how to outline a novel

They say there’s only two kinds of novelists in the world: one writes by the seat of his pants and the other writes without pants.

I may have that saying wrong … but when it comes to writing and planning a novel, there are two ways to go about it. You can plan it out before you start writing, or you can start writing without a plan and let the muses guide your words.

Of course, it’s more of a spectrum than a binary choice. Many writers are somewhere in the middle. Which style do you lean more towards?

I’ve made a tool called Plottr that will help writers plan out their story easier than ever—I’ll tell you about that in a bit. It’s even converted pantsers into outliners (no, not non-pantsers).

First, though, let’s talk about writing styles and how they can affect what we get done as writers.

I’m personally an outliner. Oh, I’ve tried both, but things go a lot better for me when I plan out my stories. Full disclosure, I haven’t written a ton of stories. I’m at five novels since I’ve been an adult (not all of them are out there or finished). But my first one, I planned out pretty well. That was back in 2007–2009.

That particular novel required a lot of historical and archeological research, so I kind of had to plan that one a lot.

By my third novel, I was a big shot and thought I was ready to write it without really planning. It’s YA, much shorter than my first two, and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted it to be like. I knew:

  • The beginning
  • Some things that would happen up until the middle
  • Sort of what the end should be like

I started writing as fast as I could, confident that more would come to me as I wrote. But when I got to the middle … dead stop. I had nothing else to say. I didn’t know where I wanted the story to go.

I was lost. What should my characters do? How would they get to the end?

For some people, that would have been their zen, their nirvana. They thrive on just writing wherever their heart takes the story. I’m not like that. I need to know what’s going to happen next and what’s after that.

With that novel, I didn’t know, so I spent some time and thought it through. And when I did, guess what? I came up with these great ideas that would make the book wonderful … but they weren’t consistent with the beginning.

No big deal, I’d just rewrite a few small parts and I’d be back on my way towards the ending. Right?

But it didn’t work out that way. I had to rewrite most of what I had already written.

On my next book, I decided to plan it out down to the paragraph. I was going to know exactly what would happen every step of the way before I took the first step.

Well, that didn’t happen either—but I did plan it out really, really well. My plans included more than just a summary of what would happen in each chapter. My outline featured a step-by-step plan (not quite to the paragraph) for each part of each chapter.

And in my opinion, that novel turned out to be my best ever. It had a surprising yet inevitable ending, the characters had strong motivations, the pacing was good, etc. (My own opinion, of course!)

Strengths and Weaknesses of Writing Styles

There are tradeoffs to the pantser vs. outliner styles. I’ve heard it said that pantsers have great characters that really feel real, but the tradeoff is usually weak endings. Outliners tend to have weak characters who only exist to serve to the plot, but they have strong endings.

I wanted to be able to get the best of both worlds and mitigate the downsides of each method. That is my ultimate goal. Real characters, strong endings. 

How to Visually Plan a Novel

Sometime between the mess of a novel (which turned out to be good in the end) and my best one ever, I started developing a tool to help me plan these stories better.

A guy in my writing group and I couldn’t find anything out there that did what we wanted it to do. And since I make software for a living (my day job), I thought I’d just make the perfect tool myself.

And that’s what we did. We made the perfect tool.

plottr organization writing software

It’s called Plottr and it’s the most elegant tool for plotting out stories that you’ll ever use. It makes it easy to visually plot out multiple storylines in your work and keep track of characters… and a whole bunch more.

It’s exactly what you need to plan real characters and strong endings, and all the other important things in a story.

You start with a timeline, which you can think of as an organized way to put sticky notes on a wall. You add your scenes across the top and subplots down the left side. Where a scene and a plot line intersect, you can add a card. Each card holds the description of an event.

how to visually plot a novel

Plottr will take your timeline and make an outline for you. You can even export the whole story into a Word doc, which gives you a convenient hard copy of your outline and notes.

You can also track characters and settings with Plottr. One of my favorite features is that you can tell Plottr which attributes to track about your characters and places. Does your story include magic powers? Is age important or just something you want to easily be able to see? Plottr makes it easy to do that.

Lastly, there is an area for notes. I like to use it for brainstorming and background info about the story’s world.

I think Plottr is going to change the way we all write novels. It’s already changing how I write my own and I love using it. 👏 I used the very early beta version of this tool to plan my best novel ever, and now that it’s fully grown, planning novels is so easy and organized.

I hope it will help you outliners out there to plot out the best stories you’ve ever told and to do it the quickest and easiest you’ve ever done it.

And maybe it will make some of you pantsers rethink why you don’t like planning and give this a try.

You can even get Plottr with templates that speed you up even more. Do you follow the 7-point plot structure? Maybe the Save the Cat method? Plottr has a template for those and many other methods of plotting out a story.

Plottr can be found at www.plotmynovel.com and I’ve got a special discount for readers of this blog at this link: gum.co/fgSJ/tckpublishing. There’s also a free trial available so you can try it out and decide for yourself that this will help your writing process.

Happy plotting!

Cameron Sutter
Cameron Sutter
Cameron Sutter is a family man, inventor, and writer. By day he works as a software engineer with Instructure, and at home enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife and five amazing children. He is fascinated with martial arts and meditation, and he spends his free time writing under the name C. Louis S. and making tools for writers.

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