Master post on outlining a novel – 21 ways to outline your book

Reading Time: 2 minutes
The Sphinx beside Cleopatra’s Needle is inscrutable, but these links will help unlock the mysteries of book outlining.

In my attempts to outline my novel I did a lot of online reading as well as the books I’ve previously mentioned. Google will find you many sites which offer help with outlining a (fiction) book, but I’ve gathered 20 useful articles. Which one suits you?

  1. This starts small and builds up from a single sentence for your story, to a complete novel. It does assume your initial sentence is good though:

2. This is like the reverse of the snowflake method – start with some questions, imagine scenes that answer them, then write a sentence to describe the overall story:

3. This helps you build a scene list for a novel:

4. This has 8 story structure elements, different to others I’ve seen:

5. Like a Lady Boss? Surely that’s just a Boss, the same way we no longer have Lady Doctors, or Authoresses? But anyway. This is an overall strategy for your book, including outlining:

6. This is part of the Guardian’s series, 30 Days to Write a Novel, or more accurately, 30 days to outline a novel. It goes into enormous detail and for a total pantser like me, is terrifying. 30 days before you can write? What? It’s high quality advice though:

7. This takes a workshop format to build up an outline:

8. Oh my god so much detail in this I can feel the creative life force being drained from me. Sorry. If you love micro-managing your writing, this is for you:

9. This has a great checklist to make sure every scene is adding to your story. No fluff allowed!

10. This is very strict – answer 9 questions to develop a chapter list, then the remaining 15 to complete a detailed outline:

11.This is high level novel-writing strategy, but it includes what to consider when crafting your outline:

12. The Plot ‘Skeleton’. Ugh. But it explains it clearly:

13. This is very detailed and you’ll need to up your browser zoom to read it but:

14. Short and sweet, with further links to explore:

15. For pantsers:

Planning for Pansters: Writing a Novel without an Outline

16. This uses the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to illustrate story structure:

17. This is very similar indeed to the snowflake outline:

18. So is this:

19. This is very straightforward and would work for pantsers as well as plotters:

20. This comes with various free templates. The spreadsheet one is pretty good:

And finally this – if you’ve read all of these and tried them and still your story will not be shoehorned into any of these outline shapes:

21. Pants it.






Novel structure – James Scott Bell and my book outlining challenge

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Dragon sconce south door, Westminster Abbey, London, 2016
I’m struggling under the weight of all the story elements I have to understand

I’ve now finished reading James Scott Bell’s SuperStructure. I was a bit sniffy about it in an earlier post and didn’t feel it could apply to me. But now I’ve changed my mind, or at least, moved the furniture round. I’m ready to finalise my story outline and crack on with the writing the middle and end. And this book, along with the others I’ve read, has helped with that goal.

I have trouble identifying the beats or structure elements of stories. I don’t know why. I guess I feel stories more than I analyse them. You just know when it’s time to step up the action. You just know when characters are standing around talking about their relationships instead of moving the story forward (boo, Doctor Who for being guilty of this one – you should really know better and it’s for KIDS who are the sharpest detectors of boring grownups talking boring stuff).

Ahem. Anyway I’ve always just known. Even in my long stories, I just knew. But a novel is more than a long story and I’m finding that out.

For me the best parts of SuperStructure were the parts about the final battle and the end. These are the areas I know least about and where I have the fewest preconceptions.  And reaching these parts in Bell’s book, it all made a lot more sense:

  • The Q factor, that is, the object or person which prompts the hero to decide to fight the final battle, makes perfect sense to me. These are the bits and bobs I throw in for texture at the start, and which I suddenly recall close to the end and use as magical items to support the hero through the last pages, or reveal something he/she needed to understand. I already do this. Go me.
  • The battle, either physical or psychological – yup, got that.
  • The wrap-up which shows how things have changed and the outcome of the battle. Great.

So it was only the middle parts of Bell’s guidance that I struggled with. Antagonists and mirror moments and doorways of no return. Why do I find this so hard? I just don’t know. The concepts I grasp fine. Applying them seems impossible.

