10 Creative Ways to Outline Your Novel
So you’ve got a story idea. It struck you like lightning in the middle of the night (or in the shower, or while you were driving). It’s the next Harry Potter; you know it.
Anticipation has you running to your computer at the first opportunity. This is going to be the best book that’s ever been written. History will remember this moment.
You sit down at your desk, turn on your computer…
And stare at the blinking cursor on the word document. The idea is still there, floating above your head like a storm cloud. But you have no idea how to get it down on paper.
It’s time to outline.
Should I Outline My Novel?
Some people turn up their noses at outlines, while others cower in fear under their desks at the mere mention of it. Whether you’re a plotter or a "pantser" (meaning that you like to fly by the seat of your pants), you should definitely outline your novel.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend a ton of time on it. You don’t have to write down every detail (unless you want to!) or follow complicated plot structures before you write Chapter One.
What if I’m a Pantser?
If the idea of outlining your novel sounds like it will put your creativity in a steel cage, allow me to put you at ease!
There are lots of different methods to outlining. Some of them are geared for pantsers like yourself. Try a few different ones and you might be surprised!
Okay, How Do I Outline Though?
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff. I’ve compiled a list of Ten Creative Ways to Outline Your Novel. Through the years, I’ve tried every one of these methods myself. They’re all great! The method I use depends on the needs of my WIP (work in progress).
Here we go:
1. The Snowflake Method
The Short & Sweet: This method was designed by Randy Ingermanson. It involves starting small, with a simple elevator pitch that sums up your story in 15 words, and expanding outward until you have your entire story outlined.
My Take On It: Randy’s 10-step outlining process is simple, and it leaves lots of room to get your creative juices flowing. Step one involves a one-sentence pitch that boils your entire premise down to 15 words. This is hugely beneficial for the later stages of the writing process, when you’re writing your query and pitching your project to agents. After that, you’ll explore characters, plot points and overall structure. By the end of it, you’ll have about a 4-page outline that you can use while you draft. Randy claims that this process will allow you to write your first draft in half the time.
If You Want To Learn More: Randy’s method is a little more extensive than I can describe here. If this method sounds like it might work for you, take a look at his website.
2. Pure Summary
The Short & Sweet: This method involves writing down a summary of your story, from start to finish. It’s similar to the back cover of a book. You write down the big ideas and use that to guide your drafting.
My Take On It: This method is great if your idea came to you fully formed. If you know your basic plot points and you like to discover your character motivations and side plots along the way, this method might be for you.
If You Want To Learn More: It’s pretty simple. Read the back cover of a few favorite books to get an idea of how it’s structured. This is a quick way to get outlining out of the way and get to drafting!
3. “Academic” Outline
The Short & Sweet: Remember those hated academic outlines from high school? You know the ones. They have numbers and roman numerals and the like. This is the same thing, only with plot points instead of essay points.
My Take On It: This is a great bare-bones method to get outlining out of the way and get to drafting! For all you pantsers out there, this will give you a rough guide but leaves a lot of details up in the air for you to discover as you go.
If You Want To Learn More: You already know everything you need to! Thank you, high school English teachers.
4. Free Writing
The Short & Sweet: Developed by Peter Elbow in 1973, this method is very similar to the summary method (see above). Instead of writing a logical, clean summary, sit down at the computer and write what comes to mind. The key here is to write without stopping, and allow your mind to wander where it will. Ask yourself questions. Speculate. Let the word vomit spill onto the page, then sort through it later to see what gold you can find.
My Take On It: I use this method for every one of my stories. Usually I’ll have a small speck of an idea and I’ll spend about an hour coming up with all sorts of scenarios, characters, and settings that I can think of. Often I don’t use all of it, but I always find little nuggets of information that surprise me. I highly recommend this method for all writers, pantsers or plotters. Even if you never refer to it again, it allows your mind to go into a meditative state and bring obscure ideas to the surface.
If You Want To Learn More: If you’ve never heard of free writing, click here to learn more. (Side note: this method isn't limited to outlining. It's great for all sorts of writing projects, including journaling!)
5. The Visual Map
The Short & Sweet: This method involves using a visual medium to plot your story. There are several ways you can go about this. Experiment and develop a system that works for you.
You can use sticky notes.
You can write on a whiteboard (hint: this is from my WIP and it's actually a combination of visual mapping and KM Weiland's story structure outline).
