Over the course of writing four books and outlining a fifth, I’ve come up with a planning method that works well for me. I find that an outline can be considered a first draft of sorts, a place where you work out plotting problems and develop character arcs so you don’t have to do as much slash-and-burn editing at a later date.

Here is my method. If at any point you see a better way to do any of this, by all means modify the system. Also, please don’t think I’m implying that outlines are necessary. I know several people who are miserable when they force themselves to plot out the book in advance. We all have different writing processes, and no one process is right for everyone. The important thing is to develop a method that works for you.

1. Make a bullet-point list in Word of everything you can think of that happens in the book. Don’t worry about organizing at this point, just brainstorm. Take walks. Talk to other people. Do whatever is necessary to generate ideas. This step might take a few hours or a few months, depending on how you operate. I tend to do some of this while I’m working on the later drafts of another book. Anytime an idea pops into my head I jot it down and add it to a Word document dedicated to the new story. However, I never force myself to stare at a blank computer screen until I’m inspired. I let the inspiration come to me gradually or bounce ideas off friends to get the gears turning. One thing I find particularly helpful is emailing some of my writing buddies about my story ideas. They provide feedback, but even more importantly, it’s a very casual way of working through the ideas without the pressure of formally planning. Just cut and paste anything good you come up with into your Word document.

2. Don’t worry if you haven’t got everything covered at this point, just try to come up with a good number of plot points and other details. Once you have a list, you’ll probably find you have no idea how to organize it into any sort of order. Don’t panic. This is normal. You may also notice you have several subplots or threads. Give each of your subplots a name and type these into your document as headings, setting them off by underlining or making them bold.  So far I’ve found that all my subplots tie to different character arcs, so I just use each character’s name.

3. Now drag and drop all your bullet points so they’re under the appropriate subplot heading. Format your Word document into two columns that are as wide as they can be. You might want to eliminate the bullet points to make the columns wider and add spaces between the plot points so they’re easier to cut apart. Save the document under a new name if you do so because you’re going to need those bullet points later. Now print everything and cut the ideas apart, but don’t get the subplots mixed up.

4. Get some different-colored 3 x 5 cards and use glue stick to paste each point onto a card, dedicating a separate color to each subplot.

5. Spread everything on a table or the floor and move the cards around until you’re satisfied with the order of events. This process is tedious and stressful, as you’ll initially have no idea where many of the points should go. Remembering basic story structure, such as having the tension continually rise and keeping the most intense stuff for just before the climax, should help you sort things out. The different-colored cards will allow you to see where you have too much of one subplot or not enough of another. You’ll probably find that you have some cards that could be combined into one scene, as well as several places where you need more cards. I keep adding them until I feel I have the main skeleton of the story accounted for or I run out of room on my table. :) I’ll scribble minor details in pencil on the existing cards (always use pencil, because you will have to change things). Remember, you don’t need to have every plot point down at this time, just the biggest stuff.

6. You may want to use a calendar to help keep track of time. I format mine in Excel because it allows me to make big squares for writing in, but you can use any sort of calendar generator. Here’s a PDF of the Excel spreadsheet I use: Blank Calendar. And this website lets you print calendars for any month of any year. When I’m outlining, I switch back and forth between my cards and calendar pages to get a good picture in my head of when stuff is happening. This is particularly important if you’re writing a book with lots of scheduled events, such as the stock car races in my novels.

7. Once you’ve got your cards organized, figure out your chapter breaks and write the chapter and scene number on each card so that if you should drop them (or your cats decide to play with them) you can get them back in order.

8. Stack your cards in sequence and go back to your computer. Now drag and drop everything in the document into the proper order, adding chapter headings. You’ll probably find that you want to embellish some scenes or add others at this point. You’ll also have those notes you scribbled on the cards to incorporate. You can use your own system for formatting the information. My outlines consist of bold, left-justified chapter headings with bullet points underneath (which begin with underlined dates where appropriate).

