Outlining Your Novel The 5-Step Gameplan

Outline Your Novel: The 5-Step Game Plan

Generally speaking, writers fall into two different categories: outliners and non-outliners (or, as my critique partner Linda Yezak has dubbed them, “seat-of-the-pantsters”). I’m an outliner. Mostly, I outline because I’m lazy. I hate rewriting; I hate watching my burst of pride and relief at the end of a novel dissipate in a realization of a hole-riddled plot. I’d much rather know where I’m going from the beginning, rather than try to force my foreshadowing and plot twists into the text somewhere in my second draft. It’s much easier to spend a few weeks to outline your novel than it is to spend a few months to a year rewriting an entire draft.

When I’m already familiar with each pit stop along the road of my novel—thanks to my road map—it’s much easier for me to visualize the big picture and to realize what each scene must do to play its part. It’s also a sure-fire antidote for writer’s block. When all I have to do to know where I’m going is look at my map, I rarely have to waste valuable time and brain cells staring slack-jawed at the blinking cursor.

Admittedly, as perfect as outlining is for me, it’s not perfect for everyone. Many writers feel outlining stifles their creativity. They feel that if they already know what happens in the story, why should they bother writing that first draft? In a way, however, an extensive outline is a first draft. It’s the “mistake” draft, the dry-eraser board where we all throw out our ideas and see how they line up on the page. Outliners and seat-of-the-pantsters alike go through this process. The only difference is that the outliner’s process takes maybe a quarter of the time.

Outlines take many forms—some of them a few sentences scrawled on a Post-It Note, some of them notebooks full of ramblings. I fill up at least a notebook or two up with my scrawlings, and over the years, I’ve developed a handful of steps. Let’s take a look at why you should outline your novel!

Step #1: Refine Your Premise

By the time, I sit down to begin work on a story, it’s usually been chasing around in my head for at least a year or two. I almost always have ideas for several main characters, a handful scenes, a general conflict, and at least a sense of what the ending will be. My first goal is to hammer all this down into a premise: a sentence or two that conveys the plot and the theme. This premise may actually change several times throughout the outlining and first-draft stages, but, to begin with, it helps me focus my thoughts.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (affiliate link)

Step #2: Compile Your General Sketches

This is probably the single most important step. This is where I give myself leave to throw my every idea—no matter how ridiculous—onto the page. I write down what I already know about the story, crafting it into a synopsis of sorts and discovering the plot holes. I ask myself lots of “what if’s” and “why’s.” Why is the character behaving this way? Why is she bitter about her past? What is forcing him to make these particular decisions?

In essence, the few scenes already in my brain are like dots on a connect-the-dot puzzle. It’s my job to figure how and why the lines follow this pattern, and that job is much easier when I can concentrate on answering the questions, rather than also trying to construct full-blown scenes, with characters, dialogue, and a consistent plot.

Step #3: Create Your Character Sketches

Once I have a pretty good idea of the story arc, and once I’ve filled in all the plot holes I can spot, I go to work on character sketches. I use a lengthy “interview” process that forces me to learn my characters’ backstories (which tend to be vital) and gives me the opportunity to figure out their every little quirk. You can read my list of interview questions in the post “100+ Questions to Help You Interview Your Character.”

Character interviews are a lengthy process, so I only focus on the POV characters, the antagonist, and maybe one or two important minor characters. This part of the outlining generally gets my brain juices foaming and brings up all kinds of interesting tangents and opportunities for deepening the plot.

Step #4: Write Your Extended Outline

This is where the plotting begins in earnest. Step by step, I plot out in as much detail as possible (though without dialogue or narrative) every road stop along my map. In places, this plotting goes pretty quickly; in othes, I have to stop to work my way through iffy plot points and implausible character motivations. This step, by itself, can take several months, but because of the active, full-throttle creativity demanded, it’s one of the most exciting and rewarding portions of my storytelling.

