Forum Friday: How Do You Outline?

Unless you are a prodigy, a diehard pantser, or some combination thereof, an outline is an absolutely essential blueprint for writing a novel. An outline allows us to chart events, organize them, rearrange, cut, add, develop characters and motivations along the way. It’s kind of a like a scale model of an elaborate mansion or theme park: you are visualizing the full, complex picture before you start building, and by planning it all out first you are saving yourself valuable time and reconstruction efforts!

But how to go about doing it?

Here are just a few of the possible methods out there:

  1. Flowchart
  2. Word Document
  3. Sticky Notes
  4. Note Cards (see haphazard starter attempt top right)
  5. The All-Encompassing Super Spreadsheet of DOOM (aka JK Rowling Style)

Sureasmel of Ink Out Loud mentioned Final Draft, a program that brands itself as screenwriting software, but can be very useful for novel outlining, too. Here is a handy dandy, color-coded screenshot from her:

An outline from Sureasmel using Final Draft 8

Be sure to check out Sureasmel’s full and very informative post on outlines, too.

All methods have their pros and cons. From personal experience, I would strongly advocate AGAINST starting with a word document– it’s very difficult to see where everything is at once and move things around. But once things are basically set in place, a word document is great for quick and tidy reference.

So how about you? How do you outline your books, and what method(s) do you find most effective? ***NOTE*** If you already have a photo of an outline or outline attempt on your blog, I would be happy to show it here, give you credit and link to the post in which it appears.

9 thoughts on “Forum Friday: How Do You Outline?

  1. I’ve developed a system (sort of) that consists of two parts: a Word document where I keep ‘notes and quotes,’ i.e., specific plot and scene notes and scraps of dialogue as well as a list of characters and other pertinent stuff (places, etc.) Then I also use FinalDraft 8 to keep a collection of electronic notecards that can be color-coded (YAY.) and shuffled around as the need arises.

    Did a post on it here:

    I am very much impressed by your bravery. If I tried to make handwritten scene cards I would slowly go insane over my inability to read my own handwriting. Losing important thoughts that way would be tragically ironic.

    • Thank you for pointing us to your excellent post. So thorough!

      In reality, I use more of a two-piece system as well. My outline for Shifters has changed drastically, and the finished version is something like chapter-by-chapter bullet points with an accompanying linear timeline of events. Both are word documents. I can’t IMAGINE doing the Tetris method (er, notecards) all the way through! The picture above is one of my very first attempts to organize the initial events of Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index. Still hammering details out with that one, but the final product will probably also be a word document. Legibility, as you say, is crucial 😉

  2. I used to have an entire wall dedicated to outlining and world-building but for various reason had to take the stuff I had on it down and put up paintings and such up instead. I’m using scrivener, folders upon folders tied together in a network of subfolders and topics and documents detailing everything from social norms, politics, history, tradition and agriculture to things like the cardinal rules of magic. Whenever an idea comes to me I write it down and put the new document in the appropriate folder. But yeah, anything from hand-dawn maps and sketches to notes posted on walls.

    The one thing I could not do without, however, would be my notebook. Digital things in all their glory but, you know, a pen plus a notebook > all – at least if you ask me.

    • Scrivner, eh. One of these days I really ought to check that software out. Are there any features besides the folders that you find particularly helpful (for outlining, or general purposes)?

      Absolutely agree on the pen and notebook sentiment. Nothing can touch the original leather-bound, linear hard copy. (Well…leather if you’re fancy. Plastic if you’re on a budget, like me.)

    • You can do it, Roy! Granted, I have limited experience at this, but my initial attempts to organize a novel before I start writing it have felt haphazard across the board. Plus, I find as I start writing that things change. Even outlines can go through drafts! Just keep going and you’ll find your groove! 🙂

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