How to Outline for NaNoWriMo: Should You Outline Your Novel?

How to Outline for NaNoWriMo: Should You Outline Your Novel?

How to Outline for NaNoWriMo: Should You Outline Your Novel?Welcome to October—otherwise known as Cram Like Crazy for National Novel Writing Month (maybe we should call it LiCraFoNaNoMoWriMo—it’s got a certain ring, right?). Maybe you’re a NaNo veteran. Maybe you’re a tentative first-timer. Or maybe you’re not interested in writing 50,000 words in 30 days, but just want to figure out should you outline your novel and how?

Maybe you’re intimidated by outlines. They seem like a lot of work. They seem like maybe they’ll rob half of the fun of actually writing the book.

Or maybe you’re confused by the whole idea of outlining. What exactly is a novel outline? How do you know where to start? And why does even bringing up the topic seem like launching the first mortar in the dirty border war between Plotters and Pantsers?

Not to worry. You’re about to learn how to love the outline by making it your own. Even better, whether you’re preparing for NaNo next month or just wanting to crack the code on preparing for your next novel, I’m going to show you the secrets of advanced outlining.

How to Outline for NaNoWriMo (or any other month): The Definitive Guide

Outlining Your Novel 500As many of you probably know, my career as a writing teacher and mentor was basically launched when my first writing how-to book Outlining Your Novel became a surprise hit. Five years ago, when I published the book, I had absolutely no idea how hungry writers were for help outlining their novels.

I wrote the book simply because outlining was something that worked so well for me and was a topic I was passionate about. Even now, Outlining Your Novel remains my most popular book. In it, I explained the basic outlining system I used at the time. I still use that same system, but it’s grown as I’ve grown and been refined as I’ve refined my writing process.

Since I’ve (shockingly) never done a complete series on outlining (which I need in order to round out my series on story structure and character arcs), I figured it was long past time to remedy that—and NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to launch a definitive series on my updated outlining process.

Over the next few months, I’m going to walk you through the next step up in outlining your novel. If you haven’t read Outlining Your Novel, I recommend starting there, since it will provide the foundation for the next-gen techniques I’ll be talking about. You can also get an overview of the outlining process I recommend in this post from last year’s NaNo series: 6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List.

You can also find all kinds of guided help for creating your own best outline in my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software.

Before we dive headfirst into the nitty-gritty of how to outline for NaNoWriMo (or any other month), let’s cover some important basics about the what, why, and how of outlining.

The 3 Types of Outline

Before you can understand how to outline, you must first understand what an outline is–and how to know the answer to, “Should you outline your novel?” Sounds basic, but there are a surprising number of options authors might be talking about when they say they’re “outlining.”

Here are the top three:

1. Does Outlining Mean Listing Scenes?

This is probably the most common understanding of an outline. It harks back to those crazy Roman-numeral outlines we were required to complete in high school (and which, if you were anything like me, you probably put together after the fact, once you’d already written your report or book review).

Roman Numeral Outline of Behold the Dawn by K.M. Weiland

An early (failed) Roman-numeraled scene-list outline I started and discarded when discovering my outlining process while writing my medieval epic Behold the Dawn.

Scene-list outlines often give writers the willies. Just sitting down and creating a list of events that might happen in your story seems mind-numbing. How can that not inevitably sap all the joy out of actually creating and discovering the story? If you have to follow that dry old outline while writing the first draft, where’s the fun of storytelling?

This understanding, by itself, is single-handedly responsible for scaring many authors away from outlining.

2. Does Outlining Mean Creating Story Structure?

The second most popular—and much more accurate—approach to outlines is the idea of creating a viable story structure for your novel before you actually start the first draft.

In essence, this approach actually isn’t that different from the scene list. But instead of randomly listing one scene after another, you’re focusing on the major plot points and other structural moments and making sure they’re all accounted for roundabout their proper timing.

Structuring Your Novel Visual Chart

This approach is a part of outlining. But by itself, it isn’t outlining. By itself, it also creates far too great a risk of sapping the creativity and spontaneity right out of your process.

