how to write a faster scene outline

6 Ways to Outline Your Novel Faster

Here are six ways to outline your novel faster and more effectively.

1. Start With Your Character’s GMC–Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

Nailing down your protagonist’s goal, motivation, and conflict (or GMC) is the first step in writing your outline. Solid plot foundations are built on what your protagonist wants, why it’s important, and what’s in the way.  Write down the GMC for both internal and external goals.

2. Research Your Characters

Once you know what your characters want and why they want it, you’ll be able to start fleshing them out. What sort of a person would want that goal? What sort of backstory would give him that motivation? Use photos, character sketches, short biographies. The more clearly you envision your character, the easier the next step will be.

3.  Pin Down Your Plot Points

These are the major milestones of your project. Keep in mind:  each protagonist will have his or her own set of plot points! If you have more than one protagonist, you will have more than one set of plot points that you will then weave together throughout the novel, each with its own corresponding scenes, each built on the protagonist’s internal and external GMC.

4. Do the Math and Build the Scene Outline

Next… pick an arbitrary number of scenes.

I know. That sounds nuts.

Look at it this way: you know approximately when the plot points are going to happen–mathematically, you know that the First Plot Point happens at the 25% mark, the Midpoint at the 50%, and the Third Plot Point at the 75%. You may also have a sense of your projected word count and page count, especially if you’ve researched the normal page count for the genre.

If you’ve written novels before, you may have a sense of how long you like to write your scenes. If that’s the case, divide the approximate number of total projected pages by the pages per scene, and you’ll get your scene count.

For example, I like writing seven-page scenes, and I’m trying to write an 85,000-word thriller. Using that math, I’m writing a 340-page book with about forty-eight scenes.

If you don’t know your preferred scene length, look at several other works in your genre and see how many chapters/scenes they have. Then pick a rough ballpark number (preferably one that’s easily divisible by four).

5. Populate the Scenes, Starting With Plot Points

I usually recommend starting with eight plot points: Inciting Event, First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint, Second Pinch Point, Third Plot Point, Climax, and Resolution. Then you do the math again. If I’m writing a forty-eight scene book, then my First Plot Point will be at scene twelve (more or less), the Midpoint at scene twenty-four, and so on.

This is crucial to figuring out how to outline your novel faster. Once the key scenes are in place, you won’t be faced with brainstorming a bunch of scenes from beginning to end–you’ll just be filling in the connective scenes that get you from one plot point to the next.

6. Check for GMCD (Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Disaster)

When writing my scene outlines, for each scene I like to include a note about:

Check these off your list in the outlining stage, and you’ll be able to make sure every scene has a purpose that ties in with your overall story question, and the protagonist’s GMC.  It gives you an overview of your pacing, as well.

Your Outline Is a Living Document

Including this much detail in your outline doesn’t mean your story is now carved in stone. You’ll make discoveries as you write, and you can always adjust the outline accordingly.

Doing the groundwork will make you less likely to veer off course, and you’ll be able to ensure each change fits into a larger picture.  Besides it’s a lot easier to revamp an outline than it is to overhaul an entire manuscript!

Tell me your opinion: What’s your writing process? How detailed are your outlines? 

how to write a faster scene outline_edited-1

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About Cathy Yardley | @cathyyardley

Cathy Yardley is the author of seventeen novels, published with Harlequin, St. Martin’s, and Avon. She is also a teacher, editor, and writing coach. Sign up for her free e-course Jump-start Your Writing Career, and check out her e-books on plotting, revising, and writing every day!

Comments

  1. I never outline my novel before, but getting stuck in the middle of second draft force me to give outline a try, my currently outlining process are: finding my premise first, then go the story spine, which is pretty much the GMC, and the last one is structure. Contrary to your post I usually do research first about my character via character’s questionnaire, etc then plotting out their GMC, but I’m having a hard time making sense of my characters, so I’m going to try to start with GMC first then research later, great post, thank you!

