How To Outline Without Getting Overwhelmed (With Resource Links)


If you’ve read my last post, Why I Quit Pantsing, you know I’ve been doing a lot of research and note taking the last month. I have started my own plotting and planning adventure that (I hope) will nearly guarantee my success at National Novel Writing Month this year.

What I’ve found is that outlining an entire novel can be extremely intimidating. Even if you’re doing a “rough skeleton” of what you intend to write about, it can still get extensive for a High Fantasy like mine. As a retired pantser it truly pains me to admit; outlines are the key to successful novel writing. 

It’s plain and simple. You. Need. An. Outline. But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to take you a month to produce one. You don’t have to cry and bleed over a word document that isn’t your manuscript. Not anymore.

Here is what you need to do in order to outline your novel without the overwhelm:

Start with goals and conflicts. Take out a sheet of paper and write down the Why’s of your story. This is a super simple way to get your gears turning into the “outline” mode, and it’s so easy you won’t even realize you’re planning a full fledged book. What does your character want, why does he want it, and what is in his way? Boom, done.

Break it down, piece by piece. While keeping my goals and conflicts sheet close by, I tackled each section of my outline individually: Beginning, Middle, and End. While that may sound a bit Elementary school, it helped avoid biting off more than I can chew. Sit down for an hour a day and plan out each section individually.

Lightly sketch out a skeleton. An outline has a rough draft, just like your work-in-progress. Don’t try to sit down and produce a completely detailed list of plot points for your entire book all at once. List (vaguely) what you want to happen in bullet points at first. Then go back to the beginning and flesh out each bullet individually. It really is like layering a cake.

Try different structures, like the three-act form or the snowflake method. Basically, your secret weapon to avoiding overwhelm is to be organized. There are plenty of different structures to use while planning your novel, all of them extremely helpful in organizing your thoughts and ensuring that your work flows properly with little repetition or lulls.  This NaNoWriMo I am planning out my novel in the three act structure.

12077139_10205193379254971_154458333_nI divided a sheet of paper into three columns and labeled them Act One (25%), Act Two (50%), and Act Three (25%). Then I labeled where major plot points should go. I wrote down where the “Save The Cat” scene should take place, and where the inciting incident should occur. After all the technicalities were drawn in, I went to town. I scribbled all of the ideas and little points I wanted to make throughout the story. Sometimes I even included notes on my MC’s emotional journey, and what was happening to other characters while the camera wasn’t on them.

This helped immensely to organize my ideas and provide myself with the best resource to start my outline. Side note: The 3 Act structure is seen mostly in plays, not novels, but I liked adding the percentages to each section and having a concrete guide to follow on major plot points. This may not work for everyone.

Resources on different novel structures:

How To Plot With The 3 Act Structure via Janice Hardy
The Snowflake Method via Advanced Fiction Writing
The Hero’s Journey via The Writer’s Journey

Take advice from your peers. Learning from other writers is vital to becoming a better writer yourself, and there is tons of wonderful outlining advice out there that really eased the burn I was feeling in my gut. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. These people might as well be your coworkers, and many of them have been here and done this before. Take their advice!

Outlining resources from other writers:

6 Ways To Outline Your Novel Faster via K.M. Weiland
How To Write A Novel Outline (Like The Lady Boss You Are) via ShesNovel
Master Your Outline via Better Novel Project
The One Page Novel Plot Formula via Lady Writer

Remember: It’s not permanent. Your outline is susceptible to change, even during the actual writing process. You’re not laying down the law, it is simply a guideline. Follow it or don’t, but you’ll feel a lot better mid-way through your work when you have a document to reference to.

The key here is to remember that this is your journey, so you make the rules. What has worked for me may not work for you, and that’s okay. Your first draft is a desert and your outline is a cold canteen of water, keeping you alive in the heat. I promise. Do the work now so that you can save yourself some writing time later.

How is your #NaNoPrep going? Do you skip on the outline? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @NicoleLautore!

Happy Writing!

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  1. I love it! I am also determined to “win” NaNoWriMo this year! Started participating back in high school and haven’t won since. I’m approaching it differently this year and that means a full blown, nailed down outline. This post is excellent! May we both win this year! ha ha!

    Also, I’d add Eva Deverell’s One Page Novel Formula to your resource list. I used this format to outline my novel this year. You can find it here:

    Happy noveling!

    1. Thanks! I’m so glad this inspired you to get outlining 🙂 I also have been doing NaNo since High School and haven’t won many since I graduated College. I know the feeling.

      I will definitely add the new resource, thanks to much!

      Happy Writing! I know we’ll both kick butt this year! 🙂

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