3. Does Outlining Mean Brainstorming Your Story?

So… if outlining isn’t simply listing scenes or figuring out the story structure ahead of time—what is it?

I once received an email from a disgruntled reader complaining that my approach to outlining “never talked about outlining.” I sat there for a minute, just thinking, “Uh, whaa?”

What I then realized was that this reader failed to understand the fundamental nature of a successful and nurturing outline.

Outlining is brainstorming, pure and simple.

Outlining isn’t a process of sitting down for thirty minutes and coming up with a list of scenes that fits the Three-Act structure. Not at all. Honestly, I shudder at just the thought. No wonder people get scared and bored by outlines if that’s how they’re approaching them!

K.M. Weiland asking, Should you outline your novel?

Should you outline your novel? Turns out it’s shockingly fun.

What outlining should be is a process of discovery.

When you sit down to outline your story, you are entering an exciting zone of creativity, in which you’re embracing and sorting through all your story’s vast possibilities. You’re asking informed questions to help you narrow down your story’s best possibilities, so you can enter your first draft equipped to write it in the best way.

In short, outlining is all three of the above approaches rolled into one. Eventually, as you refine your outlining process, you’re certainly going to be brainstorming story structure and scene lists. But if you try to create scenes and structure without entering through the door of creativity, you’ll be setting yourself for several major pitfalls, including:

  • Stilted stories.
  • Boring first drafts.
  • Loss of interest in the story.
  • Painful preparation.

If you’ve experienced any of the above in previous outlining attempts, you can now breathe a sigh of relief.

Your outlining is about to get really, really fun.

But first…

Let Me Blow Your Minds: No Such Things as “Plotters” and “Pantsers”

Very likely, when you started reading this article, you identified yourself as belonging to one of two adamant and often antagonistic camps withing the writing world: plotters (aka outliners) or pantsers (aka those who write by the seat of their pants).

The ongoing feud between these two camps is legendary. Mostly it consists of everyone thinking their way is better and resenting the other camp for doing the same.

I used to be a proud card-holding member of Outliners In Your Face. But then I realized two things, in this order:

Epiphany #1: Who cares what people do if it works for them? Certainly, there are great authors in both camps, so there is no concrete proof that one approach is better than the other.

Epiphany #2: The whole concept of “plotting vs. pantsing” is a shell game. There’s no such thing.

Say what?

Here’s a guarantee I feel absolutely safe in making: no matter who you are or how you prefer to approach writing, you cannot be exclusively a plotter or a pantser. You’re both. We all are.

We all plan some parts of our stories—whether it’s extensively on paper, exclusively in our heads, or retroactively during revision.

We all pants some parts of our stories—whether it’s coming up with interesting scenes while brainstorming the outline, diving headfirst into a first draft with no idea where a scene is going, or just piecing together the specifics of generally planned scenes.

Please note this declaration isn’t just my well-intentioned attempt to end the war. Rather, this is an important realization for any author: we need both parts of our brains when we write. Creativity and Logic. Pantsing and Plotting.

You do not have to fit yourself into one box or the other. You’re free to flow from one box to the next box according to your own preference. You may spend most of your process in the plotting box, or you may spend most of it in the pantsing box. Doesn’t matter. Writing is all about gathering all the tools at your disposal and finding the approach that best optimizes your creativity in that particular moment.

In short, even if you prefer to spend very little time in the planning stage before diving into the first draft, you can still benefit from an understanding of plotting and outlining.

Should You Outline Your Novel?

And that brings us to the first and foremost question facing any author getting ready to write that next book.

Should you outline your novel before the first draft? And, if you do, how much is the right amount of outlining for you?

I’m prejudiced, of course. I think my approach is the best.

The novel is ultimately a complex and logical problem. When you approach it as an equation to be solved creatively within the bumper lane of the outline, you allow yourself enough space to make brilliant mistakes and avoid time-sucking dead ends later on.

