Outlining doesn’t have to suck: From brainstorm to novel

As Chuck Wendig has recently written on his blog, outlining doesn’t have to be an exercise in high school-esque futility. Indeed, it’s a fundamental step towards getting your novel down on paper. And even a reformed pantser like me has embraced the joys – or at least the relative painlessness – of outlining. (I’ve written about my methodology here in case you’re curious.)

So what the hell does a completed outline actually look like?

Today’s your lucky day, pal, ’cause I’ve got your novel outline right here!

This is, in fact, the final outline I used to create my Three Day Novel, Ninjas of the 512. It’s the very same outline I mail people who read my book, Confessions of a 3-Day Novelist, and ask “Can I see your outline?”

You sure can! Just click on this to see the PDF (or download it for later use): NinjasOutline

That’s actually my final outline. The original is quite a mess. To see the differences, I’ve scanned the first page torn from my notebook. Here’s what the first draft looked like:

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Actually, I think that one is probably a second or third draft, because my handwriting is nowhere near as messy as it usually is when I’m brainstorming!

Here’s a page from the typewritten brainstorming I did:

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As you can see, there are some allusions to other things I’ve written (a short story entitled “Wakizashi”) as well as things other people have written (Fight Club) as shorthand for the kinds of things I wanted to include in my story. There are character notes, plot points, places where action should take place. It’s all part of the brainstorming process, which slowly gets refined into the outline. Like Chuck, I typically do a brain dump and then try to create a coherent outline over a couple of days, to give my brain some time to catch up, ponder things while I’m unconscious, or just figure out what the hell I’m really trying to say.

Finally, here’s a page from the outline as it looked during the Three Day Novel-writing process:

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As you can see, I’ve marked it up with highlighter (red is done, yellow is the section currently in progress, green still needs to be written – which I realize sounds kind of backwards, but it’s easier to read through the green highlighter than the red one, hence I can still see what I need to write if it’s green and not red) as well as my word counts as I progressed through each section. When new characters started popping up, I wrote in their names to help keep track of who they were (you’ll often find yourself calling characters by the wrong names, or changing them as you think up something better), and where they first appeared.

Since this page is from Day 1, I also had to go back and rewrite my outline once I finished for the day, because some of the stuff I wrote jacked up the Day 2 plot points – either moving them up in the timeline, pushing them further back, or eliminating them entirely. Like Chuck said, it’s a map and you’re going to go off road sometimes, but you still want to keep in mind your final destination.

And if you’re in it for extra credit, be sure to check out Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula. He described it as “a master plot for any 6,000-word pulp story,” but it also worked for my 30,000-ish word novella, so you can obviously stretch it out to fit your needs.

Now it’s your turn…

I showed you mine. Now show me your outline!


  • Beth Turnage

    I prefer to outline in Scrivener. I lose pieces of paper easily! Because I do a lot of contract work, and to save time, I have templates for specific word counts which are divided into chapters. So my chapters are laid out. Fill in plan for chapter and viola’ chapter by chapter synopsis.

    And here’s mine: http://bethturnage.com/?p=365

  • Laura Roberts

    Thanks for sharing, Beth! I usually do my writing in Scrivener, too, but I tend to play around on paper first in order to get the ideas flowing. There’s just something about pen to paper that seems to work best for me! But then I always go type everything up nice and neat so I’m not like “What the hell did I write there?” later on. ;D