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Monday, January 18

List in Importance: Outlining Without Outlining

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I make lists when I plot.

They're like writing To-Do Lists, really. Things that I know (or think will be) important and I want to get them in there somewhere. I don't always use everything, but the act of writing the ideas down puts them in my head and they often work their way naturally into the story.

If you're not a plotter, or find outlining too restrictive, try making lists.

1. Emotional issues for the characters to deal with
Jot down the emotional issues your characters are dealing with. These are things that could be strong motivators for them, or provide the fuel for their character growth.

2. Potential cool moments
Some scenes pop into our heads, same as snippets of dialog. If something really strikes you, keep it handy in case it's exactly what you need when you get stuck.

3. Key moments in the story
Are there moment you know have to happen?

4. Key turning points
What are the key turning points that will send the story in new directions?

5. Surprises or any twists and turns
Characters have secrets, and if you know what they are, you can make great use of them as you write.

6. Revelations
What key information needs to come out? Who holds this information? Who hears it?

7. Themes or symbolism
Themes can be a great unifying force in a novel. Jot down some ways in which you can show yours in your story. Or ideas for symbols you want to use.

8. Back story
If you know certain facts about your characters and their history, make a list. This is also a good tip for any history that pops up as you write.

9. Foreshadowing
Jot down events that you want to foreshadow, or drop a few hints about the bad guys.

Making lists is a great way to outline without actually outlining (or even support your outlines). You might even write down ideas you want to have happen and then look for good places to put them in as you write. Not only would they give you a bit of direction, but it's a handy reminder of what you were thinking about before you started the book.

Even better, these are great things to have on hand when you write yourself into a corner or just don't know where to go next. They can act like writing prompts and get the creative juices flowing again.


  1. Good to know there are other people who make lists. :) I have the same habit and I find it equally useful as you. When writing on a piece with more characters or longer plots, you can otherwise easily forget the smaller issues that - when used - add authenticity and depth to one's work.

  2. I just had a huge "duh" moment. For some reason, I've never written that stuff down even though it's rolling around in my brain. It makes far more sense to put it on paper so I don't have to try and remember it all...

  3. Yeah, lists are very important. I've got a long one with me already, stuff that needs addressing in my next book and all that. Should be interesting working on them when the time comes

  4. Glad I'm not the only one who does this. Especially number two. :)

  5. I love the way you plan it all out. I haven't written a novel but can totally relate to your methods. I live on lists! I am the dork who will write down something on my to-do list after I have done just so I have the satisfaction of crossing it off :)

  6. I like lists in general. They're a fun way to keep track of what I need to remember. For my primary story, I have character lists, a place list, a timeline in list format, and a list of general stuff that came to mind that I might want to use eventually. Only the characters and timeline are organized, but having stuff jotted down at all is helpful.

  7. I need to make lists for everything or I forget. And that doesn't just apply to writing!

  8. Funny...I make lists for everything or I'd forget what I need to do, but I've never really made a list for least not for things I want to show up in my work. Total brilliance. I'll definitely be doing this from now on.

  9. Paris, it's been a great tool for me :) Hope it works for you, too.

  10. This is exactly what I need!

    I'm currently plotting a new story and I stopped shortly after I started the outline because I can never make outlines work. Either the story takes off in a different direction, which is fine, but then the time I invested in making the outline is wasted. Or my general outline of this happens, and then this happens, and then because of this and this, that happens, runs into a major wall because details I never considered when I was just working with a basic overview don't work with the other plot details.

    However making a list of things that I want to include makes so much more sense. I know what I want to happen, but I'm not wasting time writing a sequence of events that I might end up not following, or I'm not trying to hinge the entire story on a flawed scene.

    Thank you!

    1. Most welcome! Glad I was able to offer the right solution ;)