Getting the story straight before you begin your first draft means you can clear all that space in your brain to then worry about getting your prose right and crafting your narrative to best bring your characters to life.

This isn’t to say an outline is the only way to solve the equation of your novel. But outlines make the difficult task of writing a novel much less difficult. If your storytelling instincts aren’t yet honed to perfection, outlines allow you to use all of your brain to create a brilliant architectural blueprint before you order all the supplies and go out there to build an amazing suspension bridge or skyscraper.

Storming Outline Transcript

Click the image to download an example of my own completed outline from my aviation-adventure novel Storming.

The outlining approach I use and teach is seriously in-depth. My finished outlines can run as much as 50,000 words in their own right and take me several months to complete. Some writers choke on this. But aside from the fact that all the time spent on outlines is just plain fun, I’m also spared the doubt and frustration of first drafts that don’t work. My first drafts flow, and, even better, they usually require very little in the way of major revision.

Sound good?

Good. Starting next Monday, we’re going to dive into the best ways to maximize your creativity, answer your novel’s most pressing questions, and create an outline that will deliver solid first drafts.

And the best part? You get to pick and choose which pieces of this method work for you and your specialized mix of plotting and pantsing!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’re going to talk about the first four questions you need to ask yourself about your story when you start outlining.

Previous NaNoWriMo Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Should you outline your novel? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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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 have to admit I did #1 – listing scenes after I identified the key events and points… and then when I changed my key events, I went back to my list of scenes and felt OVERWHELMED. I just felt scared and tired. And then I read this post, where you said outlining is fun. *sigh* I forgot about that – that it can be fun and exciting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writing is hard, no question, and we have to embrace that. But if we’re suffering major resistance to any part of the process, that’s usually a sign we’re doing something wrong. If it’s not fun, it’s always worth stepping back and evaluating why not–and what it would take to make it fun again.

      • I’m currently reading your book Outlining your novel, recommended to me in a writer’s group. I really wish I read this book sooner. I’m currently on chapter 6. I took notes and this book helps clarify your posts on outlining.

        I like how you used the movie Gladiator, one of my favorite movies as an example as well.

      • Brenda Williams says

        I can relate to this topic. At first I was a pancer. I have just started outlining. It is very interesting. I think that’s why I lost interest. I wrote the whole book and realized there was so much I missed and started over. Now I have things happening that I didn’t in the first sloppy draft. It’s amazing how much more interesting it became. Thank you so much for your helping writer’s become authors.

  2. Hannah Killian says

    I don’t think I outlined enough for my story. . .I’m pretty sure it’s a mess right now.

  3. Grandma K says

    hello! i would like to order your two books. i am 77 working on my first story and am stuck.
    No idea where to go after editing the first draft of 365 double spaced pages. this first heart endeavor will not be my last if i can get “unstuck” and i think i need your experienced opinion
    and will outline and see if that re-boots my love for getting over the hump.
    thanks for listening, Grandma K
    p.s. i do not have paypal so would i be able to write you a check?

  4. Is outlining included in your writing time? or do you have a time specifically for writing something and then outline during a separate time?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes. I count whatever part of the process I’m currently working on as “writing time.” Whether I’m outlining, researching, writing, or editing, that’s my focus for my daily writing time.

  5. TheTimeIsWrite says

    Is it possible to outline your novel after you write it? In my mind, you could make more complex characters arcs and scenes this way.

  6. Irrevenant says

    “CraLiFoNaNoMoWriMo” should be “CraLiCraFoNaNoWriMo”.

    Just sayin’

  7. Hi Ms. Weiland!

    I have been following your blog for quite a while now and have really enjoyed it! Just wanted to let you know that I’ve done a recommendation for your blog on my blog here: 🙂

  8. I write short stories and flash fiction and am working on my first novel right now. After starting my novel and writing a few short stories, I realized I hated the short stories I had outlined even more than I normally despised my own writing(except my novel, I’m actually liking it)! I haven’t outlined since. But when I was reading this I realized I have an entire outline of important events in my novel in my head and it was like, MIND BLOWN!

