This is such a tricky one. There are as many ways to outline a novel as there are writers. I’ve noticed, since I became a parent, and especially once I added a second kid to the mix, that this is very similar to parenting. There are so many different approaches and none of them fit perfectly. You have to examine the kids, the family dynamics, and most importantly yourself as a parent and how you react before you can know how to deal with any issues. The more that I realize this, the more that I question coaches who offer the perfect solution. Because, to my mind, coaching someone on parenting or on writing is about giving them tools to help them figure out their own solution.
What’s in an outline anyway?
And so it is with outlining. For me, the absolute most important thing is that there are certain milestone points within a story, which are almost universally met in every story written in the western world, or for western audiences. Many writers know these milestones intuitively, and so if you ask them if they plot them out in advance, they probably would tell you no, they hate plotting, they don’t need it, if they write it, the story will come. My six-year-old is like that. He has a fantastic ability to write the four quarters of a story in the correct order, to connect his beginning and end to turn the story full circle. If you ask him how he did it, if he planned it, he will say he doesn’t know what you’re talking about. He is a voracious reader, and writer, and he clearly has that intuitive ability to understand these milestones and hit them at the right points in the story.
While I would love to tell you he gets that from me, I have a harder time plotting, at least when it comes to a full novel. I can manage it intuitively for a short story, but once I add in character development arcs, sub-plots, and tens of thousands of words, I get lost. For me, outlining is essential.
If you’ve started writing and got stuck, now is an excellent time to outline! Work through what you have so far, plug in your plot points, and make a note of the next ones that you haven’t written yet.
Download my free Plot Outline template
This is the Plot Outline I like to use. Here it is as a google document you can use; feel free to copy into your google documents so you can revise on the computer if you’d like, or print out and complete by hand.
It is based on terminology that a lot of story coaches use; I’ve found the most helpful explanations on K. M. Weiland’s website Helping Writers Become Authors for free, and I’ve bought her books that keep all this information in one place and find myself dipping into them again and again. For a detailed explanation of the plot points, check out her post on how to structure your outline. Each quarter of the story (and the corresponding plot points) are colored differently, to help you identify where everything sits in the story. If you’re unsure where your plot points are on a completed draft, trying finding 25%, 50%, and 75% and searching around there for a big scene.
I like to use the plot outline template when I’m starting to think about a story, before I’ve written anything. I can usually plug in the first couple of plot points pretty easily. And I love to use it when I get stuck, to check I’m heading in the right direction. I also use it and the StoryGrid method when I’ve finished a draft, to make sure I’ve placed plot points at roughly the right places in the text. While these suggestions for where a plot point should sit are not requirements, the tension and interest of your reader will generally ramp up most if your plot points are in these ballparks.
Plotter or Pantser?
Are you a plotter or a pantser? While I know there are pantsers out there (ahem, Stephen King), I find most of my clients who need developmental editing or even more basic book coaching, are pantsers. I encourage them to spend time reading their manuscript and completing this outline before we talk about their story in any detail. It helps them see what roadmap we’re using and what goals they are aiming for with their story. If they feel really uncomfortable with plotting, I will do that work for them. Someone has to do it. You can pay me, or you can figure it out yourself!
I’d love to hear whether this outline works for you! I will be adding lots of suggestions for books and free resources to read if you want to know more about plotting, so keep checking in if you need help with the next stage of actually fixing the problems the outline uncovers.