    • Kira, I used to do a lot of character research first, too, until I realized that I didn’t know my characters until I started to see them in action, and sometimes I’d “create” a character that then didn’t fit the story I wanted to write. I could change the plot, but sometimes the premise wouldn’t support the character I’d created. Just switching the steps a little helped enormously. I hope it helps you, too. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Funny you posted this today. I just started outlining my next book, which will be a YA. In Scrivener, where I used the template posted here, I set up my chapters as folders, 15 in each act, and filled in the major plot points. Right now I’m filling in the scenes. I do this quickly, knowing that the characters and story may change the minor scenes as I go. But the major plot points are pretty much written in stone. I also took a couple of weeks to develop characters. I don’t fill out the profile sheets completely, but write interviews. I also wrote a backstory for my two main characters. My goal is to plot\outline for 2 months, write for 2 months, and edit for 2 months. By overlapping, I can work on 2 or 3 books at a time (the goal is 6 books completed per year…lofty, I know, but I like a challenge). By using the outline method you’ve described, it’s possible. Less time wasted backtracking or re-writing. Thanks for the guest post! I like your advice.

    • 6 books a year is ambitious! But I like that you swing for the fence. I believe that outlining is the key to higher productivity. Are you planning on writing a series? That would help build your audience, as well… and I’ve found it helps to “outline” your series arc, in much the same way. Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Cathy!

  4. Shahjehan Khan says:

    Thanks for the information. I will use this for my next book!!

  5. Chris Schmitt says:

    One of the ways I research my characters is to try having a conversation with them by putting them in a situation that sparks lots of debate or general chatter. I write down all of the conversations, some may be useful later on, but most probably not. I was inspired by a Star Trek The Next Generation episode where Data was playing poker with Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking and I thought that was a great and unique situation. So to help get into the mindset of my characters we sit down and play poker. :)

  6. I think I followed your format in my last novel but plot points might have happened at different points than what you have outlined. My question would be how to apply it in the novel I am working on at the moment. I intend the first 40% or so of the book to be a series of short stories all following the theme of being let down by the justice system. the huge plot point would be when all of those different aggrieved characters come together to form a vigilante group. All advice would be welcome.

    • This reminds me of Dean Koontz’s book STRANGERS, which follows different story lines. The way I teach, and what I’d suggest, is looking at how many characters you have… then creating plot points for each character instead of thinking of it as “plot points for the novel.” Hopefully you don’t have over ten characters! But essentially, each character would act as a protagonist — they’re going to be changing over the course of the novel, different at the end than they were at the beginning, as a result of the challenges they faced. I imagine the point where they form the vigilante group would be a common point for all of them, but it might really be the midpoint… at some point in each of their individual stories, they all decide, for one reason or another, that they need to find justice, but they don’t know how to approach that. (Plot point 1.) Then you plot from there.

      Does that make sense? Let me know! :)

  7. thomas h cullen says:

    An exercise in especially elevated thinking Cathy. (Just like all posts on this site)

    I agree – always, a storyteller ought to begin their story framework with the goal; the essential aim.

    That’s indeed how I proceeded with Croyan. After the first just establishing of his existence, as well as that of his daughter, and the general idea of his being in wait somewhere, I then immediately set to establishing his reason for being there.

    Sounds obvious though doesn’t it?

    One of the great ironies with The Representative is its situation absolute simplicity being in great part what makes it so exceptionally profound.

    • I’ve found that some of the most obvious points are often the most overlooked. Thanks for commenting! :)

      • thomas h cullen says:

        It’s an unfortunate truth that applies to all too much. Like so many, it’s one to illustrate life’s not actually being about what it should be, but just what it can be.

        Your welcome – for writing the post, thanks; by doing so, you enable others the “feeling” of being prompted to share their own insight.

  8. How extensive are my outlines? *faints at the thought* I’ll go with practically nonexistent. I’m one of those writers where something as simple as a three page synopsis shuts my creativity down to the point I put it away and never want to touch the project again.

    For me everything is about character GMC, taking them out of their comfort zone, and knowing the ending. Sometimes I have a vague idea of the middle and sometimes I don’t.

    I do work from a back cover type blurb, but that’s it. Anything more detailed than that is a good way to make me walk away. My method isn’t one I try to convince other people to use, but it works for me. How do I know? Four 95K+ novels in two years, three of those four being 105K or just over.

    • Rachel, sounds like you’ve got a fantastic process, and it’s great that you’re honoring that. I usually have clients keep a writing journal, to recognize what works for them, and what doesn’t. For some, that means outlines, but for others, it means freeform “pantsing” and then more revision drafts. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Great post, Kathy! I’m an outliner all the way, but I’m playing with different variations to see what works best for me. In addition to what you mentioned I also have a section for timelines, research, settings, and miscellaneous. All the major information for the book is in one place and easy to find and reference as I’m writing.

    Love your math calculations for scenes and word count. I find it helpful with planning the time to write that first draft and setting writing deadlines. I hadn’t considered using calculations for plot points. Great idea!

