Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Step by Step Guide to Outlining a Novel

Being as how NaNoWriMo is sneaking upon us, I thought I would write about my personal way of outlining a novel.

In the writing world there are two kinds of people, the Pantsers and the Planners.

Pantser is short for “Seat of the Pantser.” Basically that means one writes by the “seat of their pants” and does not plan a thing.

Planners is a rather obvious term. They are those organized people who actually sit down and plan out their characters and story line.

You must know something, I have always been a Pantser. I have a general idea of a plot in my head, sit down at the computer, and write, having just as much knowledge as a reader would as to what is going to happen next, save for maybe a few scenes vaguely rippling across my brain. So I am sure you are wondering why a Pantser would be writing a post about outlining a novel.

You see, being as how I am a high victim of writer’s block, last year in October I decided I should actually plan out my novel I was to write for my very first NaNoWriMo. This way I would not get writer’s block since the whole point is to write as much as possible in 30 days, which means writer’s block is a very bad thing during NaNo. I literally spent the whole month planning to ridiculous degrees, and actually found it quite fun. Now as far as if I like planning or pantsing better, I could not say. They both have their perks. But this is not about which is better, this is a guide to my style of outlining which I am going to begin now before I get too rambly. (Oh…too late.)

Step 1: Plot Description

First things first, it is a good idea to have some general idea of what your plot is going to be about and write it down. Basically, this would be like a rough draft of the descriptions you see on the back of books. Just a quick description of the general plot. With this written out, you have a guideline to what this story is about which helps with the rest of the planning process.

Step 2: Map Making

As you know of course, I write fantasy, and with fantasy comes different worlds. Though I’ve always had a general idea of what my many different fantasy worlds were like in my head, I had never actually sat down and put it to paper. Not until last NaNo that is.

I decided it was important to start out making the map first, because it is sort of like a guideline to the story, where the characters are from, who is going where, etc. And I found I was right. Once I had an actual map to look at, it made the rest of the planning far less difficult; plus, it gave me inspiration of ideas. As I looked at forests I thought, “Maybe they can meet up with trolls here.” Or, “Oh, I’ll make a castle ruin here that they will explore.” Or things like, “This character can be from a small village in this area.” All sorts of things like that kept happening as I put my map together.

The map can be as simple or complicated as you like. I went into great depths for my NaNo map, but I made a map for another story over the summer that is much more simple. Basically, it is a guideline, so just making the high points of the story on your map works perfectly fine.

For ideas, I typed in “Fantasy Maps” in Google images and found all sorts of neat things which helped a lot being as how I had never made a map before. There are some really great things on the internet, so if you need help with making one, your favorite search engine is your best friend.

Now, if you are not a fantasy writer, Google Maps is an awesome place to see exactly wherever your story takes place. Or if you write historical fiction, don’t forget that the internet is infinite and you can almost always find wonderful resources there.

But whatever you write, I find having an idea of the layout is super helpful to story making.

Step 3: Races and Species

(If you do not write fantasy or fantasy-like things, this part will usually not apply to you.)

After a map was in place, I decided I needed a clear idea of all the different races and species. I knew I was going to have different kind of elves, some dwarves, humans of course, and lots and lots of dragons, but past that I was not sure what other curious inhabitants would make a place upon my pages. I love all the classic races (elves, dwarves, etc.) but it is fun to make some of my own as well. So this step came to place.

What I did was put together a list separated by the different races (the humanoid type) and species (animal kind). On this list I gave information on each kind of race and species.


Appearance: Here I would put a general idea of what they looked like.
Life Span: How long they usually lived. (Ex. 2000 years)
Habitats: The different places in the world they were known to live.

I would make a list like that for each race and species, which helped tremendously while writing the story, especially knowing the many different places each race or species is known to live (which is another reason to make the map first thing).

Step 4: Places

This step is not always really necessary all the time, but for my NaNo story I found it probably more helpful than anything else. Again, this is more for fantasy novels, but it does not have to be completely.

Basically, I put together a list of all the different important places in my fantasy world, using the map as a guideline, and writing out a list (much like the “Races and Species” list) as to what the places are like, the names and races of the rulers there, what the emblem or flag of that land looks like, and so on.