    In all seriousness though, I have found that my writing feels more natural when its off the top of my head so I only think about important plot events like deaths (everyone in my novel dies) and the ending.

    Your website has been a big help with characters, keep up the good work!

    P.S. Don’t mean to bother you, don’t answer if you don’t want to, but I saw your author bio and was wondering if you are christian? Just out of curiosity. Don’t feel like you’ve got to answer.

  9. Nadia Syeda says

    This series is tremendously helpful. At first, I tried following it point-by-point but then I realized that although it’s important to pay attention to your left brain, you also have to respect the right brain, especially when you’re more a writer than a storyteller.

    So I created an approach that suits me quite well. First I write a vague sketch and fill in any obvious plotholes. I identify the motivations of the characters and their goals and just nail down a basic template.Then I follow the vague sketch and let my characters guide me through the first draft. Of course, the first draft isn’t perfect, which is where your handy extensive outlining approach comes in. After the first draft, I now know my characters pretty well and I don’t feel like I’m creating nothing out of nothing when I’m outlining. I have something to work with. The first draft is basically a brainstorm. Then I take the raw ideas and refine them using the outlining process and the second draft will be much more structured, cohesive, and put-together. It’s an approach that allows me to tap into my creativity and also not waste time wandering through dozens of dead ends.

  10. I accidentally wrote nearly 20K words of a novel before I realized I was even writing one. I had no plan at first and stopped writing to try to figure out a way to organize it – that was four years ago. Having grown massively frustrated, I didn’t look at it again until about a week ago, still without a plan and no plan as to how to get a plan. Then, I found my way here. I just finished your Outlining book – borrowed from the library until my copy arrives – and the workbook just came Saturday so, I have been trying to figure out how to apply what I am learning to the novel that I started before I knew what a pantser or a plotter even was.

    So, my question, and I believe I know what the answer is going to be is:
    How in the world do I start an outline when I’ve already started telling the story?
    I feel as though, the right place to begin – PLEASE correct me if you disagree – is by writing down what I already know (got that idea from your outline for Storming) about the story and the characters and move forward from there.

    Oh, maybe one other question – at what point should I edit the 20K words I already have? Should I do that in conjunction with my new efforts at putting the outline together since they kind of are the outline right now or do I use them to guide my outlining and edit when the story is finished?

    Any guidance you’re able to provide is most appreciated!
    Keep the acorn spinnin’

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As you may remember, I talk in Outlining Your Novel about how my total conversion to outlining came after I’d written 50k words in my portal fantasy Dreamlander. At that point, my experience pretty much mirrored yours, and I knew I needed to stop and outline before going any further.

      I started that ouline in the same way I would a “virgin” outline–by figuring out the overall shape of the story and particularly the ending. Once I knew that, I went back and started planning the entire story. Some of that work had shortcuts, since I didn’t have to discard everything I’d written up to that point. But in essence I started from scratch and outlined from the top.


  1. […] use to see if they work for me, as it helps me refine my writing practice. Take a look at her Plotter vs. Pantser debate-settling argument! (I happen to think she’s hit the nail on the head, by the […]

  2. […] of my favorite  writing craft teachers, K.M. Weiland, is doing a series of articles on How to Outline for NaNoWriMo. I have her two books, Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, in digital form, and I buy […]

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  4. […] think the push to jump in the briar patch came from reading K.M. Weiland’s How to Outline for NaNoWriMo series of posts.  They led me to find out more about the challenge. Intrigued, I sought a topic. […]

  5. […] Among them is K.M. Weiland’s Her blog series How to Outline for NaNoWriMo inspired me to join the NaNoWriMo challenge. I finished November with a winner icon and Kiliane’s […]

  6. […] Here is K. M. Weiland’s first post in a series about outlining. She addresses common misconceptions and gives some great pointers! (The quote at the beginning of this article is from this post.) The entire series of posts is definitely worth reading. […]

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