You can use note cards arranged on your office desk or floor.
My Take On It: I’ve used this method many times before and I love it! There’s so much room to be creative here. This is perfect for people who are very visual. I have a whiteboard in my office and I spend a lot of time sketching notes onto it. I also have a Pinterest board with inspirational pictures for my WIP. You can paint, take photos, sketch, whatever gets your creative juices flowing.
If You Want To Learn More: The options here are endless. If you like the sticky note idea, click here. How about the note cards? A simple Google search will bring up tons more tutorials and explanations on this one.
6. Outlining Software
The Short & Sweet: There’s a lot of outlining software out there, like Evernote and Scrivener. This takes the outlining process and simplifies it. It gives you an easy way to keep all of your notes organized.
My Take On It: I used to think this method was overrated… and then I gave Scrivener a try. It has changed my life when it comes to the writing process. Down the road, I’m planning on doing an entire post about Scrivener and the benefits of it. It does have a bit of a learning curve, but if you put in the effort, it is so worth it.
If You Want To Learn More: There are a ton of great Scrivener tutorials on YouTube. I particularly like this one - it's the one I used to get up and running. If you want to learn more about what Scrivener is and what it can do for you, take a look at this video.
7. A Workbook
The Short & Sweet: This method uses a workbook that’s already been created. Just follow the prompts, fill out the blank spaces, and you’ve got yourself a fully-formed outline to use when drafting. I personally like the Pre-Write Project, which uses a combination of free-writing and thoughtful responses to create a powerful outline.
My Take On It: This is another method that I love! Earlier this year I came across the Pre-Write Project and my outlining will never be the same. I spent two weeks going through the workbook for my WIP and I gained valuable insight into my characters and plot points. This is great for very detail-oriented plotters. If you’re a pantser, this will most likely be too much detail for you to handle, and that’s okay.
If You Want To Learn More: To pick up a copy of the Pre-Write Project, click here. Once you download it, print it off and follow the instructions. It’s as simple as that.
8. The Reverse Outline
The Short & Sweet: This method involves outlining after you’ve created your first draft. Pantsers, this might be for you! Once you’ve written a first draft, you’ll go back and create a detailed outline. This will bring all your work’s flaws to the surface. It’s terrifying, but so worth it.
My Take On It: When I first began writing, I was a pantser through and through. I would sit down at the keyboard and write for hours with no clear destination in mind. As I was writing, I would fall into a kind of writing trance. Ideas would tumble forth and I would think, “This is GOLD!”
Then came the editing. Sure, the ideas looked great during the first draft. But when I made an outline afterwards and tried to get my meandering plot to fit some kind of narrative structure, I found that I was way off the mark.
If you're determined to remain a pantser forever, the reverse outline is great to help point out those flaws and whip your plot into shape.
If You Want To Learn More: C.L. Polk describes it best on his website. If this is the method for you, check it out!
9. The Bookend Method
The Short & Sweet: In this hands-off method, you’ll figure out the beginning and end of your story, leaving the middle for you to “pants” your way through.
My Take On It: This is another method that might work really well for you pantsers out there. If you know where your story is going to begin and where it will end, you can meander your way through the middle and see where the story takes you. This will allow your creativity to spread its wings, but with a clear destination in mind you won’t lose your way.
If You Want To Learn More: This is pretty self-explanatory. For the beginning and end, you can either write those first or keep notes for what they’ll look like.
10. K.M. Weiland’s Story Structure Method
The Short & Sweet: K.M. Weiland’s story structure is a formulaic approach to outlining. It breaks the story down into major plot points at specific points in the story.
My Take On It: I stumbled on to K.M. Weiland’s book in my quest to improve my craft. It’s another one (my favorite) that has changed my life. You can use it as an editing tool after you’ve already written the draft, or you can use it as an outlining tool to brainstorm the major points of your story. I’ve used it for both, and it has changed the way I approach story.
If You Want To Learn More: Visit K.M.’s website here. You can either buy a copy of her book (which I highly recommend) or see the outline points on her blog and go from there.
What’s Your Number?
So you’ve seen the 10 Creative Ways to Outline Your Novel. What do you think? Which number will you use in your approach to outlining?
No matter which method you use, your writing will be stronger if you use an outline to guide your way. You pantsers might not believe me, but I promise it’s true. Give it a try, even if it’s the most bare-bones outline there ever was. You’ll thank me later.