Of course it is the middle part of my book I am stuck on at the moment. I know what’s going to happen but I need to move my characters, and the heart of the story, from location A, through a brief sojourn at B, to location C. B and C could become one if that makes more logical sense. I literally have to get them across an ocean and I don’t have a reason for it except that the legend I’m sort of retelling takes place in location C.

So choices.

  1. The easy one – start at location C like the original legend does. I have options here for the kind of settings I want for the early parts of the book. This would be easy.
  2. Hard choice – continue to struggle with why they all up-sticks to C when A and B form their natural setting.
  3. Harder choice – examine why location A is so important to me that I started telling its story at all. Do I even need to continue to my legend of location C? My character could do all the necessary transforming right there at A. It would not be the book I imagined but it might be a better one, using all the things I’ve set up in the first parts of the story to bring about the battle, and the transformation. (Also – that ending has a kind of Book One feel to it. They can go to C in Book Two…)

I wanted to write this story because of my interest in this lead character. The others are less intriguing to me. One of them is practically only the love interest and I’m having a hard time imagining him as more. He needs to be more for the love part to work at all. So maybe I can ditch him? Or, better, plonk him at location A as a minor character, he can show up close to the end to offer a bit of light relief, but the real meat of the story is the lead’s transformation. Plus, obviously, saving the world.

These are hard things to think about, but I must. Apart from anything else, this is all good practice and learning. Also I said I would finish my outline by tomorrow and it’s already today.

Externalising the debate is helpful. Usually I just run through possibilities at the speed of light whilst typing. I like working that way. but it’s good try to new things too. After all, my usual way has not won me any Pulitzers. So let’s see.

One doorway is my character jumping through the first doorway to seek glory and freedom. But the consequences of that jump means there is no going back and the home he left behind is destroyed. OK. So far, so Star Wars. That leads nicely to Act 2.

The second big doorway is when my lead has to decide whether to risk all to destroy the enemy which has pursued him throughout, or use the coward’s way out which has been tempting him all along. Actually that sounds just like one of JSB’s examples. Maybe I’m not so horrible at this after all.

Task one of my two-day-outline challenge is completed. Now for the rest of it.

**Mirror moment. JSB describes this in an interview with KM Weiland as a point in the story when “The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?” Interview here.

*** Doorway of no return. In his summary of JSB’s two pillars of story structure, Brian Klems describes the doorway of no return as a point where there is no way back for the main character. The first doorway in a novel  forces the character into Act 2.  The lead cannot go home, back to the old world they started in. The second doorway  makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution; this is often an event that feels like a major crisis or setback. I’ve paraphrased – the full article is here.


Outlining challenge- finish my novel outline in two days

Reading Time: 2 minutes
New York bull, 2014
Am I caging my novel by creating an outline? There’s no way to find out without trying.

This week I have a mission – to finish the outline for my book. I’ve been working on it for a few weeks, by reading from some experts, plus actually drafting some outlines, mind maps and scene lists. I think it has helped, but now I have a sneaking feeling that the main point of all this has been writing avoidance. And so I’m going to finish my outline.

 In two days.

To do this I will need my skills. Here’s a quick review of those:

Things I know I’m good at:
  • Openings and hooks
  • Foreshadowing
  • UST 
  • Romantic intimate scenes
  • Humour
  • Cliff hanger chapter endings
  • Mimicking a voice I know well e.g. for fanfiction
  • Sounding confident
Things I know I’m not very good at:
  • Structure
  • Endings
  • Fulfilling on the promise offered in early chapters
  • Balance of length across chapters – actually, dividing things up into chapters at all
  • Outlining. I barely do it, have barely ever done it, but like self-editing* I now need to learn how to do it
So it seems like I know where to concentrate my efforts. But I don’t; all these elements are opaque to me. I’m starting with outlining because that gives me a shape with which to work on the rest. It’s been far too long since I wrote a spine-tingling finale. Time to change that and craft an outline for this book that will have me itching to get to the good bits.
  1. Complete reading the James Scott Bell book on Superstructure.
  2. Build on my theme mind map and add to it with a scenes mind map. Anything goes – just get it all down.
  3. Build up an order of play for my scenes, based around my theme.
  4. Check my outline against the various structures suggested by Bell and others.
  5. If there’s time, work in reading another book on structure. KM Weiland  has one, there are many others.
I still want to really study structure and outlining as I feel this is the main missing tool in my skill set. Given how well and fluently I can write, imagine what I could achieve if I had an actual plan before I started.
Hence my target for this week: a completed outline. I’m now sick of not having it done, so I need to do it.
Also …  I joined the Accountability thread in the SPS community, so now I have to. Yikes.

