How I Outline My Novels (Part One)

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Planner or Pantser? The eternal question…

When I first came across these terms, back when I was in my early teens, I thought of course I’m a pantser! I’m so messy and spontaneous in my everyday life. There’s no way I could be an outliner! It would just suck all the excitement out of writing. 

Four abandoned novels and four years later, I realized I was dead wrong. After fully outlining a novel and planning it for about two months, I actually stuck with it all the way to end! Since then, I haven’t stopped writing, not for a period longer than three weeks. Also it did not suck the excitement out of writing for at all, if anything outlining increased it because now I get to look forward to actually getting to the scenes! It was what worked for me.

I’ve used this method roughly five and half-times now (as of writing this, I’m on step 4 for my WIP (yes, this post is working both as procrastination and motivation for me– way to tell myself I’ve done it before and it’ll be okay while simultaneously not actually working on my outline)). I say roughly because it’s not really a method that I consciously came up with, but one that came organically from trial and error while working on my first two novels, and that I then took up it consciously for my next three. That’s why my whole method is a bit… haphazard. Some things changed for each to fit each of these novels, of course, and this is a very loose overview. The time it took me to go through steps 2-6 also varied a great deal. For Novel 4, I was done in ten days whereas I spent nearly a month working my way through the outline of Novel 5.


Step 1: Backdrop Crumbs

I think it was Victoria Schwab (aka one of my writing heroes) that said not all writing takes place at your computer. I tried looking for the tweet, but I couldn’t find it. Yet, it stuck with me because she put into words something that I had already experienced. Getting ideas, toying with them, envisioning scene you have no plans  to write (yet), it’s all part of the process. Even while I’m writing, ideas come up out nowhere. That turn of phrase that you love but bears no significance on your work-in-progress, that character that won’t fit, tiny pieces that demand their own story or even the fruits of seed you didn’t know you were planting.

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More recently, she tweeted this which is basically the same idea. (Source)

I can’t write two projects at the same time, but while I’m writing a given novel, I always have another project on the “backdrop”. A project that I find myself drifting to whenever I’m stuck on my WIP or even bored while commuting. I also create a playlist and add songs with lyrics that remind me of the new project somehow. It helps me to not get burned-out and to have something to look forward for when I finish, be it a sequel or completely new project. It’s kind of a reward, as I do not allow myself to create a new document until I actually finish that last project. Day by day, I gather these “crumbs”, so when the day comes that I start outlining I already have many tiny ideas, even if they don’t come close to being a plot.

This can be the longest step by far. Some ideas need simmering. For example, I’ve had the idea for a series for nearly a year now, so I know that the outline for the first book will be done faster than others.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • I use Scrivener religiously, which is super handy because you have everything in the same document. I always have an extra page-thingy specifically for ideas not related to my current book, so when a random ideas strikes I save it immediately (okay, okay only when I remember that I have that page…).
  • I also follow the more traditional method of carrying a small notepad around with no organization whatsoever, so I can jot down random ideas without a worry.
  • I’ve discovered that if I start thinking too much about my future ideas, I sort of disengage from my current one and my writing suffers. It normally takes me a few days to bring my head back to what I’m supposed to be writing, and that’s super annoying. So I limit my time listening to the playlists/dabbling into other stories.

Step 2: Word Vomit

This step is the first one that actually takes place on my brand-new document. I’m not talking about worldbuilding or backstories in this post, but I want to mention that I have those already fleshed out by this point. Anyway, I create a new note in Scrivener where I’m just going to pour every single idea I have about the novel. Characters, moments, themes, things I want to include, each one gets its own bullet point. EVERYTHING!

And yes, I literally title it word vomit:

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The whole point of this section is that it doesn’t have to make sense, as long as it gets written down. Some ideas will be contradictory, others incomplete. It has no order yet. The whole point is to gather all the crumbs you’ve gathered over the past few months, to actually write them. In a document. This is real, and you’re writing this now. The ideas no longer exist just in your head or in your little notebook.  It helps me to think that no one will read this but me, so I include little notes to myself.

I sometimes sort my crumbs into different categories like arcs, themes and characters, but always keeping in my mind that this is not final and I have no obligation to use any of these ideas. The important thing is to have them so I can later make sense of what I want to keep. Here is one time that I did sort them, but I was by no mean exhaustive.

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Reflection is super important here. While putting ideas into words, I’m thinking about how this idea fits with the rest, how I could execute it. Also here is where I define the main themes of the novel, which serve as an invaluable guide for the next steps. I just keep adding ideas onto it until I feel like I have a foundation.