Position: Mid North
Capitol: Vheldrioth
Rulers: King Norvarmen and Queen Issendel Imendor (Humans)
Races: Humans, Elves, Half-elves, High Elves, Dwarves, and Sefral
Species: Dragons, Goblins, Ogres, and Trolls
Main Inhabitant(s): Humans
Flag: A classic sword facing down with a silver shield behind it on a shining red background.
Synopsis: Immengoth is a rather wealthy and respected land. Humans dominate though other races are around here and there. It can be somewhat cold.

And so I would do the same thing for all the main places in the worlds or high points in the story. I found myself going back to my list over and over, seeing what the flags in one land look like, wondering which are the main inhabitants in another, etc. I cannot express how useful this was to me.

Step 5: Character Creation

This is my most favorite step, creating characters. Being as how the characters are the basis of the story, this is probably the most important step of them all, though not always the easiest.

The first thing to do, of course, is figure out what your main characters are like, what their names are, what they look like, where they’re from, all of that. Just like the Races, Species, and Places, I make a list that is usually referred to as a Character Sheet or Character Bio. Mine cover all the important highlights of the characters such as their name, age, personality, and their history or background story.


Name: I usually like to put their full name here and also any nicknames that they might have.
Gender: This one is obvious.
Race: Another just for you fantasy/sci-fi writers (elf, human, dwarf, etc.).
Age: A rather important point I would think.
Appearance: Here I try to be as detailed as possible because I like really clear pictures of my characters. Some might not really go into much detail about their characters’ appearances, so it is really up to you and your style.
Personality: Another thing I attempt to go into detail with. I like to know what my character is like in order to know how the story will flow because of their personality.
History: I have always been big on deep character back stories, so this part usually takes me the longest. I find it very useful to know though once I have started actually writing my story. One more reason why it is nice to have the map, because I usually add where the character is from here.
Weapon(s): This, of course, just depends on what kind of story you write. My characters often have a sword or bow around, so I find adding this necessary for me personally. I also like to go into detail as to what the weapon looks like and where it came from.

With that type of Character Sheet, I make one for each character and find it exceedingly useful. Of course, there might be different points for different writers. Like many would not need the “Race” or “Weapons” part. Others might have other points they need to add or might not like to go into as much detail as I do. Just have fun with your Character Sheet.

One thing though, characters have minds of their own, no writer could say otherwise, thus sometimes what your write on your Character Sheet might end up being completely different from how the characters ends up really being in the actual story. This happens all the time (stubborn characters), but the Character Sheet is really just a rough guideline, nothing is ever set in stone, especially as far as writing goes. Some people might not even want to write down what their characters’ personalities are like because they enjoy seeing the character form upon the pages instead of being planned out, which is also a really fun way to do it. Always do whatever feels the most comfortable to you, because that is how your best stories will unfold.

Step 6: Outlining

Here is where the big part comes in. You have a general idea of your plot, a map, a list of different races, species, and places, and your main characters all planned out. Now for the actual story planning.

So many people outline so many different ways that the possible forms are endless. Being as how I’ve only ever outlined one and a half (I’m currently working on outlining my NaNo, so yes, half) novels I do not really know all the different methods, so I will just give you an idea of what I do.

Like everything else, I like to go into detail. This happened because of the first reason I decided to plan out a novel, to defeat writer’s block. Thus I decided that I must plan out pretty much every event, chapter by chapter. Usually I just write out a few paragraphs of all the happenings for each chapter, going from chapter to chapter in this way. I do not try to be fancy, I’m just basically making notes for myself, so the writing is messy and awful, but I do at least know what suppose to happen in each part. So for each chapter you will find something such as…


Chapter Thirteen

MMC (male main character) gets wounded (in the arm?) by someone. MMC and FMC (female main character) are unexpectedly rescued by a boy about their age who hurriedly takes them back to the castle. The boy introduces himself as [Name Here] and a squire of Immengoth. They are grateful for his kindness. He leads them to the king in order to report what happened in the city.

After much discussion (MMC's arm being fixed during so), it is decided the two are going to have to stay within the barracks for safety, the city is now too dangerous for them. Of course, they insist they just be released, but the king will still not allow it.

The boy offers to take them back to their room and has some kind words and possibly information for them. They are surprised to find he was born within their homeland and knows it to be of very kind people. They wish to speak some more but he is called away.

End of Chapter Thirteen

And so it goes on with each chapter. It takes much time, but if you like to plan or just need your novel thoroughly planned (like in my case) it becomes extremely useful.

