How to Outline a Novel and Should You Even Bother?


James’s Notes: As I begin work on my novel, I want to talk about outlining. These are some lessons I’ve learned from my recent adventures in outlining, as well as what has worked for Sharon in the two novels she has drafted. Like all writing advice, take it with a grain of salt and do what works for you. But hopefully this will give you a few new tricks to try.


When you decide to write a novel, almost the first decision you have to make is whether or not to outline.

Outlining just means planning your story out before you start writing.

Some people don’t bother, and those people are generally called Pantsers, as in writing by the seat of their pants.

Some people do, and they are called Plotters, for obvious reasons.

George Martin calls them Architects and Gardeners, because one carefully plans out what he builds, and the other plants things and lets them grow how they will.

So how do you know which one you are, and how much you should plan?

First, remember outlines can change. In fact they’re almost guaranteed to.

You’re not married to it just because you wrote it on paper.

In fact, it might even be worth going back to your outline once you’re halfway through the novel, to note all the changes you made up to that point.

Second , remember this is a spectrum.

Some people make very detailed outlines, and some just barely jot down the overarching ideas.

So, let’s cover the whole spectrum of outlines.

First is the lightest, briefest sort of outline.

This is just the overarching plot outline.

All you do for this one is jot down all your major plot points.

You would write down where your main character starts off, what’s your inciting incident is, and all your big plot beats going forward.

The next step up is what is sometimes called the bullet point outline.

Sometimes organized by chapters, you would write down every scene and every important action in bullet point format.

You don’t have to give very much detail, you just mentioned that it happens.

This is different from the plot outline in that it’s not just the major plot points they get mentioned, but every scene at least gets a bullet point.

Which brings us to the most detailed outline.

This is the chapter by chapter detailed outline.

In this one, you break the story up into chapters then you write a detailed description of each chapter.

These descriptions can be pretty specific, just be careful not to go too far, or you’re basically writing the book.

Those are your three main choices. Here’s a little advice about using them.

If you want to use full chapter outlines, start with the plot outline first. Then expanded to bullet points, then expanded to full chapter descriptions.

This can be a lot easier and less intimidating then just trying to write and Incredibly detailed outline all in one go.

Here’s yet another thought.

If you are a new writer, who has never written a novel before, try using one level higher of outlines and you think you need.

If you think you’re a full-on panser who doesn’t need an outline at all, at least consider jotting down the broad Strokes of your plot.

I’ve run into so many new writers who think they don’t need an outline, and then are shocked when they get writer’s block.

Good outlines are one of the main ways to combat writer’s block.

Hopefully some of this information will be helpful.

Remember, as always, if what you’re doing is working, keep doing that.

If, however, you find that you need a new strategy to keep improving, you might give some of these thoughts a shot.

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