How I outline a novel

Admittedly, I started out as a pantser, (one who writes by the seat of their pants, with no regards to outline or planning) but that was many years ago, and I am now firmly an outliner. Some authors argue that outlining a novel strips creativity away and leaves no room for making up some magic along the way. To that I say: writing a book is really freaking hard even if you’ve previously decided what happens in each chapter and trust me, there’s 70+ thousands of words for you to add some magic during the process.

Okay, let’s begin.

I follow the 7 Point Story Structure when I outline a book. I’m not going to explain that in detail here (since you can Google it and find really articulate definitions/examples). I also know that I want my books to be around 70k words, roughly. Since my chapters are anywhere from 1500 to 3000 words, that’s (roughly) 30 chapters for me. Yours may be different, and every book IS different, so the great thing about this template is you can change it up as needed.

When I first start brainstorming a book idea, I grab a stack of index cards (or sometimes Post-its) and write out every thing I think of. From scenes, to dialogue, to things I want to happen, to those juicy dramatic parts that I’ve been daydreaming about for days. I write down any and everything I see happening in the book. Then I put them in chronological order, adding or throwing out some as needed. It’s fine if you don’t have the whole book yet. You just needed to get out those awesome ideas in your head. Now set them aside and open up a Word document.

You’re going to type up your index cards into separate chapters, sometimes grouping a few together into one chapter, sometimes using one index card as a whole chapter. You probably won’t have every chapter or even every plot point decided at this point. Just skip. For example, if I know the story starts with A and then some stuff happens and then B happens, I’ll put the contents of A in chapter one, skip one or two chapters, then fill in B on the next one. Once you’ve transferred all your index card ideas, go back and read over it, adding more for each chapter. You’ll eventually get them all filled in. This usually takes me 2-3 days or sometimes FOREVER.

For starters, I pick 30 chapters and fill them in, adding or subtracting along the way as I figure out my story. Some of my favorite books have 80 or more chapters, and this can totally work for those, too, you just add more columns to the table. (Word’s table function makes this nice and pretty!) But I know myself and my book and this is a good guideline for how I’ll write it.

outline

BOOM! You’re done! All that’s left is hundreds of hours of creative writing agony as you bang out the ideas in your head, transforming them into a terrible first draft that will require months of editing to even slightly resemble a book!

WASN’T THAT EASY?

Ahem.

So, if you’re anything like me, you can’t remember all of your character’s details. That’s where the character sheet comes in handy. I fill out each character’s name, age, physical description, personality description, and special traits. I print these out and use them as I’m writing because I can guarantee I won’t remember anyone’s eye color, and probably not hair color, and definitely not their dog’s name because I have autoimmune problems and the brain fog is real. This character sheet will be your lifesaver.

charactersheet

At the top of the whole document I write a summary (or a query when I was unagented) that isn’t perfect or even worthy to show anyone yet, but it’s a good reference to remind you what you wanted the story to be about when you first thought of it.

I print out each outline and put them in those clear plastic page protector things inside one of those plastic folders for reports, and then I carry them around with me when I write. After each chapter is written, I put a shiny star sticker over it and move on to the next one.

Since I write full time, my goal is 1 chapter a day, which means I usually finish a first draft in about a month. I prefer quick drafting, because as they say, you can’t edit nothing. I like to get that draft out there and ready for me to tear it to shreds in editing.

But that’s a post for another day.

If you’d like to try out my method of outlining, I’m including a download to a Word file of my template. Click here and it’s all yours: blank-outline-template

Happy novel writing!

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One Comment

  1. Ahh, I love the use of the plastic protector folders! I have tons of them around my room, but no use for them.. I’ll definitely be using the sticker idea to mark written pieces. Thank you so much for sharing!!

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