coloured pens I can see if I’ve missed flipping over.

Plot Points

I start by writing out the plot/scene points I know.  I don’t try and think in order, I just write them down.

I also make sure to write down “meet character X” for all the characters that will be introduced.  Again because I start basic, I don’t always need to write down HOW we meet them unless it’s part of a big scene.


Photo of novel tabs to outline a novelWhen I have a nice stack of plot point tabs I start to get them in order.

Make sure you have space to do this – you could pin or blu-tak the tabs/post-Its to a bare wall, use the floor, spread out on the bed…

I (normally) like to choose a place I can leave the tabs for several days without them being disturbed so I use the floor in my room.

Due to my current situation, I am unable to do that, so I have used the living room floor to get my novel organised.

Now people sometimes struggle with the order of things, but remember outlining is not an instant process so take your time.  Also, don’t try and start off at the beginning. Instead, think about ANY of the plot points and if they come before or after something else.

There will always be scenes you know have to happen before another… such as a band of travellers reach the cave and find the treasure.  Well, they definitely knew they have set off from somewhere right?

If the treasure wasn’t a surprise, then they must have been aware of it – when did that happen?  So you would have tabs saying:

  • Group of friends find a treasure map
  • Friends set off on a quest from (wherever)
  • Reach cave and find treasure

Boring but hopefully pretty clear – now these scenes might be right at the end of the novel, that’s okay – at least you have some of them in order – now sort the rest.

Tying The Threads

As you start to put your scenes in order, you will probably see some gaps – maybe you hadn’t figured out how the friends found a treasure map or what obstacles they have to get through to reach the cave.

If there is a gap in your story and you don’t know how to get two scenes to connect, this is the time to think about it.

The outline isn’t supposed to happen overnight so don’t rush it and dump any old crap idea in there.  It might even be that you have to rearrange some of your existing scenes.


Use questions to help you – not sure how they found the treasure map?  Put a tab in that space asking that question.  That way every time you see your outline you can think about that.

Personally, I love questions, I find they are so useful to keep my writing consistent and thorough.

Add More Tabs

As more ideas and scenes come to you, add more tabs, fill in all the gaps until you see a fluidity to your story.  Does each scene flow to the next?

Chapters Come Later

You want to build your outline threads first and worry about breaking them into chapters later.

Once you have your outline, you will most likely see the scenes that will make good chapter endings (you know, the ones that make readers go “OMG I just have to read more”.)

Also, if you are considering naming your chapters, don’t do that here. Just use numbers and then when you have written your novel, you will have a better idea of what to name your chapters.

Write It Down

Once I have my outline all plotted up on tabs, I stick them to the wall or door or window… wherever I have space (depending on how many tabs I have) and then I write it up in a Word document and print it out.

This part is where you go into depth.  After all, the tabs are small cards that can fit a small piece of detail on.

“Mary and Tom argue” might be a tab.

In the word document you can state where they are (in the kitchen), what the argument is about (losing money on the horses), who wins (tom), some snippets of dialogue that you have in your head, any dynamic movement (throwing a glass against the wall), any interruptions etc.

This solidifies the ideas and allows you to carry the outline with you, so you can think about it and continue to develop it.

Enjoy The Journey

Once you have the map, you can then enjoy the journey, and like I said in the last post about Getting Started, even with an outline you don’t need to start at the beginning (I never do!).

Even outlines don’t make first chapters as easy to write as more poignant scenes.

Try Something Different

Well, is the above method isn’t something you want to do or if you prefer not to spend ages writing out scenes on scraps of card or Post-Its, then you could try these:

Writing Software

Scrivener is the common one everyone seems to talk about.  There is also one called Page Four – I haven’t used it so I can’t give you any thoughts.  If there’s a trial version or if it’s free, you could give it a try.

UPDATE: I now use Scrivener and I LOVE it, check out my article on how to start with Scrivener

Word / Excel Documents

Maybe you would rather just scribble down your plot on a Word doc – cutting and pasting the scenes until they are in the order you want.  Or Excel, where you could break different columns into chapters.

I have done this (The Word version one) before but to be honest, I spend enough time staring at a screen and it is nice to give your eyes a rest.

Mind mapping

I like the idea of mind mapping and actually use it for my characters connections because I like the visual-ness (not a word but go with it) of it.

It’s quite an interesting concept of using non-linear plotting and almost spider-webbing out from the centre.  I can see it would be good for plotting.  For details on how to mind map – check out this page.

As I said, try a method, if it doesn’t work, try another… writers do things differently and what works for one might not work for the next.  Don’t rush the outlining, don’t expect it to be done in a day or even a week.

For you planners, how do you outline your novel?

Share your Thoughts image.

Happy writing

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8 thoughts on “How To Outline Your Novel

  1. Pingback: The Power Of Planning – Author Ari Meghlen Official Website

  2. chevygurl4667

    I’ve been stumped on finding a way to outline my novel, until reading this. THANK YOU!! I write in scenes too, and have a jumbled mess at the moment. Love your way of organizing!

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