I don’t know about you, but my outlining process is different for every single novel I write. I outlined the crap out of the first novel I ever wrote, did a one-page outline for the third, and didn’t even think about outlining the fourth.
The truth is that every novel needs something a little different to go from idea to plan to finished draft, but this sliding scale of outlining can be confusing, especially when you’re feeling stuck or pressured to “do the right thing” for your novel.
Over the course of my writing career, I’ve wasted so much time trying to learn absolutely everything about my characters, setting, plot, etc. But I’ve also wasted time trying to write when I didn’t outline enough.
So, how do you find out what your novel needs from you?
How do you know how much outlining is too much or too little?
How do you outline your novel without losing your mind in the process?
Outlining a novel is not about knowing everything. It’s about knowing the right things. In other words, don’t overdo it with the minute details, because those will come naturally as you tell the story.
When you outline, remember that stories have a natural progression. They emerge out of change, conflict, and character. Thus, the best way to outline a novel is to focus on uncovering aspects of character, plot, setting, etc. that directly impact the story arc.
What is it about your characters that creates conflict in the story?
What scenes must happen to get your character/s from Point A to Point B?
How can you implicate your setting into the novel’s primary conflict?
These sorts of questions are a must because they get you thinking about two things: conflict and connection.
Conflict: What happens in your novel to drive the plot forward?
Connection: How can you connect setting, character, plot, etc. to increase conflict and embrace the natural progression of storytelling.
Any other details—like what your protagonist eats for breakfast or what they did on their seventh birthday—can, and should, wait.
How to outline your novel in 6 simple steps
Okay, so now you know the key to outlining your novel without losing your mind… but what are the actual steps?
How do you find that sweet spot between outlining too much and outlining too little?
Here are the six steps I use to outline without (1) losing my mind; (2) creating more work for myself down the road; or (3) planning so much that the story feels unnatural and forced.
1. Create a writing gameplan.
This step is all about setting goals, scheduling your writing time, and developing your creative practice. Set aside some time and decide:
- How much time will you dedicate to this novel every day?
- What are your wordcount goals for this novel?
- How will you hold yourself accountable to your goals?
- How will you organize your writing, outlining, and ideas?
2. Uncover your story’s driving forces.
This step is when you get to explore the meat of the story—things like theme, motivation, conflict, and desire. Make sure to ask questions like:
- What does your protagonist want and why? What’s their plan to get it?
- What obstacles keep your character from getting what they want?
- How will your character change? What needs to happen to initiate that change?
3. Brainstorm complex and desire-driven characters.
This is the step where you get to explore your characters and learn what motivates them. Ultimately, your characters are what drive the story forward, so take some time with this step and really think about how you can complicate, expand, and motivate them. Some good questions to ask are:
- What does your character want?
- Why will it be hard for them to get what they want? What needs to change?
- What is your connection to the character? How are they similar to you? How are they different?
- What unexpected, complex, or morally dark/gray things could your character do? How would this impact the story?
4. Make a scene masterlist.
Now that you know a little more about your characters and their driving forces, it’s time to compile a list of scene ideas. For this step, consider:
- What has to happen to get your character/s from Point A to Point B?
- What scenes would be interesting and/or add depth to the story? How can you weave these into the main plot?
- What must readers learn about the characters and story? How will they learn these details?
5. Separate your scenes into primary plot and subplots.
This is a great method for expanding your story and leaning into the interconnected nature of storytelling. Ask questions like:
- Do you notice any emerging themes?
- What other stories are connected to your protagonist’s journey?
- What is happening in other characters’ lives? How can you weave those journeys into the primary plot?
6. Create a bare-bones outline.
For this step, I like to use notecards or a spreadsheet to plan only the most necessary scenes for the primary conflict and character development. For each scene, consider:
- Who’s involved in the scene?
- What plots/subplots are involved?
- What is the function or purpose of the scene?
- Zero draft 10-20k words to get a better sense of the characters, story, setting, etc. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing or the plot. Just follow the characters and see what happens.
- Repeat steps 2-6 if needed. Zero-drafting will lead you to countless new discoveries, so you might find yourself going back through these steps again. Expand on your characters, add to your scene masterlist, and make note of any other ideas you have in the process.
Ultimately, the key to outlining your novel without losing your mind is this: Outlining a novel is not about knowing everything. It’s about knowing the right things.
And the six steps to create an outline that focuses only on the right things are:
- Create a writing gameplan.
- Uncover your story’s driving forces.
- Brainstorm complex and desire-driven characters.
- Make a scene masterlist.
- Separate your scenes into primary plot and subplots.
- Create a bare-bones outline.
Want some extra help creating an outline that works for and not against you? Fill out a commitment-free 1:1 coaching application here and receive:
- A free, 30-minute strategy session.
- A free copy of my 29-page Uncover Your Outline Workbook.
- A complementary personalized coaching plan.
- Access to tiered pricing options and the chance to take your writing to the next level.
You can learn more about coaching on my “Work With Me” page.
With Love, Cats, and Coffee 💖,