I’ll update on progress when I’ve finished blogging and made some.

PS: If all else fails, then there’s always this: Planning to Outline Your Novel? Don’t

*There will be more on self editing. I never used to do this and then fanfiction. Suddenly I was faced with the idea that not every word I wrote was golden. Imagine. And so I had to learn how to do things like re-read my work, and even delete some of it. I’ll share my tips for this soon.


Hidden, or, Suddenly finding out what 33 million people think

Reading Time: 1 minute

Today’s post is actually a link to a quick article which sits better elsewhere so that’s where I put it.

Let me know if you can’t see it!

A dragon fighting a bull in Copenhagen's City Hall Square. But why???Just my thoughts on waking up to a surprising reality this morning, and wondering –  what if we could always know what everyone was thinking?




Like the plague: why you should avoid writing groups

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Horse Plinth Trafalgar Square 2016
Is being in a writing group just flogging a dead horse?

I’ve followed Joanna Penn for a little while now and found her website and its writing resources very helpful. So the chance to hear her advice on publishing, specifically self publishing, at the SPS summit in June was too good to miss.

Everything she said was relevant and informative, but one thing leapt out. She obviously knew it might be controversial but she went ahead and said it anyway:

Avoid writing groups for critique.

I spluttered my coffee when she said this – in approval, not outrage. Because with one notable exception, every single writing group I’ve been involved in has been utterly useless for learning or improving as a writer. They have mostly been useless for anything at all.

Joanna knew the reason why. Because the people in your writing group are not your target audience. Simple.

To explain: in a writing group, everyone writes in different genres and styles; ranging from literary fiction or poetry to fantasy novels and category romances. So the criticism offered is influenced by writing and reading taste, and might not reflect the quality of your work within its genre. Essentially, the people in your writing group are, as Joanna put it ‘not familiar with the tropes of your genre’ and so can’t judge whether you’re using those tropes well or badly.

I almost fell off my chair. Of course! So obvious. And it also explains why giving criticism is so hard in writing groups. You read the poem, you can see there’s something going on with it, but it is Not Your Thing.

This is precisely why my exception to the rule, The Write Practice, works for me. The Write Practice is BIG. There are plenty of writers involved and a fair few of them write in my genres of fantasy/speculative fiction. There are also poets and romantic novelists and YA novelists and many many others.

This means I can choose some writing in my own genres to critique, and give knowledgeable feedback. It also means the stuff is fun to read.

If I see something rather highbrow and literary I can engage if I wish, but there are a bunch of other people better qualified and more interested, who can do that for me. And if my honest response would be Please Stop, it is much better if I don’t have to mince words to avoid crushing someone’s dreams. It’s not necessarily a reflection of their writing skill, only of my deep dislike of highbrow, literary things. That’s what 3 years of Eng Lit will do for you.

But if you’re not signed up for The Write Practice, then what?

Joanna’s suggestion was to seek out readers/writers within your genre, within your target audience, and get feedback from them. She personally prefers to hire experts for specific critique – the examples she gave were of an expert on Maori culture, and an expert on Mumbai – and also to hire editors to do the kind of line-by-line picking that writing groups might offer. All this struck me as sound. Joanna suggested, shock horror, the internet as a brilliant resource for finding your genre experts and critique partners.

Just to be clear, she didn’t say writing groups were horrible – only that the people in them are by definition all amateurs (she put it more nicely). If you were learning to drive, you wouldn’t get in beside your non-driving friend and say, Well, let’s try this, and encourage each other when we seem to be doing something right. You would pay an instructor or seek out an experienced mentor.

I quite fancy having Joanna Penn as my mentor. Hey Joanna, pretty please?


Scrivener and Joseph Michael – 9 tips from the Scrivener Expert!