Of course we must remember, just like how characters are not always as we plan them, stories have a tendency to turn in different directions than we thought as well. Outlines often get changed as the story is written, and in the end the whole novel may be completely different from the original outline. Inspiration comes while writing, so do not be afraid to veer away from the outline if need be.

As an original “Panster,” actually following an outline and knowing what was going to happen next was an entirely new experience for me. I found the outline very useful, but I still enjoy writing by the seat of my pants a lot, too. They both have their perks.

Step 7: Write!

Once the outline is done and you’ve put the finishing touches to all your planning, it is finally time to write! You now have all the essential “tools” to look back on in order to help you story flow smoothly.

You may have other things you wish to do, or steps you do not want to take. Like I have said, it all depends on the author. Some steps can even be done out of order or all together. This is what I did with a story I outlined over the summer, I might would be working on character creations while also putting together a map, or researching (which is definitely another step some might need to take depending on the story) while planning all the different places. And one thing I also did was skip the actual outlining chapter by chapter thing entirely. I do enjoy pantsing, perhaps a tad more than outlining, so I thought it would be helpful to plan out the characters and everything, but just not the actual story. I do believe that was so far my favorite thing to do. Though writer’s block is much more of a threat, is it such fun writing a story when you do not know what is going to happen next; plus, I am more comfortable doing it that way since that is what I’ve always done until last year.

Just always remember, stories are much like real life. Things usually never go as planned, characters are often not what they seem (or do what you say, *glares at charries*), and enormous, drop off cliffs with pointy rocks at the bottom are still dangerous.


  1. OHMYGOODNESS!!!! That helped me sooooooo much!!! Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!!! I now have a MUCH better idea of where my story is going.

  2. Really? I was worried it was not that great of a post, I am glad it was helpful!^_^


    Like, you have changed and GROWN as a writer so much but this post is still so very YOU.

    I love how you do your chapter outlines!! I wish the story was that clear and linear in my head. I'm still veeeeeeerrrry much a newbie novelist/outliner myself??? So my first novel was pantsed/there was a sort "scene/chapter list" that I updated periodically??? Right now I'm messing around with the Index Card method and like it quite a lot... Basically I jotted down a bunch of things/scenes I wanted to write, put therm in numerical order and added detail from there.

    Aaaaaallll that to say -- my outlines would probably be longer and work better if I used the Rambling Style???

    Oooh and I also want to try pantsing one of these times!!! It sounds like... an experience. :))))

    1. OH MY WORD. I almost died when I saw you commented on this ancient, baby post! (Although I am the one that linked to it in a recent post so...yeah.) But EEK. I was such a baby when I wrote this! XDDD I'm glad to know I HAVE grown as a writer though. That's encouraging! Lol.

      Oh goodness, my stories don't start out clear and linear. It takes aaages for me to do these detailed outlines because over half the time I'm just staring off in space thinking so, SO hard about what happens next. It can take me over an hour just to figure out one chapter! So...yeah. It's a process, but it definitely helps write the actual books faster!
      That's so fun you're using index cards! That's something I've always wanted to try. In fact, I bought some index cards not too long ago because I want to start using them for writing-related stuff. :D

      EVERYONE has a different method for outlining. You'll totally find your preferred one! It's always a learning process. (I mean...I still use different methods, constantly on the search for my favorite way!)

      YOU SHOOOULD! It's a pretty magical experience seeing the book unfold on its own. I do love having an outline, but at the same time I miss pantsing my stories and always being surprised at what happens next. It's a ton of fun!

    2. It is your own fault, muahahahaha!!!

      I made my own index cards because I'm just that cheap and I've kind of hopped into editing instead of firstdrafting... but yes. I'm not sure that I'm sold on the index card method??? (It DEFINITELY helped with the fact that my books tend to be a little on the short side... Making the cards ensured that I had a certain number of scenes, which makes everything longer...) But I'm enjoying trying new things and seeing what works!!! My first novel was sort of... many years of plotting and now I'm trying the cards and NEXT -- I want to PANTS A NOVEL!!! Which is not my style at all but I want to give it a go!! (Isn't being a writer so exciting??)

    3. Very true. XD

      It's so fun you're trying different things and seeing what works for you and doesn't. I think that's such an important part of writing--not sticking to one method, but trying LOTS of them and learning what works best for us. Being a writer is very exciting! ;D


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