Some people will cringe when they hear the word ‘outline’ in reference to working on a story or novel, while others may perk up in interest. Getting organized with your writing is much like getting organized in your life. Outlines can add structure, balance, and confidence to your project, and you don’t have to sacrifice creativity or organic discovery.
There are dozens of types of outlines for novels out there, and each project can benefit from a different type of outline. In this post, I’ll go over a few of the outline methods that I have used or worked with in the past. Perhaps one of these might be right for you!
Plotters and Pantsers
It’s not uncommon to hear writers talk about how they’re either a Plotter or a Pantser. There are even entire discussions held about this topic, and the eternal argument over which one is superior when it comes to writing. The answer, of course, is that neither one is better than the other – it all comes down to how you personally like to write. For instance, I pride myself on being a Plotter because I enjoy meticulous planning, research, and organization before I even start writing my first draft.
But being a Plotter or a Pantser isn’t a hard and fast rule. In reality, think of this more like a spectrum. As I go over the various types of outlines, I’ll point out about where they might sit on this spectrum.
What is a Plotter?
Put simply, a Plotter is just what the name suggests. These tend to be people who spend a lot of time organizing, planning, outlining, adjusting, and tinkering with their story.
Pro’s: Plotters tend to be more confident with their story, and don’t spend a lot of time wondering ‘What’s next?’ in their story because they usually already have that part figured out.
Con’s: It’s not uncommon for Plotters to get hung-up on details. They can fall prey to worldbuilder’s disease, or can eternally tinker with their plot and outline, and their work suffers for it.
There is a point where a Plotter can reach a state of diminishing returns. This means that the time spent outlining and planning becomes a detriment rather than a help. If you’re struggling with constantly rearranging or tinkering with your plot, you should ask for a fresh set of eyes to help get yourself back on-track.
What is a Pantser?
A Pantser is someone who doesn’t spend much, if any, time with plotting or organizing. These folks usually have a few key scenes in their mind, and let the story drive itself to get to those points.
Pro’s: A Pantser’s story can often feel more ‘organic’ and can be difficult to predict. This is because the writers themselves don’t really know what’s going to happen next.
Con’s: On the opposite side of that, these stories can meander and spend a lot of time going down rabbit-holes and side-plots until the story lacks a sense of plot progression.
Pantsers tend to struggle with ‘where do I go next?’ They’re driving without a map. They know what their destination is, but not necessarily where they are in relation to it. It’s not uncommon for a Pantser to get hung up on a single scene for a while as they try to puzzle out how to get to where they want to be.
Middle Ground (Plantser)
A Plantser is a healthy middle ground. These are people who create an outline to give themselves a sense of direction for how to get to various beats and events in their story. Then, as they write, they let the story have its own sense of self. This can and will alter their outline, but it lets the story have the organic feel of a Pantser, with the structure of a Plotter to keep them from getting lost in the sauce.
Pro’s: This is a great way to give your story a clear sense of progress while letting the characters and setting feel organic.
Con’s: It’s virtually impossible to keep a perfect balance. Most writers will lean more to Plotter or Pantser, so it can be difficult to pull yourself back on-track.
While a Plantser may sound ideal, every writer has their own method and style of writing. Your methods will change over time and depending on the needs of a specific project. Experience is what will help you shine brightest, and these different styles are merely guidelines to help you understand your own processes.
The Misconception of Outlines
There is a very common misconception in the writing community that outlines and story structure make a story feel formulaic or bland. This is FALSE.
Storytelling is an entirely subjective medium in much the same way that any art is. The most skilled artist can have a style that some people love and others dislike. Don’t let the loud minority tell you how to write your story just because they don’t like the feel.
For instance, Star Wars and Harry Potter are very formulaic stories. However, their writers made them interesting and loved by millions. If you like outlines, use them! They’re a tool to help you, and the more you practice the better you’ll become at integrating outlines in a way that people won’t be able to tell that you’re using them.
Outlines as Tools
Remember that an outline is just a tool. A carpenter doesn’t build a house without a hammer or drill. Nobody accuses the welder of not being creative because they use tongs and a visor. Don’t be ashamed of your tools, and don’t be scared to use them to achieve your goal.
Why Outlines are Needed
Every story needs some form of an outline to work, even if you don’t realize you’re using one.
Most writers start a story with a particular scene idea. This can take place at any point in their story. As a writer starts to consider more scenes, and starts ordering the scenes into a sequence, that’s an outline. It’s very loose, but it’s still an outline.
You, as a writer, have to have some idea of where your destination is, and the landmark points that will get you there.
Common Outlining Methods
The Snowflake method is a great way to take a simple idea and start to give it structure. This method is good for new writers with fresh ideas. This is a 10-step process that guides you through establishing your plot and characters, without a lot of focus on peripherals or setting.