Reading Time: 2 minutes
The Conwy Mussel Sculpture, created by Greame Mitcheson, stands on the quayside in Conwy, North Wales.
Nothing says success with writing software like giant mussels. These are in Conwy, Wales.

I recently attended several sessions of Chandler Bolt’s online writing conference, the Self Publishing Success Summit.  All the sessions I watched were excellent, offering high quality advice from experienced authors. One session though, offered even more – the tutorial given by Joseph Michael, AKA Scrivener Guy.

Joseph gave us an hour of highly-condensed video tutorial on Scrivener for books or blogs. I wrote a million notes, some of which I’m sharing here, but I encourage anyone struggling with Scrivener to visit Joseph’s website Learn Scrivener Fast and get some help from him.

Some info I gleaned from this brief but packed online session.

  1. Scrivener for Mac seems to have a LOT more in it. I love my PC but Joseph’s screen was all shiny with extra features – like being able to sort your content in the Outliner by their status. Envy!
  2. Generate automatic summaries for your scenes using the Inspector area.
  3. Why not use card labels in the Corkboard view to indicate the point of view character for that scene? And then add colour. You can see how thrilling this might become.
  4. Add the URL from web pages you’re using for research, straight into the Research folder, then use that area just like a browser.
  5. Work with split screens to show research and writing side by side.
  6. You can set scene and project targets and track your progress. In Mac you can see your writing days too.) Motivational!
  7. Drag an image directly into your scrivener text, too, for example for an ebook cover.
  8. Prep your book instantly for Kindle with Scrivener’s Compile feature, and choose what to include/leave out of each compile.
  9. Import directly from a Word document – and use hashtags in your Word doc to indicate where you would like Scrivener to make a split between this scene and the next. Genius.

There was a ton of stuff to learn from the session, and I can recommend Joseph’s style and expertise without hesitation. I now feel so much more confident with Scrivener, and use it to track and store my blog posts as well as book plans.

The SPS Summit was awesome all round, so I’ll be posting more about what I took away from the sessions I attended. The Scrivener freebie though was my top session, in a tie with the one from Joanna Penn, of whom more later.


My Biggest Pants Yet – outlining a novel, Part 2

Reading Time: 2 minutes

sefton-vertical-encrustedI read these books last week when I got in trouble with outlining my first novel. Below are my impressions of these books, and what I’ve learned by reading them.

Take off your pants! by Libbie Hawker. This was my first admission that, for a story longer than anything I’d ever written*, I needed help.

Libbie Hawker’s book started out annoying – I dislike the cosy, sparkly tone she adopts – but soon it gets down to solid advice, and her own suggested formula for a satisfying story structure. She uses one of her own books as an example, but also some well known stories. I liked the shape of her outline, but had trouble with her definitions of the Antagonist and Ally, since they seemed to be the opposite of standard explanations of these.

I could see what she was getting at, but I couldn’t pin these definitions on any of my characters. Did that mean I was trying to write a novel without either of these? I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t make it stick.

I liked her iteration of the ‘Drive for Goal>Antagonist Attacks!>Thwart>Revisiting Main Character’s Flaw>New Drive For Goal’ flow. I can totally see how that could lead the reader through a series of increasingly Bad Things until the main character is forced to address their Flaw, challenge the Antagonist, and be changed by the outcome. I tend to do this anyway, but I don’t think I use the Antagonist/Ally double-whammy she describes. So this book was interesting but I’ve yet to get a handle on applying its ideas.

Super Structure, by James Scott Bell. James Scott Bell proposes a different structure, based around the main character experiencing a disturbance in their status quo, and then being propelled through two ‘doorways of no return.’ I like this simpler idea, but then got stuck again trying to identify my doorways. Is it when my character runs away recklessly seeking glory? Is it when his home is destroyed by the bad guys? Is it much, much sooner, when he first arrives at the strange village? Aarrgghh. (But see my later post on this – Sef)

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them. Ronald B Tobias’ book is a little different. It suggests you identify your story as one of his 20 basic types of plot, and then use the corresponding deep structure. My plot is easily identified as a quest (hurrah – I can ignore the following 19 chapters) but then again I got tied up in trying to match anything in my book to any of the stages Tobias insists are fundamental.

