How I Outline My Novels in 3 Simple Steps

I know I can’t be the only one out there who is intensely fascinated by someone’s creative process. It’s always so interesting to see what they need to do and how they go about doing it – how each of us has a unique spin to create the same end product. And it can be valuable information – you never know what steps someone else takes that might be just what you need to incorporate into your own process.

I just love reading blog posts and watching videos on Youtube about how someone preps for a video or a podcast, how they work out the composition of their illustration, and of course, how a writer outlines. If you’re like me, then allow me to feed your curiosity a splash by explaining the haphazard way my outlines come to be.

I’ve tried dozens of different ways over the years. I’ve given the snowflake method a shot, which really didn’t work out, and I’ve tried every sort of worksheet that’s out there. Unfortunately, much like character sheets, they tend to stifle my creativity. As much as I’d love to be able to fill out a worksheet like I would a form and have an outline ready to go at the end of it, my brain just doesn’t work like that.

And it’s not that I don’t incorporate some structure into my outlining process, but I use it as a way of refining and focusing my creative output. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like putting the cart before the horse. Creativity is what is driving the project, and the structure is what’s going to get me there.

I’m not going to say this is the most refined method. In fact, it’ll probably seem a bit loose and arbitrary and like it involves a lot of backtracking. You’d be correct. But it’s what works for me.

Like most things in my life, I try to keep my process simple. It involves three stages, and the resulting outline is comprised of short scene descriptions that I then separate into the necessary chapters and povs. I like to have an idea of what is going to happen and what needs to happen to get me there, but I don’t need to go over the top with the details. I know for a fact it’s going to change as I write it, so my outline is really more of a rough map. Sometimes there are diversions and routes I did not expect but I generally end up where I expect to be.

Phase One: Brainstorming

For my first step, I open up a document in Google docs or a new note in Evernote and just start dumping every idea I have into a bulleted list. Sometimes I include sub-points when I want to expand on an idea further. I might put on some music or scroll through Pinterest – anything to get the ideas flowing. I figure out the genre and the tone, what exactly I want to write, what I want to happen to the characters, what I want the story to be about, and I just make one big list. Possible scenes, character arcs, bits of dialogue – it could be literally anything. And I usually go back to it a couple of times, adding to it and sometimes reading through it to expand on what I already have. This is where I come up with all of the ‘raw material‘.

Phase Two: Sift and Sort

Once I have a substantial list of material, it’s time to start actually putting together an outline. Knowing when to stop brainstorming is a skill, and there is no real way to tell when you’re ‘finished’ brainstorming because you could do it forever if you wanted to.

But when I hit a point where I’m ready to do more than spit ideas onto a page, I open up another note or document and begin strategically ordering those ideas and scenes, fleshing them out where necessary into a somewhat cohesive storyline. This is when I figure out which points of view I’m going to need, and if it’s a big story, I might pull out my index cards to help me visualize it a little better.

Phase Three: Analysis

This is that part of the process where I reel in my creativity and let structure take over, and it is the longest, and usually the most difficult part of the outlining. For my final step, I pull up my notes on scenes and plot structure and go through my outline, making sure I have the core elements present – inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.

If you’re new to the novel-writing scene, then you might want to do a bit of research on the three-act, four-act, and five-act structure. I also find Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet to be really helpful, as well as Katytastic’s 3-block outlining structure and Sarra Cannon’s videos on how to plot your novel, which you can find over on her writing channel, Heart Breathings.

Essentially these resources work as guides and reminders, and while I don’t force myself to hit each point and in the right order, I have to know why I might be moving things around or skipping things. It just helps me avoid big plot holes that I don’t want to patch up later.

I also turn any rough and less-defined ideas into full scenes and make sure there is a solid plot arc from beginning to end. And then I go back through it a couple more times, paying attention to character arcs and subplots.

It sounds like a lot of work, and honestly, it is, but it really helps paint the full picture and keeps me from getting stuck when I’m actually drafting. I also limit my summaries to short paragraphs describing the essentials. I could spend forever on an outline, so I have to be strict. I need enough to start writing, and that’s it. Any more and I’m just procrastinating.

At the end of all that, I have a completed outline that makes sense (at least in this format) and gives me that solid ground that I need to start writing!

What is Your Process?

Are you a writer? How do you get ready to write? If not, how do you get ready to create? Music? Sketches? Let me know in the comments!

2 responses to “How I Outline My Novels in 3 Simple Steps”

  1. maxinemaxmayfield Avatar

    When I write my book, I am inspired by classic 80s horrors such as It, The Shining or Nightmare on Elm Street. Listening to the music of Guns N ‘Roses also helps me create. I am currently working on my first book, collection of stories and song for my band.


    1. That sounds awesome! I admit I’m not too familiar with 80s music, but I love using movie soundtracks to help inspire me. Good luck on your short story collection!


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