Outlining a Novel From Start to Finish

The 20 Novels Project

In my quest to write 20 novels over the next three years, I’m committed to outlining each one. When I wrote a recent short story for Medium, HEADS, YOU LOSE, I had no outline. Consequently, a lot of rewriting was required, and that was for a 3,000-word story.

Lots of people have already debated the merits of “pantsing” versus “plotting,” so I won’t go into those arguments here. Instead, I’ll find out for myself whether plotting — outlining — gives me an advantage or hinders my creativity.

I didn’t use any fancy software to create my outline, which is still a work in progress. Instead, I created a new Google doc in my WIP folder in Google Drive and started a numbered list. Each number represents a scene.

For now, each scene is described in between two and four sentences. I’m not getting very meta here. I want a broad understanding of the tension in the scene and what it means to the overall story.

Later, I might expand the outline to include more details. Perhaps a spreadsheet would suit my purposes better.

Here’s a Closer Look at My Novel Outlining Process

It occurred to me that I needed to know where I was ultimately going with the plot. What major stakes were in play? What characters would enter the story? What role did they have? And how would the novel end?

Here’s the thing: The best stories I’ve ever read end at their inevitable conclusions. In other words, any other ending would have been less satisfying, less natural or less believable.

Knowing this, I wanted to figure out exactly how my characters would resolve their conflict at the end of the novel.

To help myself along with this process, I created a Google doc with the following subheadings:

  • Inciting incident: What brings the reader into the story? This is important because, if the inciting incident has nothing to do with the ending, it feels irrelevant.
  • First Plot Point: This is the initial turning point of the story. Sometimes it’s a twist, and sometimes not, but it pulls the main character into reaction model. He or she has something to fight for or against.
  • Second Plot Point: Some people call this the midpoint. It’s when the main character officially enters battle mode. The story has unfolded such that what the main character believed throughout the first half of the story has irrevocably changed that character’s mindset or understanding of the stakes.
  • Third Plot Point: In many novels, the third plot point (or second, if you’re using the midpoint terminology) follows a bleak period for the protagonist. He or she feels defeated and exhausted. Then something happens to reel her back into the game. It’s often his desire to protect someone else or to save something he holds sacred.
  • Climax: Call it the final battle. The protagonist and antagonist meet for the last (and sometimes the first) time to duke it out. The reader knows the stakes in their entirety and understands what weapons or tools both characters are bringing to the battle.

I liked this method of initial outlining because it helped me shape the novel in broad strokes. If I knew what would happen at each of these points in the story, I could weave into the rest of the novel clues, twists, interactions, and other sequences to bring the story to its inevitable conclusion.

Filling in the Outline

Foreshadowing is my oxygen when it comes to storytelling. I want the writer to weave in clues that, upon later examination, reveal the inevitable ending long before it occurs.

Character development also depends on the outline. In a solid novel, each character is the hero of his or her own story, from the protagonist and antagonist to the supporting cast.

Following that initial outline that broke down the primary plot points in the story, I was able to fill in the gaps more easily. I knew what my protagonist’s journey would look like and how she would overcome her flaws to reign victorious by story end.

All I needed was the meat.

Timing, though, is critical. For instance, the first, second, and third plot points need to take place at roughly the 25th, 50th, and 75th percent mark in the story, respectively.

If the plot points occur too early or too late, the reader gets thrown off. The pacing sucks. And so on.

I wanted to make sure that each quarter of the story received equal attention. I know I’m the type of writer to rush to the end because I want to get to the final showdown. An outline, I’m predicting, will keep me from rushing the pace.

As mentioned above, I created scene descriptions in a Google doc. They might change as I come to better understand the novel, but I needed to get something on paper.

Next Steps

There are lots of ways to massage outlines into their final forms. Some writers like to write scene descriptions on note cards or sticky notes so they can rearrange them on a chart. Others like spreadsheets or timelines.

Since I haven’t ever written a novel, I don’t yet know my preference. I’m going to start with a spreadsheet, though, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Until then, I plan to keep playing with my outline. As of today, I have another 21 days to finalize it before I officially begin writing.

I will admit, though, that I have about 3,500 words written of the actual story. They’re scenes that I know will make it to the final draft, so I couldn’t resist putting them into words.

As I mentioned in my last post, this is about documenting the process of writing novels. I’m no expert.

And I plan to share with you every step I take, including any “cheating” with regard to my initial plan.

Wish me luck!