How I Outline my Novels – From a Recovering Panster

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be a pure pantser. I’d go into a story, screaming with excitement, and run with it, just seeing where it took me. No outline, no road map, no plan. Sometimes, that would lead to weird and wonderful things that I never expected. Other times, it lead me to a tangled Gordian Knot in the story, without the metaphorical equivalent of Alexander’s sword.

Those last ones were particularly frustrating to deal with. In those cases, I had a lot more work to do on the back end, and sometimes I had painted myself into a corner that required a complete rewrite, meaning I’d just spent months on something I really couldn’t use. I’d give it to my editor, and she would tell me I needed a major overhaul confirming my worst fears. So, with some gentle prodding from my editor, I decided to start outlining.

You could say she got me to…hang up my pants. Ha-ha, visual pun. 

…if you’re imaging that gentle prodding took the form of her saying “I will kill you if you give me this kind of mess again,” you’d be totally right.

Working with her, I now use a fairly simple and straightforward method of outlining that makes the process easy, relatively painless, and effective, while still preserving the joy of discovery that I love so much in the pantsing method. So, I thought I’d share it with you all: the three easy steps I use to outlining a novel.

1) Jot down some quick notes about setting, characters, and backstory.

This first step is fairly straightforward. I take a little bit of time, no more than an hour or two, to make some notes about what I’m planning to do. Where is the story taking place? What are some important elements of the story? What’s the central conflict? And who are the major characters – including where they were before the novel’s inciting incident.

This step is about laying a foundation. These are the bricks and mortar of any story, the questions that have to be answered before you write anything that follows traditional story structure. Even most stories that don’t follow traditional structural rules usually need those three things: setting, characters, and backstory. It’s possible to write a novel that doesn’t have one of them, like They’re Made out of Meat, by Terry Bisson. Since the story is entirely written dialogue, setting isn’t needed. However, this kind of story is definitely an exception to the rule.

Once step one is done, you have a starting point and you’re ready to move to step two.

2) Write the first ten percent.

You might be thinking, “wait, this isn’t outlining, it’s just writing”. You’re technically correct, but if you tend to be a pantser, a good chunk of the fun comes from seeing what happens when you throw situations at your brand new characters and settings, so it’s a blast to dive into this first bit without a clear plan. You’re probably going to double back since you’ve started without planning – a prologue, some stage setting, a bit more time to get to know the characters – but that’s something you can do later on, when it’s time to really write. This is still part of the outline. 

Yes, writing can be part of the outline. Trust me on this.

Note that while I say first ten percent, it’s nothing quite that strict. If you’re writing a novel, we’re talking about the first five to ten thousand words. For short stories, around five hundred words. The exact length isn’t important. The goal here is to have some fun, get excited about the story, stoke that fire that keeps you going.

The other advantage to doing some early drafting before you move onto the final step of outlining is that it lets you test your ideas before you’ve put too much work in. Did you plan on a character being a deadpan snarker, but when you write them they sound too much like a jerk? Did you add a mcguffin early on that you want to explore more? Did you want to write a story about dragons, but then you decide to add an alien invasion?

Don’t laugh, that last one actually happened to me.

If I had already finished outlining when I realized the story needed aliens, it would have meant major revisions to my outline and lots of work lost. That’s why this step has become part of my outlining process, because it saves me from having to trash everything and start again. If you’re doing this for NaNo, you’ve probably finished step already, so you’re on to the next step!

3) List events, and create a brief outline of what happens.

This is where you actually outline the story, and it’s fairly traditional. I usually make a table with three columns: Event #, Overview, Notes. Then I write out what’s going to happen in each event in the story.

I use “event” instead of “scene” or “chapter” because it’s fairly broad term. An event is just “A thing that happens” with no set length or rules. It could be a single scene that takes one chapter. It could be a huge string of scenes that end up getting stretched over three chapters. It can be literally anything, and most of the time when I go into writing it, I don’t know exactly how long it’s going to be.

There’s magic to be found here sometimes. Let me tell you a possibly apocryphal story about one of the most iconic moments in comic book history: The Amazing Spider-Man #33. If you’re a comic book fan, you’re probably nodding in agreement. If you’re not, or don’t memorize issue numbers because you have a life, Amazing Spider-Man #33 features a moment where Spider-Man gets trapped under a massive object. Over the course of several pages, he at first starts to give up, believing himself beaten for good. Then slowly, he finds the will to go on, and bit by bit forces himself to rise, to lift off the weight on his back, and toss it aside. It’s one of the earliest defining moments for Spider-Man.

When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were planning this part, Mr. Lee expected it to take two or three panels. It was just a plot point, a moment of tension for the readers. When Mr. Ditko gave him the artwork for it, stretched out over four pages, Stan Lee said he “almost shouted in triumph.” In his opinion, it was that much better than the original plan.

If this seems familiar, Homecoming definitely had a homage to this moment. 

That’s why I like the event model instead of the chapter or scene model for outlining. It allows things that might be artificially restricted by your expectations to grow as large as you need them to for the story. It gives you the flexibility to grow the story and to discover moments you didn’t expect, while still having a defined outline to keep you on track.

The other two parts of the outline are exactly what they say: the Overview is two sentences about what needs to happen in the story, and Notes are just things to remind myself of before and after I wrote it. Did I add a twist that changed the outline? Is there something I want to make sure to include later on? A side character that really popped out of the story? Things that develop as you write go here, so you can keep track of them.

And that’s it – a simple, quick, and effective outlining method that preserves the joy of discovery, while preventing you from turning your story into a mess. It’s been working for me, and I hope it works for you!

Have other methods you use? Let me know in the comments below!

3 thoughts on “How I Outline my Novels – From a Recovering Panster

  1. Really like your description of the event model! The few times I’ve tried to outline a piece (I’m so, so bad at outlining) I think I was fairly rigid about plot points covering the length of a chapter or a scene. This definitely threw me off with timing, so I’m definitely going to keep the “event-instead-of-chapter” advice in mind. Great post!


  2. Pingback: 3 Ways to Deal with a Difficult Scene During Nano – The Home of Alex Raizman

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