9. When you’ve got everything in order, you’ll realize that you still have big holes in the plot and some subplots need more development. This doesn’t mean you messed up, it means the outlining system is doing it’s job. Aren’t you glad you discovered the problem now, instead of after you wrote the first draft? It’s difficult to see each individual thread once the story is put together, so I save the document multiple times under each subplot name. For example, I saved my first document as “Cody Outline.” I then deleted everything from that document that didn’t affect Cody’s character arc. This allowed me to have a quick, clean view of his development and easily see where I needed to add more or switch things around. I continued to do this with documents for each of my subplots. Be sure you don’t somehow delete or mess up your original document. I create and name all the subplot documents before I make any changes to them to prevent this from happening.

10. Once you’ve updated each individual subplot document, be sure to cut and paste the changes into the main outline. I keep both documents open and add each change as I make it so I don’t lose track.

11. By now you should have a really good working outline. To make things easy for the actual writing process, I cut and paste each chapter’s points into a separate document dedicated to that chapter and formatted to proper manuscript standards. These smaller documents are easier for me to maneuver through, and I don’t incorporate all the chapters into a big document until after the second draft. One other thing I do while I’m brainstorming is “collect” bits of dialog or imagery that pop up. I have individual “dialog” and “imagery” documents, and once I’ve figured out where each bits goes I make note of it in the outline with a number, (dialog #1, etc.). I then cut and paste the dialog or imagery into that chapter’s document. The result is that when I open a chapter, everything is right there where I need it. Yeah, this might be a bit overboard for some people, but when you’re on a roll with your writing, it helps eliminate the distractions.

One word of caution: Your outline is a road map. It’s only there for your convenience, just like when you get a TripTik® from AAA. You’re not obligated to stick to the freeways if something more interesting comes up. Feel free to take a side road or make a spontaneous visit to an unexpected attraction. You may be inspired by even better ideas as you begin writing, and your characters might tell you they don’t want to do something you have scheduled for them. Listen to them. Your subconscious is smarter than you are.


  1. Tina says:

    Wow, this is so very helpful – thanks! I think I will do this with my book in progress to help me see the holes.

  2. This was really helpful. I use index cards…don’t know what I’d do without them…but have never used the bullets as you’ve suggested. I’m off to try that now, seeing how I’ve been so troubled outlining my current WIP. Thanks.

    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Thanks, Sheri. I hope the bullet points work for you. The important thing is to find a system that helps your writing process, even if it means fitting bits and pieces of everyone else’s system together to make your own.

  3. Jim Devitt says:

    Great concept, I used a white board to create the same concept, however, I like your idea better. Much more portable!

  4. Orice Klaas says:

    I’m going to give some of this a try. See if it works for my memoir. Thanks!

  5. Helen Wand says:

    I’m half way through my first story and after struggling with time lines, the above blog convinced to try your method for my next effort. Thanks for the great information. AND congratulations on your publishing “Running Wide Open”. It’s a great story and I can’t wait to read it in published form. Helen

  6. Holly Marie says:

    I love the idea of the outline. Usually I just say “Oh this looks nice here… A mouse eating a dog can go here…” But I like this idea better! It took me a while to figure out by sub-plot you mean character but after that everything fit! Thank you for posting this xx

  7. Virginia says:

    I really liked your ideas. I do most of what you mentioned so it was good to see I’m on the right track. Outlining really works for me.

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  9. Jeanette Fusco says:

    A publisher is asking me to write an outline of a finished manuscript. I used to do this years ago but haven’t in awhile. Help and thanks.

  10. Pingback: Novel Outlining Tips | John McDuffie

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  12. Greg says:

    Thank you. I would like to start writing a novel, and these notes are very helpful for as to how I should start. You really get down to the start of the book-writing process.

  13. mia says:

    Hi… I’m working on writting a novel. I never written a book before. I need help with getting started.

    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Mia, there are a lot of great books on writing craft that could help. If you don’t want to buy them, you can find them at your library. One of my favorites is How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. He writes in an engaging, humorous, encouraging tone and uses examples everyone can relate to. He also has a couple of follow-up books that go into more detail about the process. Good luck with your book. :)

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