Step #5: List Your Abbreviated Outline

Finally, once I have my entire plot mapped out, I condense all the pertinent info into an abbreviated outline—which keeps me from having to read my entire extended outline every time I sit down to write. In the past, I either typed up the abbreviated outline in Word or used the free outlining software yWriter. These days, I’m finding the superior organizational features of Scrivener.

In a nutshell, that’s my process. If you ever feel yourself mired in the hazy middle of a novel that doesn’t really seem to know either where it’s coming from or where it’s going, give outlining a shot. Even just the simple act of scribbling down a handful of scene ideas can go a long way toward pulling a story into an organized whole. Outline your novel! It’s about the easiest way possible to complete a first draft and ensure a cohesive second draft.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What you find most helpful about outlining? Most frustrating? Tell me in the comments!

Outlining Your Novel The 5-Step Gameplan

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I’m so glad little notes on scrap paper count!

  2. I lean Outliner. Although I think it would be great not to

  3. I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of what “counts” and what doesn’t. We all have to do what works for us at any given moment, and pigeon-holing ourselves into titles (such as “outliner” or “non-outliner”) can be a hindrance. Sometimes a story calls for outlining, sometimes it doesn’t. I hardly ever outline short stories.

  4. Thanks for the link to your “Character Interviews” – great idea.

  5. Glad you found it useful. I’ve had to it since I wrote that post; I should update it one of these days.

  6. This is an excellent article. I tend to be a “seat of the pantser” because I write short stories mainly. After reading this I plan to try outling a lot more though. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I haven’t written a short story in years, but as long as I knew the ending, I tended to wing those without much of an outline.

  8. Anonymous says

    I’m a short story person. Most of them stem from dialogues my characters have (read: I have with myself in the bathroom). Some are outlined till the last period. Most, however… well, I wing them starting with a phrase or two.

    I’m an outliner when it comes to novels. Well, I start with what I’d tentatively like to call a “summary”, but I also end up with what could be a first draft.
    Meh, what can we do, right? We sit, we type, we write… We don’t stop for a few hours! [Mom is frustrated that I’m four hours late for lunch!]

  9. Ha! I have those conversations with myself/characters in the bathroom too. Mirrors and writers can be dangerous…

  10. I spent years wanting to write a book and when I finally came up with something I wanted to write I didn’t take the time to outline for fear of losing my story. However, that first book was riddled with holes and needs a lot of rewrite.

    This time, my second book, I have not only outlined, I have done several of the steps you mention in this article and already I know this book is going to be easier to write and most likely better than the first book.

    Thanks for the link to yWriter!

  11. In a lot of respects, my extensive outlines could almost be considered my first drafts – just as, I suspect, many SOTPers’ first drafts are an outline of sorts for the drafts to follow. It all evens out in the end! But I have to agree that outlining seems much easier to me.

  12. I just discovered your site and I am enjoying all of your posts but I felt I needed to thank you for this one. I started out toward the extensive outline side of the spectrum, then read a whole bunch of books and articles that basically said you can’t write well that way. For years after that I tried to write by the seat of my pants and got nowhere. Your process sounds a lot like what my instincts lean towards so thank you for this wonderful post and the validation! I’m going back to outlining.

  13. Go with your instincts. Always. No two writers write the same way, so when someone tries to force a particular set of rules on you as the “only” way to write, don’t believe ’em. I’m glad you enjoyed this article. I’m actually in the process of writing a book on the subject of outlining.

  14. Just the advises I needed at the time. Since I am in beginning steps of my first novel. It looks a lot of work, but I think it will make things easier. The part to ask what it’s and why’s was especially what I needed right at the moment. Time to fill a notebook or two 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Outlining *is* work, but it saves untold time and effort in the long run. Definitely worth putting in the hours upfront.

  15. In addition to Scrivener, the company’s program Scapple is brilliant for working out the plot. It’s a truly free-form post-it note page with almost infinite flexibility. I highly recommend it. And at $15, who could resist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m just now getting into Scrivener. But if Scapple is anywhere near as brilliant, it’s got to be great. I’ll check it out!

