Monday, August 20, 2018

Are You In or Out? Crafting Outlines That Work for You

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Outlining your novel is a useful tool to keep you focused and on track--but it doesn't have to curb your spontaneity if you do it right.

When I first started writing, I tried every outlining and plotting technique that came my way. I was convinced that if I found the perfect template, all my plotting problems would be solved. I was wrong (there is no "perfect template"), but all that trial and error did help me discover something important.

An outline that worked for me.

It didn’t magically solve all my plotting problems, but it did make it easier for me to plot and see where my problems were, which made it easier to write the novel. Outlining helped me discover the essential pieces I needed before I put words down, so I didn’t spend as much time spinning my literary wheels. It gave me enough structure to let my stories develop naturally, but didn’t plan so tightly that my creativity stagnated.

Just like not all feedback from every critique is going to be right for your story, not every outline style is going to work for your writing process. Different writers require different amounts of information before they start a project. You might not even be an outliner, but a pantser, needing little to no information to begin.

To find the outline (or not) that works for you, try looking at how you plan your novels, what you need to start them, and what you need to finish them. Ask yourself:

How many important events do you like to figure out before you start?

These are the critical set pieces of your story, and the turning points that the rest of the novel hinges on. For example, I like to have at least six before I feel comfortable starting a novel--the opening scene, the inciting event, the act one climax, the mid-point reversal, the act two climax, and the act three climax. I may not know exactly how those events are going to play out, and they may change as I write, but I need a basic idea of the overall plot to guide me as I develop my story.
  • Do you like to know just the inciting event? 
  • Do you have just two or three big moments? 
  • Do you like to know every chapter goal? Every scene goal? 
These can help determine how tight or loose your outline needs to be.

(Here's more on different types of writing structures)

Do you need to know your character arcs?

Sometimes you don’t know what the plot is, but you know a character needs to undergo certain changes between page one and the end. Those changes happen over time, and that time frame could be the framework of your novel. You might know your protagonist needs to be shocked out of her stupor by chapter five, but not know what you’re going to do to her to make that happen. But it gives you a goal to write toward and an outline that works for you.
  • Do you like to know how the protagonist grows?
  • Do you like to know the internal conflict? 
  • Do you like to know the personal trauma the protagonist is struggling with?
These can help you figure out how your protagonist changes over the course of the story.

(Here's more on the five turning points of a character arc)

Do you work off your reveals?

If you’re writing a mystery or thriller, the plot might hinge on when information is revealed. If events need to happen in a certain order, they can guide you through your story.
When do clues need to be found?
  • Secrets revealed? 
  • Secrets discovered?
  • What's the timeline for the story?
These can help build a framework on when key moments must happen so you can write from moment to moment.

(Here's more on the best places to reveal secrets in a novel)

Do you have a theme?

Themes are a wonderful unifying structure for outliners and pantser alike. Major thematic elements can guide a story as easily as character goals, helping you decide what types of problems and conflicts to add to the tale.
  • What's your theme?
  • What problems best exemplify your theme?
  • How do you want to illustrate that theme? 
A solid theme can tie the novel together when you don't want to decide on the plot before you start.

(Here's more on how theme strengthens a novel)

What’s missing?

Take a few minutes and consider where you've stumbled in the past, such as, middles that bog you down, or not knowing where to go after the inciting event. The things that stop you might be things you can add to your outline template. Spend a little more time at the start, and you might not be stopped later.
  • Do you often find yourself having to go back and research something? 
  • Figure out a major plot point in the same basic area every time? 
  • Do you need to work on character arcs before you can move forward? 
Knowing where you typically stall is a good way to see what things you might want to outline or figure out beforehand.

(Here's more on a quick way to outline without outlining) 

Putting it all together

Some writers might use just one of these options, others will prefer to mix and match, such as picking a few big plot events, maybe know the character arc turning point, and the big reveals. Some might know just the theme and the protagonist and write from there.

Take a little time to think about how you’ve crafted your novels in the past, what roadblocks you hit and when, and create an outline that addresses those sticking points.

A writer’s process is a personal thing. A cookie-cutter template might not work for you, and that's okay. It isn't hard to create an outline that fits your process.

What's your outline style? What do you need to know before you start a novel? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at On Words and Up Words, and later here in 2011.


  1. These last two posts are so helpful. I'm getting ready to pull out some index cards and start outlining. I'm a little nervous because I haven't figured out the end yet. My last book I knew it from the start. I feel a little stuck. Any tips?

  2. I may not know exactly how those events are going to play out, and they may change as I write, but I need a basic idea of the overall plot to guide me as I develop my story.

    My thoughts exactly. Excellent post!

  3. @ Natalie Aguirre - There may be a point at which the story must stop, in the sense that we need know no more; where what happens next is the next story. I'd say relax and let it happen. As Janice suggests, follow the character arcs, play with the possible consequences of the way the final reveal could come, or maybe even think what might happen to crystallise the theme.

    Good post, as ever. I like especially that, for all the useful advice, it recognises a cookie-cutter approach cannot be for everyone.

  4. Natalie: Do you have any inkling of what a "win" for your protag is? All I knew about Nya was that she "defeated the bad guy using her ability." I didn't know how that would turn out until I got there. But I knew she had to do it. So if you know something, no matter how vague it is, that gives you a direction to work toward. As you get closer, you'll see what needs to be done and how it needs to play out.

    My outlines for new books frequently start out detailed for the first five or six chapters, then get less detailed. The last few chapters might be one basic, general line. As I write and figure things out, I update the outline. Don't worry if you don't know exactly yet :) Just figure out what that general "win" is so you know what the protag's goal is, and that'll keep you moving in the right direction.

    Lydia: Thanks! That line totally sums up my writing process :)

    Porky: Thanks! I try hard to be clear that not everything works for every writer. And to suggest things for folks who might not write like I do ;)

  5. This was such a great post, and I was so pleased to host it on my blog!

  6. And I was delighted to be invited there :) Thanks again!

  7. After reading this the first time, I decided to try an outline with my new story. It's working so far to keep me excited. I tend to get stuck on plot, so my chapter summaries focus on plot issues, the what-happens. It helps keep my mind on the big picture.

  8. That's awesome :) You'll have to keep me posted on how it goes.

  9. I've been trying to outline for awhile now, and I can't seem to find one that works for me. Is there an outline that you can recommend?

  10. Kateve1027: I have a few posts on things I do:

    Aside from that, you can try thinking about your process and how you write. Do you think about plot steps first or characters? Goals or situations? Find the elements that you use to write your stories and then list them in some fashion to help you better structure your novel.

    Maybe you have a thought process that mimics your writing process, and you can do a more general version of that to craft your outline.

  11. I love this! It's a nice medium between a rigid plot and complete pantsing. I'm bookmarking this page.

  12. Julie: Thanks! The combo has worked really well for me so far.

  13. Is it the same or different if you're writing a script?

    1. A script has its own set of rules, but the basics are probably similar.