How To Outline a Novel

There are three ways to plan a novel, in my opinion. I’ve done all three.

Method One: Pantsing it.

I don’t know if this is a thing outside of NaNoWriMo. Basically, you rush into the writing with no plan, or very little plan. You think “My character is named Anabel. She lives in Greece. Let’s write!” and throw yourself into the writing. The plot just happens. You might have more, like knowing that Anabel is going to fall in love or battle an ancient society of Athena worshipers, but you don’t know what will happen in chapter two or chapter sixteen until you get there. You just write your heart out and clean the mess up later.

I wrote Skyview Academy: Love 101 with this method. It was 60,000 words and 18 chapters of hot mess writing from high school. However, the writing was only terrible because I was still learning. The plot actually wasn’t bad. I had a friend who didn’t mind bad writing read it and she loved it. I’m still in the process of rewriting it (which I may never, ever get to). All I knew was that I wanted Abby to fall in love with Logan, but Abby was a cheerleader and Logan was a nerd. That conflict alone allowed me to finish the story, even if it will be some time before it sees the light of day again.

Method Two: Expanding a previous story.

So, you wrote an awesome short story. Or a poem. Or a novella. Someone reads it and tells you how fantastic it is. They tell you they want to read more. You smile and shake your head… but maybe they’re right. You realize that Anabel doesn’t just have to have her adventure in Greece, she could go to Egypt and battle old mummys  then land in America and battle Nicolas Cage. Rather than 10,000 words, you end up with 80,000.

I wrote Kiss of The Fey that way. Kiss of The Fey used to be Woman of Fire, Man of Ice, which used to be a novella called Princess Janoah’s Tale. I wrote the novella for a challenge that said to write a fairy-tale inspired story, and I wrote about the Beauty and The Beast. It was much simpler and sillier than Kiss of The Fey.  It certainly didn’t have any sex scenes.

Method Three: Actually Outlining.

For this method, you have to sit down and put your creativity onto the page in a very condensed form. You need to know every high and low point of the novel. You need to know that Anabel is going to be discovering her connection to the undead in the third chapter, and by the fifteenth chapter she has control of her power to get the zombies in Athens to tell her where the lost city of Atlantis was. At the beginning of chapter seventeen she almost dies, and the twentieth chapter she unveils the secret for the next book (because this sounds like the kind of thing that belongs in a trilogy, doesn’t it?)

I wrote The Art of Screwing Up: Tales of A Faux Lesbian this way. I had EVERYTHING planned out. I wrote the whole thing during NaNoWriMo, so I was plowing right through that thing. I once lost my outline and FREAKED OUT because it had everything I planned to do. I had chapter by chapter instructions, and detailed lists of what would happen in those chapters. It was so easy to write once I had the outline. I just looked at my paper and thought “Okay, follow this until I get my 3666 words for the day.”

So… which one is best?

Personally, I like to actually outline my story, but that rarely happens. I just don’t have the brain power to sit there and know when everything is going to happen. I usually go with a vague idea of where I want the story to go and write from there. This means that anything can happen. In A Game of Madness, I knew that Lord Acton was a bad guy, but I didn’t know he was so bad that he murdered babies. It just came out in my writing.

I don’t think it’s the planning that determines how your novel turns out, but your passion for that specific story. You just need to try the different methods and see what works best for you. No matter what method you use you’re still going to have to go back and edit, so the important thing is to finish the story, not to plan it how others think you should.

One thought on “How To Outline a Novel

  1. I think all writers have to experiment with this. I’ve tried #1 (I started Falling Girl with only the vaguest clue how it would end, and even that changed) and #3 (BASIC Boy was pretty planned out from the start, though again some things changed, mostly pretty minor). Never done #2 (expanding a shorter story) though, but it sounds like a good and valid way to do it. I too lean towards planning it out, and that would be the conventional advice. The big danger of not planning at all is that you’ll realize partway through that you what you have isn’t really strong enough. On the other hand, I started a third novel which I planned the living heck out of ahead of time … and then ran out of steam about a quarter way through the first draft. I think I got fed up with it. I don’t know if that’s because I planned so much – maybe, for me, I need a little mystery about what will happen even as I write! Anyway I’m now working on something completely different which I’ve planned out more roughly.


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