This whole step normally takes me more than a few days, depending on how many crumbs I have and how… developed they are (I’m starting to regret that metaphor). For reference, my current page is about 1200 words (without counting the ones devoted to themes or scenes) and it’s taken me about 9 days.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • I never erase and idea from the word vomit page, even if I end up scrapping it early one. It’s also fun to see the original ideas when a novel is finished because some are unrecognizable.
  • Question marks are my best friend. Whenever I’m particularly skeptical about an idea, I add a ton of question marks after it and I don’t feel guilty for including it.
  • Sometimes, I ask myself questions in this section. I don’t need to answer them quite yet, but they are there.
  • These notes are for me only, so I try to have fun with them. For example if I’m frustrated with something I’ll end the sentence with an “ahhhhh”. It makes all a bit less frustrating, because, oh boy, this step gets very frustrating.
  • Here are a few bits and pieces (from three different projects and all non-spoilery), so you get a sense of how messy this section can get.

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Step 3: Looooose Structure

After having a better sense of what I want my book to be like, I start trying to define which are more impactful (or less) to the story. For example, this confrontation is important enough to become the midpoint. I open a new page and type about the sections (I like to divide my novels in part) and then the different moments that go into these parts.

This step can occur concurrently to the word vomit, and I make them very loose. I add question marks, use placeholders like “something exciting happens” or even rewrite it all together and make several versions. Each small moment is reduced to a single word. For instance, here is the middle of my second act for my WIP:

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The importan thing here is to have the bare bones of your story aka the main plot points. These aren’t chapters yet, just important moments that have an impact on the story. Through this step, I can see if I have enough ideas to actually tell a full story. It’s easy to see if I’m lagging in the middle or even have a huge whole on the middle and I can word-vomit what’s missing. Also, I try to start accounting for things like tension. If I have two small episodic adventures, I mind where in the novel they fall to avoid a huge, boring section.

For reference, I’ve finished my looooose structure and I have twenty-seven of these plot points across three sections.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • Again question marks are my best friend.
  • Even the final version is not set on stone. If I get a new idea halfway through one of the next steps, I feel free to change my structure.
  • This is a great time to get a sense of how long each part is in comparison to each other. My second acts are always the longest, but for some reason my first acts tend to be a bit longer than my third acts, but being mindful on this step has helped me avoid having like a 2k-long third act.


Step 4: Broken-down Threads

By this moment, I have an idea of what book I want to write yay! (ProTip: it never ends up being that exactly). I know how the main plot will shape the story, roughly. So, it is time to return to the word vomit and classify all those little ideas into different threads. I like to make a list with all these. Some might be subplots, other smaller things that are core to the story nonetheless.

For my current WIP, here is the list of threads looks like:

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Note that I’m the biggest fan of color-coding! Here it doesn’t seem as important, but it is KEY for step 5. I also try to stay consistent with the colors across many projects so it becomes rather intuitive. Brinn, my main character, is always, always coded with that shade of blue. Besides, it looks pretty and I like it.

Once I have my threads, I break them down. I make bullet points of all the things that happen in them. It doesn’t matter if I put down a thread for the second act of the book and take up in the third act, the plot points will appear together in their respective thread. The point of this is that to make sure that each thread follows its own logical progression, that there are no subplots dropped as things get intense. Or that they are not unnecessary, like if you have this relationship between the main character and another that doesn’t change or progress when you get to this step, then what’s the point?

Also I include more discrete “threads” among the rest, like worldbuilding and the “cameos”. By worldbuilding, I mean specific moments that mostly service the world and not so much the plot, not the initial exposition most stories need so they can get going. And the cameos relate to characters that I want to introduce discreetly but will play a larger role in my next project. This is not a section I normally include, just as other books have required different pseudo-threads.

This is the actual flesh of the outline, as I’m very detailed on how I develop how each of this thread plays out. Having the themes accounted for and the broader structure also helps a lot. I usually spend several days to make sure I’m happy with how each of the threads goes.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • If I’m doing this right, there will be overlap between the threads. Some key plot events will serve to advance a given character’s arc while also playing a part in the main thread or a subplot.
  • I don’t highlight the main thread because in theory it will demand the most bullet points and I want to help my poor eyes in as many ways as I can.
  • This section has significantly less question marks, and no placeholders if possible. No more “something exciting happens”, I actually delve into what’s exciting.


So I wasn’t planning on having to split this post, but, alas. Now I have more than two thousand words, and I’m barely halfway done. Check out Part Two for the next steps: Piecing It Together, Chapter Chopping, Five Chapters Ahead and Backdrop Rehearsing.

*All screenshots come from Scrivener! An app that I highly recommend, but this is in no way sponsored.


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