Novel Writing 101: Outlines – Pulling It all Together

We’re in the home stretch of pre-planning, dear writers and readers! In our series so far, we’ve looked at characters and character arcs, loglines, setting, plot structure, and theme. Hopefully you’ve got lots of notes, full of little gems of insight into different facets of your story.

Now what? How do we pull it all together? Right now, all those story notes are a bit like a new puzzle, fresh and shiny in its box, but still a pile of 500 different pieces. You certainly can just leap into your first draft right now, but if you’re one of those people who prefer to put the puzzle together first, then you need an outline.

Personally, I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of writer by nature (aka, a “pantser”). I love the thrill of finding out what happens next as I write. But now that I have a few manuscripts under my belt, I can testify to the fact that pantsing usually creates a horrible mess of a first draft. Or worse, it can lead to hitting the wall – that moment, often 1/4 to 1/3 of the way into the book, where you realize you have no idea what happens next and it would be SO much easier just to delete the entire thing and start something else.

So now that I’ve seen to limits of pantsing, for this next draft I’m going to try a hybrid approach, which means I’ll create at least a general outline, but give myself freedom to invent new scenes as they come to me while I’m drafting.

So how do you do it? Like everything with writing, I can only offer suggestions; you’ll have to find what works best for you. I’ve come across many alternatives over the years, so here are some ideas.

  • Story boards – These are a great way to create a literal picture of your plot. Find yourself either a large cork board or a piece of poster board. You can use colored index cards or post-it notes. Label a card for each of your major plot points, giving a 1-2 sentence summary, and lay these out in order, leaving blank areas between them. If you want to get fancy, use a different color for different character POVs, or for subplots vs. the main plot. All the blank areas between these scenes can then be filled in as you brainstorm (next time’s topic) and figure out what needs to happen next logically to set up the next major scene.
  • Paper timeline – Alternatively, you can draw out your story’s key events on a piece of paper, and then insert each new scene into the right position in the story.
  • Maps – Sometimes, especially when writing fantasy, I want to see the story unfold geographically. Here’s where a map comes in handy, even if it’s a quick, I-hope-no-one-ever-sees-this sketch. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. You can mark out where key evens occur, or use a reference system to link a separate list of scenes to their locations.
  • Old-fashioned scene list – Pretty self-explanatory. Using a piece of paper or a blank Word document, list your plot points in order, leaving space to fill in missing scenes. (We’ll talk more about how to come up with these missing scenes next time.)
  • Note cards – Here’s the route I’m planning on using for this draft. Not only are index cards conveniently inexpensive and portable (unlike a giant cork board),  you can shuffle and rearrange them to your heart’s content as you decide on the best order for your scenes. Use one card for each scene. I like to write the POV character at the top of each card, along with the scene’s location. Then write a 1-2 sentence summary. Put your cards for your key plot points in order, and then slide new cards into their approximate position as you create them. It’s easy to change your mind with this method, too – remove scenes you don’t want, rearrange, or insert new ones. Once you think you’ve got them in order, you can either number the cards, or hole-punch them and slide them onto a ring.
  • Scrivener – I haven’t used Scrivener personally, but this software system works essentially like using note cards. You create a virtual card for each scene, and then later, when you write the draft, you link each scene to its card. If you decide you want to reorder or shuffle the cards, the software shuffles all the corresponding scenes for you too. I’m sure there are other writing software options out there also, but Scrivener is the one I’m most familiar with.


I’m sure there are plenty of other great outlining methods out there; feel free to share a comment below if you use something else! Here’s our homework: pick a method to try, and using the scenes you’ve already thought up for your plot structure, create a basic, bare-bones outline. Insert new ones as they come to you, and next time we’ll talk more about how to brainstorm ideas for more scenes to fill in the gaps. But until then, enjoy the journey!


Image credit: CC0 License.


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