To learn more about the Snowflake method of outlining, click here.
This is for the hardcore Pantser. A mind map is less of an outline and more of a visual board of the ideas you have. With a mind map you can utilize images, text, and even music to create a board of ideas to help you visualize your story without making it rigid.
Try making a Pinterest board or a playlist on YouTube or Spotify.
Even Plotters can take advantage of mind maps as a way to help set up their aesthetic and get themselves in a good headspace for writing their project.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the roadmap is for the hardcore Plotter. This structure breaks down your ideas, organizes every aspect of your story, and has you go step-by-step through the creation of your plot, characters, setting, scenes, locations, drafts, and wordcount. If you like to plan and plot, then this method might be for you.
|1. The Premise||Establish your premise in a 1-3 word sentence. Break this down by stating who the protagonist is, their situation, what’s in their way, and the primary conflict.|
|2. The Plot Outline||With your premise in mind, write out your plot in its most basic form. What is the setting, what is the conflict, who is trying to solve the problem and who is getting in their way?|
|3. Character Introductions||Draw out your major characters with a broad brush. This means to establish their name, basic story, and physical details.|
|4. Short Synopsis||Take your outline and start pulling out the major plot points. Turn each major plot point into a one-paragraph explanation. This gives you a good overview of how things will play out. Be sure to look out for areas that are slow or meandering, and try to tighten those areas up.|
|5. Extended Synopsis||Now take all of your synopsis and let’s expand this further. Elaborate on details, and start to fill in gaps where you’re not sure how the story will get between two points in the story.|
|6. Goal to Decision Cycle||This step is designed to help you make sure that your audience understands the decisions that your characters are making and why they’re making them. Try breaking decisions down into six parts: Goal > Conflict > Disaster > Reaction > Dilemma, Decision. Your characters decisions don’t have to work, or be good. They just have to be understood by your audience.|
|7. Character Development||It’s time to really start fleshing out your major characters. Start to dive deeper into them. Write out their backstory, their personality type, their habits, quirks, hobbies, and anything else that you feel is relevant. The bigger of a role that a character plays, the more detail they should have.|
|8. Scene Blocking||This is where you start to outline each of your specific scenes. This includes the setting, location, characters, what they’re doing, and important dialogue. Remember to keep this loose, this isn’t a first draft, it’s just blocking out what you think needs to happen in that scene.|
|9. First Draft||Not it’s finally time to start writing your first draft. With your notes and scene blocking, it should come naturally to you. Remember that for the first draft, it’s important to just keep writing. Get the sand into the sandbox. It doesn’t need to be pretty or impressive, and don’t worry if your characters start to go off-script. It happens to the best of us.|
|10. Locations||Establish the important locations of your story. Give yourself a mental map and describe the location using your various senses. This can ensure a sense of consistency as you work.|
|11. Advanced Plotting with Subplots||Start delving into your sub-plots. These can be romances, political intrigue, side-quests, anything that is going to have a smaller, shorter version of a regular plot cycle (problem, action, resolution). Start to weave these into your story if you haven’t already, and let them give your story a new sense of depth and realism.|
|12. Character Viewpoints||Write out or consider the point of view of every character in a scene. View the scene from their eyes, and let that guide how interactions work in your scenes. This can keep characters from popping in and out of existence on a whim.|
|13. Redrafting and Editing||Your first draft will never be perfect, and that’s fine. Once you’ve finished the first draft, you can begin the redraft. Go over your first draft and assess each storyline, each scene, character, location, and plot. Be honest about things that aren’t working, and see about tweaking them for the second draft. These can be major or minor changes depending on what needs altered.|
|14. Final Polish and Feedback||Once you finish up your final draft (whether it’s the second of tenth draft or any number), look to find other writers to read over your story. Other writers can offer feedback that most readers won’t. Another writer is more likely to spot inconsistencies, cliches, and problems in your novel and offer constructive feedback.|
|15. Getting Published||Once you’ve tightened up your novel as much as you reasonably can, it’s time to start looking to publish. Your best bet is to query an agent, or try your hand at self-publishing. Just remember that self-publishing is a long, difficult road in itself and requires a lot of time and effort from you to be successful.|
For a more in-depth look at the Roadmap outline method, click here.
The Sanderson Method
The Sanderson method is a healthy middle ground. With this method, you make a list of promises that you want to make in your story. Then you write out the steps that the story needs to take to fulfil those promises. Once you do that, you take all of your bullet points and start to thread them together. These aren’t direct scene plans, this is just telling yourself the logical course of scenes that need to happen. This still gives you flexibility and creativity while maintaining a fairly solid structure.
