To Outline Or Not: 5 Ways to Plot Your Novel

Plotter versus Pantser, the age old battle of writers everywhere. Some writers can't imagine wasting time writing a word without having a plot down and prepared, while other writers won't write a word if there's a plan strangling their ability to explore the story. 

As we approach NaNoWriMo kickoff, now's a solid time to look at the 'to outline or not to outline' dilema. When it comes to outlines, I like to call myself a pantser with a belt. What I mean by that is that I like writing by the seat of my pants but I want some kind of support to make sure my pants don't fly off and I show my ass. I rarely prepare the same way from project to project and I like experimenting and trying new things (eyebrow waggle?) with how I plot. 

For me what this means is writing an outline that matches the story I'm working on or trying to write an outline then abandoning it. Sometimes I have a paragraph description of what's going to happen and that's all I use. Sometimes I have a detailed, point-by-point outline that spans 15 pages single spaced. Sometimes I write half of the work then plot through the middle and to the end. There are countless ways to plan a story and even more ways to get caught up in how you should outline. There isn't one right fit-all format for an outline to take and trying to find that perfect format is going to take time away from your writing. Here are a few different methods I've tried, and how they worked for me. 

1. List Out All The Things

I love lists. To-do lists are my jam so this felt like a good plan for me on my last project, a murder mystery. However, I didn't do this until after I'd written the first draft and was diving in for major revisions. What I did was break down chapter by chapter what happened. So it read:

Chapter 1
Madigan wakes up to Lt. Ruiz at his door. 
Ruiz tells him Scott is dead
Madigan panics and tries to come up with an alibi. 

And so on and so forth. In total this outline clocked in at over 3,000 words and the truth of the matter is that at about the halfway mark I deviated from my outline and winged it. 

Pros: Feels like I'm totally in control. No worries about what happens next. 
Cons: Time-consuming and feels a bit restrictive. 

2. Back Of Book Blurb

This is a fun way to get into the spirit of the story. What would the back cover of your book say? How would the plot be described? This also can help lead you towards your hook and help with querying and pitching later on. 

Pro: Fun, loose and quick. 
Con: Not a lot of detail, easy to not know what's happening next. 

3. Summary

A lot of agents, editors, and publishers want a summary when you pitch them. This is a 1-5 page document that breaks down the plot of your novel. It shows what happens when, how, and why in basic terms. Starting with this can be extremely helpful because writing a summary is one of the more difficult parts of pitching (at least I sure think so!). So far this is my favorite method of plotting. 

Pro: Quick, helpful in the future, more detail. 
Con: Can lack subplot details; feels a bit restrictive

4. Character Arc

This is a new one I'm trying for my NaNoWriMo novel this year and so far, I'm not really sure what to think. I like the idea of basing the novel on your character's emotional growth and tracking it through the novel. You start with the character's goals, flaws, allies and antagonists then wrte out how those change and work together through the course of the novel. 

Pro: Character driven helps you know your characters better, quick for one character
Cons: Less action details, time consuming to do for every main character

5. Fake It Til You Make It aka Zero Draft

This is probably what I end up doing most often. I write out an ugly zero draft and then outline after I've finished the draft. This draft will change pov, tense and characters as I feel out the story. Once I've finished most of the draft I will set out to plot out what happens and rework it from the beginning through to the end. 

Pro: Fun, exploration of story
Con: Very time consuming, a lot of words end up cut



In the end, try anything and everything. What works for one story might not work for the next, and that's okay. Part of writing is always learning and practicing your craft. Part of that is finding new ways to tell your stories.