Before we get to this post on how to create an outline for your novel, let me first acknowledge the scientific law that all writers can be classified as planners or pantsers.
Some writers outline their novel in advance (ye olde planners), other writers work via the seat of their pants with no idea where things are headed (ye olde pantsers).
Over the course of my writing career my style has evolved from primarily pants-ing to primarily planning, so trust me when I tell the pantsers: don’t sweat it! You don’t have to do things this way.
But I possess the zeal of the convert. I now can’t imagine not outlining.
An outline is a crucial tool for making sure your novel’s plot works as well as it possibly can, even if you create one retrospectively after pantsing your way through a draft.
Here’s what I do.
Use a spreadsheet to outline a novel
Some of you have already had an allergic reaction to this blog post upon seeing the word “spreadsheet,” but trust me on this one.
My initial approach to spreadsheeting was inspired by no less than J.K. Rowling, who revealed one of her hand-written spreadsheets for Order of the Phoenix. Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give (check out our interview here), also recently cited Rowling’s spreadsheet as an influence on her own approach.
Here’s why a spreadsheet is helpful: it’s so, so tricky to keep all of your plotlines in your head and “get above it” to see how everything fits together. It’s also extremely difficult to make sure all of your characters have well-defined character arcs, and it’s shockingly easy to forget about some characters entirely.
A spreadsheet helps you see things from above. Not only can you organize your thoughts on the main plot arcs, it helps you visualize your subplots and minor characters’ plots too.
How to create your novel outline
I have a slightly modified approach to Rowling’s spreadsheet (aside from the fact that I use Google Docs rather than binder paper!).
First, along the top row, create these column headers, starting in column B:
- Chapter numbers (I just abbreviate “Ch” to keep the width small)
- Main plot
- One column each for your major characters, in decreasing order of importance
- Try to group your minor characters, like “School” or “Society” if they fulfill a more general role.
Pretty simple right?
Here’s the secret sauce.
Your characters’ fundamentals
There are some essential things you need to know about every character and it’s extremely helpful to have them in your outline.
Along the left side of your spreadsheet, from A2 to A7, add these rows:
- What they want (external)
- What they want (internal)
- Good qualities
- Bad qualities
- First impression
What you are tracking here are the essential qualities of all of your characters.
Their external desires are the things they’re going after in the world of your novel, like trying to save the prince, eating their way through the cheese factory, or trying to become a millionaire.
Their internal desires are more personal and ephemeral, like freedom, validation, or power.
The mysteries are the Big Unanswered Questions that the reader is going to be wondering over the course of the novel, like “Can she really break free?” or “Did he really commit the crime?” This doesn’t just go for mystery novels, all novels should have at least some element of mystery. (Also see this post on crafting mysteries in a novel).
Good and bad qualities are self-explanatory. Someone might be determined, but they might also be stubborn. They might be caring but they might also be naive. We should see the entire range of qualities on display for all of your major characters.
And I like to track the “first impression” we have of the character, hopefully a very evocative image or catchy moment, because it’s so crucial to introduce characters in a memorable way.
Pretty helpful, right? But wait, there’s more!
Your plot framework
All along the left side of your spreadsheet under the fundamentals, block off your plot framework.
Here’s what I mean by that.
You might not know how many chapters your book is going to have yet, but as you begin to figure out your “tentpoles” (key moments in your novel) and begin organizing around sections or acts, you can block these off on the left side of the spreadsheet.
Color code these.
Even better, if you have a favorite plot framework, whether from screenwriting books like Save the Cat or a book on writing novels or some hybrid proprietary formula, you can add sections for those to help you visualize what should be happening.
This can really help if you’re stuck and trying figure out what “should” happen.
What it looks like
But wait, Nathan, you might be saying, why don’t you just show me what you mean by all this?
I’m glad you asked.
Mine is organized around a 50 chapter book, and my very rough proprietary framework is color-coded on the left, which I’ve modified from a variety of sources over the years. (The categories should be self-explanatory but let me know in the comments if anything is unclear.)
To download it and start using it, go through the File menu within the doc:
Start filling it in
Now all that’s left is, well, using the darn thing!
Start filling in the different boxes, move things around as needed, and you will slowly begin to see your novel take shape.
Consider this a living document that you will keep tweaking over the course of writing the novel. Sometimes even the best outlines let us down when we actually write the chapters, so it might be necessary and go back to readjust as you go.
Anything I missed? Do you have any favorite tips or tricks? Let me know in the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: The Alexander Column in Scaffolding by Grigory Gagarin