Lessons learned about structure: think about structure when you first brainstorm your ideas. That way, instead of shoehorning your existing plot into a structure-shape and assessing if it works, you can be starting from an empty system which you can fill with your inspiration. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe I need some slightly smaller pants after all.

To be continued…

Jump back to Part 1


My Biggest Pants Yet – Outlining a novel, Part 1

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Biggest Pants yet - outlining a novel
Antony Gormley’s statues have no pants at all. Is it time to take off my own metaphorical trousers?

Where I come from, pants means knickers. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about outlining my novel.

In Lancashire, (and also in, you know, America) pants means trousers. Flying by the seat of them is a style of writing beloved of those who like to be spontaneous, creative, freeform. They are known as pantsers and are often set up in opposition to plotters, who prefer a more orderly approach. I don’t believe these styles are mutually exclusive, but it’s a handy label. I am a pantser, and I am also someone who wants to write a novel. That’s what this blog is about. I put on the pants in January 2016 and they are huge.

It’s now June. And for the first time in my life, the pants are not comfy.

I started with a story outline of my usual kind: a wobbly line drawn in a notebook, with a couple of high and low points labelled, like a cross section of the Lancashire Dales. Peaks were my main characters’ triumphs; valleys, their terrible defeats at the hands of the enemy.

Later I added a few pages of mind map, connecting the various scenes I had in my head (and also, now, in Scrivener*) and trying to invent the ones I would need to make it all work logically.

Two weeks ago with a large Don’t Know now blockading Part 1 and Part 3 of my story, I went out and found these books:

Take off your pants! by Libbie Hawker. This was my first admission that, for a story longer than anything I’d ever written**, I needed help.

Superstructure, by James Scott Bell. This had so many stars on Amazon that it was an obvious choice for someone with a novel to write and a pants problem.

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald B Tobias. This book has been on my shelf for twenty years I’d never read it. Time to open it up.

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood and Co), by Jonathan Stroud – well, I needed cheering up, and Stroud’s scary, funny, thrilling tales are a sure thing for that.***

Some detail on each of these books is in Part 2, but the bottom line is this: they didn’t help me outline a novel. Or rather, they didn’t help me with this novel. I will certainly be trying their methods for future stories, particularly some of the genre fiction I have lined up in my mental Must Write list.

My stories have never had any of these suggested structures. Reading these books left me panicking. Am I no good at all? Am I only made to enjoy the work of other writers, who can create a Mirror Moment (JSB) or show their character Girding Their Loins (LH)?

Every part of me answers No to these questions. I can write, I do write and I will write. I will work this out. I will stare at my wobbly cross section of the Dales until I figure out what is on that big peak in the middle, and how my lead will tumble down it, cursing, into the valley below.

So that’s where I’m up to. I’m sitting in enormous pants, with a complete idea for a book except some detail about the middle, unable to make my ideas fit other people’s. I’m not so arrogant as to think I have nothing to learn from established authors and screenwriters. Perhaps I am only hopeless at identifying a story’s structure (this does ring a faint bell from my English degree).

The only conclusion I’ve reached so far is that when I do figure out how story structure works for me, I’m going to write it down and put it in a book.

Jump to Part 2

*I have a separate post on Scrivener, the writing software used by many authors and bloggers. I’m roadtesting it for my first proper novel, plus also trying out WordPress and having a personal blog for the first time. Because obviously writing a novel won’t occupy my entire life.

**Longest original story. I have fanfics which go on and on. They needed some outlining too, but I did it as I went along and it worked out fine. Probably because all the hard worldbuilding, characterisation, premise and motivation had been done for me.

*** The Hollow Boy was awesome. I devoured it in three sittings, ignoring my childcare and dinner preparation duties, and reading it on the train when a keen professional might have been doing a bit of unpaid overtime. I’m in love with Lockwood, and desperate to know the cause of the ghost Problem, and how the narrator, Lucy, will manage after the cataclysmic events at the end of this book. It’s part 3 of the Lockwood series and I already have part 4 on pre-order. Stroud is an amazing writer! I bet he understands story structure.