The Hero’s Journey
Rivaling ‘Save the Cat’ for the most famous/infamous outlines, this is what most people think of when they think of ‘formulaic’ storytelling. The Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell, otherwise known as the Monomyth, is a sequence of story beats that can be applied to almost any story. This can be done intentionally, as in the case of Star Wars, or unintentionally as we see in Harry Potter. Being aware of the Monomyth allows a writer to spot areas of a story that could use polish or cohesion. As an outline, the Monomyth is both a boon and a detriment. I will go over Monomyth in more detail in my post on Scenes and Beats.
This is good for people who like to work with their hands and/or like a very visual medium. This method requires notecards, sticky notes, or just some type of uniform paper; a pen or pencil; and an idea. Start by writing the scene ideas you have onto your notecards. One scene per card, and set them aside. Once you’re done, you can start to lay out your notecard scenes in order of how you think they should happen. Now you can freely move these around and play with the order until you find something you like. Then you can write more scene ideas and fill out the sequence. Once again, you’re free to move these cards around and play with the ordering.
The Bullet outline method is great for quickly getting ideas out of your head. Start with a word processor and an unordered list. Then, just start writing. Think of each bullet as either a scene or an event that needs to happen, and write them in sequential order. Don’t stop to think about logistics–the goal of this method is to get ideas down. Once you’re done, you can go back and look over the list and figure out what you like and dislike. Take the ideas you like, and scrap the ones you don’t like, then try again. Keep going until you’ve distilled the list down to all ideas that you like.
- Howard is a stocky, middle-aged man without much of a life. His life is: go to work 6 days a week, come home, eat, and go to bed.
- Despite working so much, Howard is actually pretty bad at his job.
- A new boss comes in and makes a bunch of changes, including cutting the fat from the staff. Howard gets fired.
- Distraught and overwhelmed, Howard’s life is now completely directionless. He doesn’t know how to be jobless, and doesn’t even know how to make a resume!
- Desperate, Howard takes a class at his local rec center to learn how to make a resume for himself.
- During his class he meets Tanya, a very proud and strong woman who teaches the class on weekends for a bit of extra cash. She is known for being harsh to people, but her ways work and her students always end up with jobs and happier for it.
- During his lesson, Tanya singles out Howard in the class and verbally eviscerates him. Instead of teaching him how to do a resume, she makes it apparent that Howard doesn’t have a life. Without a life, he can’t make a resume anyone will care about.
- Howard is kicked out of her class and distraught once again. He can’t even make a resume, how sad is that?
- Tanya calls him the following weekend and demands Howard comes to meet her ‘at the track.’
- The ‘track’ is a racecar track, and Tanya forces Howard to get into one of the cars doing laps and drive. Howard is exhilarated and stunned, after a few minutes of terror.
- The next weekend Tanya takes him skydiving. And the weekend after that teaches him how to ride a motorcycle. Little by little, Tanya is showing Howard how to experience the thrills that life can give him.
- On the final week, Tanya sits down and helps Howard write a resume. It’s not for another boring sales or business job. Howard ends up working on a ranch where he meets Abigail – his future wife, and a whole cast of new friends and adventures.
Three Act Format
Another somewhat ‘infamous’ or ‘formulaic’ outline method, but one that is also tried and true. Three Act format is fairly loose in what it needs, but ensures a solid sense of progression from beginning, middle, and end. Act 1 is where you introduce your main characters and the main conflict. Act 2 is the characters working to better themselves to solve the conflict. Act 3 is the solving of the conflict. This works very closely with the Monomyth, and I will go deeper into detail on this in the workshop for Acts and Story.
The timeline method is a bit more ambiguous, as it only works in the sequence of events from beginning to end. This is good for stories that take place over a long period of time and deal in a lot of minor and macro events. You can, of course, add smaller events and scenes and be as detailed or as loose as you want.
No Outline is Fool-Proof
Always remember that no outline is set in stone, nor are they designed to be rigid and infallible. Outlines are designed more to be guides, helping a writer move cleanly between events and to cut out the fat from pointless filler. Even the Roadmap method, perhaps the most hardcore Plotter outline, can be flexible and easily adjusted to the needs of the story at the time.
Drafting vs Editing
Remember that when you’re writing a draft, your goal is to get your ideas down on the paper. Don’t worry about things like word choice or high levels of detail, as those are all things that can be added when you’ve finished the draft and start editing.
Longhand vs Typed
Some people just work better with physically writing out their ideas or even their whole story. If you’re having a hard time getting invested, try writing your ideas down on a notepad and see if that helps stimulate your creativity.
An Organized Story is a Complete Story
Whether you’re a Plotter or a Pantser, any story needs some basic level of organization to make it work. Published writers have help in the form of agents, editors, beta readers, and writing groups to make sure that their work is ‘up to snuff.’
You don’t need to use the hardcore Roadmap method to make a great story, but do consider giving your project some organization and structure to help bring everything together.
I hope that this has helped you. Thanks for reading!