    • Thanks, Elke! I like that you have the timelines section, as well as research, settings, misc. Do you use Scrivener? I’m falling in love with it, and that does make having those separate sections “at your fingertips.” I’m glad that you found something useful in the post!

  10. Rod Scarborough says:

    I have had trouble in the past about figuring out the how or why a character does what they do. until I took your advice and listened to the advice of other writers and its gotten easier.
    I’m in the middle of a sci-fi story and have started a political mystery. the main character in the second story is an investigator who thinks hes found evidence of voter tampering.

  11. Great points. Thanks.
    I think your strategy would make for a more organically put-together novel.
    I think it can help too with rewriting, in case a writer didn’t start with an approach like yours and wound up with a mess. Going back into the novel and establishing these essental aspects firmly and clearly could help, to include re-planning and re-outlining..

    • You could definitely use this “after the fact” to chart out where your story might have jumped the tracks, and how to rearrange/trim/add to make it more cohesive. Thanks for commenting!

  12. As a poet, who has written a “novel,” I find your organizational scheme promising. I have yet to try it.

  13. This kind of structure is EXACTLY what I need and am trying to learn, after deciding to pull out my 200,000 words (no exaggeration) of WIP that had gathered dust on my hard drive for 10 years.
    For the most part, it’s a series of disconnected scenes I’m trying to revise into an actual story (well, series) and I’m reading as much on this kind of structure as I possibly can. Thank you!

    • That’s a big WIP! I’d definitely “reverse engineer” and look at every scene, see what you’re trying to accomplish, how it ties into your protagonist’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and then organize from there. You might find my ebook, ROCK YOUR REVISIONS, helpful. Thanks for commenting!

      • Nicole Montgomery says:

        I think your book will be *very* helpful and with all that, I need it!
        Already downloaded and ready to be read. :-)

  14. Perfectly timed post! I just sat down today to write out one-line descriptions of my scenes, and found myself kind of stuck. I started out by putting in the FPP, SPP, etc (thanks Larry Brook!), but then was a bit overwhelmed with a bunch of scenes that I knew needed to be there, but I wasn’t quite sure how to put them in.

    Good to see that I’m on the right path, and now I’ll be reading the rest of the resources you linked to continue.

    • Isn’t Larry the best? His “Story Engineering” was a game changer for me, and that’s after being published for ten years or so! I’m glad that the post is giving you a framework to work with. Good luck with your project! :)

  15. Thanks Cathy! Larry is great. I bought both his “Story Engineering, ” and “Story Physics.” I also use John Truby’s 22 points. I’ve invested in this Screenwriting course, and two audio genre courses, and I’ve found them really useful.

    For those wondering, Truby’s Anatomy of Story is great, but the audio classes make things a lot clearer.

  16. Amy Pfaff says:

    I’ve outlined in too much detail and too little. This is really close to what I do. I try to start with the characters and their internal/external GMC and their wound or fear. I try do to a logline and premise then a longer synopsis. I could use a bit more detail, so this is great information.

  17. Thanks, Very helpful advice!

  18. Paula Bergstrom says:

    Great article! Thank you! I’ve listed my scenes on a big Excel spreadsheet. Now I’m adding in columns for story structure (Plot pt 1, etc.), POV character’s goal, etc., scene outcome, main setting/location and other ‘notes’ to remember. I like Excel because I can hide columns I’m not currently interested in, highlight and color cells or columns, easily add/take out scenes, etc. This helps me see the overall ‘map’ of the story.

  19. Thanks, Cathy, for an interesting, helpful post. I’ve used “Save the Cat” to outline plot points and like your idea of more specificity with scenes. Judy Christie

  20. Cathy and K.M., it took me a minute to realize this is a guest post by Cathy and not by the wonderful K. M. Though I’ve known K. M. for some time, you obviously both do a lot to help authors. My Twitter friend Shannon Buck sent me the URL. Isn’t it wonderful how those of us who are passionate about writing manage to fine one another. Thanks to all!
    Best,
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Multi Award-Winning Author of the HowToDoItFrugally series for writers including the second editions of the Frugal Book Promoter (http://bit.ly/FrugalBookPromo and The Frugal Editor (http://bit.ly/FrugalEditorKind )The latter is e-book only.for the time being.

  21. Divine timing as always…I sat down this morning to structure the outline for my next trilogy and found myself on Pinterest. Cathy, thanks for the reminder and concise process!

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