  16. I lean on the Outline side of the fence. Thanks in particular to your books K.M, and I say that I appreciation. I used to be a pantser but my stories would never get finished in fact they rarely got past the first three chapters due to just getting lost. Now I’m a third the way through my first novel and still not lost in fact I have the entire book outlined. Outlining has certainly helped me stay on track without loosing my creativity.

  17. Anthony Pullenza says

    Hello Ms. Weiland,
    I have purchased the 4 books that you published on Outlining A Novel and Structuring Your Novel. What is the most advantageous process to take advantage of all of this information? I am not finished reading these 4 books.

    Would you be kind enough to explain how the Outline and the Structure work together? I will be using Scrivener. Do these two methods run concurrently or do you complete the Outline and then the Structure? How do I make them work together, assuming no experience with either methods?

    Than you.
    Anthony Pullenza

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for grabbing the books! I hope you enjoy them. I recommend reading Outlining first, since it leads right into Structuring. Once of you have an understanding of both principles, you can intertwine them in your prep work. I am always actively working on structure as I’m outlining. I just released, as a free supplement, the complete transcript of one of my own outlines, which you might find interesting, as an example of how I intertwine structuring into the outlining process.

  18. This is definitely a well oiled machine. I’ve just realized it probably took you years to develop this whole thing.

    Question: 1. What is the story arc? is that the same as the character arc?
    2. How do you determine which POV character to focus on? is it
    more of a gut feeling or more according to planning?


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Story arc and character arc are so closely related as to be intertwined, but the story arc is specifically about the structure and plot.

      POV choices *are* largely a gut feeling, but one thing to always ask yourself is: Which character has the most at stake? When you look at your story’s plot points, which characters are central in all of them?

  19. I was always an outliner, but I never recognized what I was doing as outlining until I started reading your outlining book. I just thought I was procrastinating doing actual writing by instead doing question-and-answer type things like you did in the outline transcript of Storming. I never did anything as structured as what you demonstrate in that transcript, though, and I almost always pressured myself into writing the first draft far too soon. Knowing that I’m not procrastinating but outlining is helping me tremendously. There’s so much less pressure to start writing now, and I can focus on creating a more structured outline process that will actually help me write. Also, I’d never heard of anyone who did the question/answer type things until I picked up the book–it was so nice to know I’m not alone in that.

  20. Yay to outlining! Planning it all out ahead of time and hammering out the weaker spots is absolutely essential to me, even if I’m just barely starting out in writing.
    On a different note, is there a general guideline for how many POVs to use? Is it usually a good idea to stick with one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although there is never any solid rule for number of POVs, a good guideline is “fewer is better.”

  21. Heather T says

    The link for Scrivener goes to a website: mycommerce.com. Is that correct?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No, that link was outdated. Thanks for letting me know! I’ve updated it.

      • Heather T says

        Do you still choose Scrivener over yWriter or any other writing tools? Any noticeable pros and cons to one or the other?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I love both programs. They’re both fabulous organizing platforms. I used and loved yWriter for so long that I always feel slightly disloyal saying this, but: as great as yWriter is, Scrivener is about ten times better. Totally worth the reasonable price. It’s yWriter on steroids. Everything yWriter does, it does better.

          Honestly, the only drawbacks from Scrivener that yWriter does better are a few little forms for filling in scene dates and noting scene structure. But both are small losses in the overall scheme of things.

          Scrivener is more complicated and therefore does have a steeper learning curve, but it’s totally worth it.

  22. Heather T says

    To clarify, it is better to outline first and then structure? Trying to wrap my head around the difference between the two and why one would come before the other. Thank-you 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Outlining encompasses more than just structure, but structuring is absolutely a part of outlining. I recommend doing big-picture brainstorming first before getting nitty-gritty with the structure. I talk about the timing I prefer in my series on outlining.


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