Should You Write a Fancy Outline for Your Novel?



by Jean M. Cogdell

Maybe- Maybe not.

It’s your book, you make the rules.

Different strokes for different folks. Me, I’m trying to be more organized in my writing this year. Only time will tell if I’m successful. LOL

However, I find outlining is a bit of a mystery.

Outlining an unwritten book is weird because you don’t know what will happen. It’s not the same as outlining a book read for a class assignment. No the formal process of outlining a book idea is as foreign to me as Spanish or French. I know just enough to embarrass myself.

Last week I announced to my friend, with much excitement,  I’d finished outlining my first novel. I was stumped for a second when she asked me how many levels I used. Huh? Levels? Like in… I, A, 1, a, ii….

None. Nada, zip. I didn’t use any. Instead, I let the story unfold in my head and then put it to paper one scene at a time. 1-30.

Late at night, I lay in bed and the characters drove me nuts until I added another scene to the list. That’s how I outlined. Nothing fancy. Just one paragraph at a time. Also known as the headlight method.

Today, outlines are much more fluid than the rigid things we studied  in school many moons ago. In fact, if you Google how to outline a novel you’ll find just about as many ideas on outlines as stories on the latest TV personality.

“Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way. “

E.L. Doctrow

Take your pick. Old school (traditional), Synopsis, Scrivener, Snowflake, Headlight method (yeah some weird names), Mind mapping, Sticky notes, Scratch pads, 3 acts, and the list goes on. Don’t let the idea of making an outline intimidate you. If you want to try just pick what works for you and run with it.

However if you just want a guideline to keep you from driving off in a ditch you might try my idea.

  • First: Open up your program, whichever you choose to use. Scrivener or Word, list your chapters, and then let the story begin to play in your head.
  • Next: Begin to write brief notes about what will happen.
  • Then: Step through each numbered chapter until you reach the end.
  • Now you’re ready to let your freak fly!
  • Go to the beginning and start writing. Use the numbered paragraphs as a map for when you get lost or veer too far off the path.




Guest post contributed by Jean M. Cogdell. Jean grew up in a small SC town, near the Great Smoky Mountains. Her stories and essays are available in Fiction Southeast, Anthology Once Upon A Time, Flash Fiction World II, Scissors & Spackle, Squawk Back, WTD, YAREAH, and Angie’s Diary Online Magazine.

40 thoughts on “Should You Write a Fancy Outline for Your Novel?

  1. Reblogged this on Ally Aldridge and commented:
    My outline is just a few moments that are crucial to the story from start to finish. It doesn’t need to be fancy or cover everything. As you write you will fill in the blanks. I enjoyed this article as I hadn’t realised there were other methods.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I personally get most of my inspiration while I write, and so I prefer to plan my outline while I write, meaning that, well, my outlines get all sort of messy, but then I color-code the different “branches” of the outline, making some of the text bold and some of the text larger than the rest – and thus, somehow, there’s now an outline based entirely on weird, not-so-pretty aesthetics taking up three-four-five-six pages at the end of the actual novel! haha!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Bob Mustin’s comment prompted deeper reflection on what I do. I’ve realized I have a hybrid system. I begin organically, without an outline. Then, once I catch some sense of where I’m going, I’ll create a short outline of the next pieces. Its depths vary by complexity and how well I know my characters, setting and situation, ATP. When the outline is done, I’ll drop back into the organic structure, initiate the next piece of story, outline it, and so on, until the novel is completed.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a fan of mind maps and the chapter-by-chapter “index cards” in Scrivener. I often depart from my original plan, but at least I have a basic scaffolding so I know where I have to get back on the narrative road. I can’t imagine approaching a long form story without some kind of basic structure. But I’m still a newbie.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m of the opinion that everyone outlines to some degree, and we all do it differently. Even pantsers usually have an idea where the story is headed.

    I like the idea of dumping my idea on paper to free up some cognitive resources, and I’ve changed tactics for nearly ever book I’ve written. I’ve used note-card scenes, which end up all over the floor while I’m plotting. I’m tried a schoolbook style Ia, Ib, Ic, etc. outline. I’ve written a single line that conveys my main story idea and referred back to it while writing. When I started my first novel ever, I actually had a stack of paper about an inch thick filled with historical printouts, pictures, resource websites, and more.

    My current favorite is dumping the story onto a page, by dividing the page into three parts (intro, conflict, resolution). I write one short line at the top of each section, and then fill in some important plot points in between. I start a new notebook for each story, and this diagram is usually in the beginning, followed by character bios and detail notes.

    An outline is just a tool, it doesn’t have to be formal. It’s a reference to look out when you start feeling stuck about where the story should be headed. It’s a reminder.

    More of my thoughts on outlining here:

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for pointing out, Jean, that not only is outlining a process, but developing one’s own fluid and evolving system is a process, too. Not to sound too touty, but my GeezWriter How-to: Outlining ebook sparks great feedback from users who have gone from resisting outlining to embracing it. I’ve seen other good how-to materials with different suggestions, as well. I agree with spottedgeckgo that even the not-me insisters really do some outlining, even if it’s in their heads. Thanks for a great post! I’ll reblog on my site for authors.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m working up to writing something longer than flash fiction and have been reading a lot about outlining. I feel like it’s something I will need to do because I like to create structure (as long as it’s my own and not imposed by someone else) but there are so many different methods out there!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve addressed both extremes of ‘planner’ & ‘pantser’ in my “Creative Writing & Self-publishing” talks, and usually suggest a path between them.
    My 1st novel was all pants, the 2nd, I’d some idea where it was going, but no end. My webnovel is all pants: it’s just a writing exercise.
    Cursed Hearts, that I’m writing now, had an ending before it had characters. I still prefer to be as free-wheeling as possible and to discover people & places as I type. Last weekend Anton Alvarez when from a dangerous antagonist to a quasi-supporting rival. If I’d outlined this all beforehand, I’d have missed that completely.

    Liked by 1 person

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