When Everyone Keeps Telling You to Write an Outline

Guest post by Sara Beth Williams

What do you do when everyone keeps telling you to write an outline and you have no idea where to begin?

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If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard a hundred different opinions regarding Pantsing and Plotting.

“Plotting is too restrictive and doesn’t leave room for creativity.” Or, “Pantsing is just writing with no direction!”

I believe there is a time and a place for both Plotting and Pantsing to be useful. In fact, I’m one of those people that sits on the fence between both worlds.

While free-writing is absolutely my favorite part of my writing process, there is a time and a place in which outlines can greatly benefit you as a writer. Some examples might include, when you’re on a tight deadline, or if you’re working with a group of authors in a mult-author collection of stories.

Outlines do not have to be restrictive. In fact, your outline process can be a mixture of both plotting and pantsing. And the best part? You can mix and match and tweak until you find the process that’s just right for you.

I’m writing this post because I wish someone had written this when I was in the process of figuring out what works for me.

The following is a list of processes in which you can use to outline a novel. This is certainly not an exhaustive list. Some of these methods work better in specific genres.

The Snowflake Method

This is much more than a simple outline and may work best if you’re writing fantasy, sci fi, and maybe historical fiction. This method is great for those writers who think in terms of “plot’ first, or “the big question” first.

You begin by describing your big story idea in one sentence, and then the guide will help you break that story idea down step by step. I have used this outline and it proved to be an eye-opening experience. It helps you dig deep into everything about your story. However, I’ve discovered my style of writing is the opposite: I begin with something very small (usually a character or even an idea of a character) and let it expand from there. But I do recommend writers/authors try this method out at least once.

You can check out the book on Amazon and there’s also a website that outlines the steps here.

If this method seems too detail-oriented and daunting, then you could try a beat sheet.

Following a Beat Sheet

Beat sheets are very popular. Beat sheets are story-telling formula worksheets and are often genre specific. You can find a myriad of online resources that can help you along the way. Some examples of beat sheets or story formulas include:

The 12 chapter mystery formula

Romancing the Beat

Seven romantic comedy beats

The Hero’s Journey

The three act story structure

Action adventure formula

Six stage plot formula

And the list could go on. Google Beat Sheets or story formulas and your genre of choice and you’re likely to find what you’re looking for.

But if filling out a beat sheet by hand or on your computer seems tedious, try this instead.

Plotrr

Plotrr is a program you can purchase and download for Mac/PC that provides you with either blank or pre-filled timelines. All of the beat sheets and structure/formulas I listed above are embedded in Plotrr. This program is inexpensive and perfect for writers of fiction. It provides you the ability to visually arrange your scenes in a timeline style format and you can even track the arc of each of your POVs. You can drag and drop and move scenes around to your liking. I’ve had this program for about a year, and it is by far one of the easiest, least expensive outlining programs I’ve ever discovered—and in the beginning of my writing career I searched for and used a lot of random online-only programs. None of them compare. For the price, this program is fantastic.

One of my Plotrr files. When you click on a scene, it expands and you can write out more details that occur in the scene. You can also flip it to a vertical view, which is what I usually prefer.

Not only are there multiple options within Plotrr, the program is relatively new and continually developing. They’ve already added multiple new beat sheets in the year since I’ve purchased it.

If outlining in a timeline format isn’t your thing, try this instead.

Old fashion note cards

This is a tried-and-true method. So much so, that the writing program, Scrivner, has created a digital cork board that allows you to do exactly the same thing you would physically do at home on your table or floor.

 Essentially, you take 3×5 cards, or sticky notes (I’ve seen so many authors on Instagram using sticky notes!) and you write down a sentence or two describing each scene. Then you can physically rearrange the cards to your liking. Doing this digitally—for me anyway—is easier but many writers love the physical hands on experience.

The advantage of this method, regardless of whether it’s physical or digital, is that you’re able to rearrange scenes and chapters without having to delete, copy and paste, retype or rewrite, etc.

But if you find it hard to break down your scenes into one or two sentences, try this.

Outlining in paragraph form

I know the title is lame, but this is my preferred method. All I do is this: I transcribe the thoughts/scenes in my head onto my computer, in one paragraph for one scene, or sometimes a paragraph for one chapter as a whole if I don’t quite have all the scenes thought out. I continue this process for as many pages as I can until I run out of ideas. I try to do this in one sitting. Typically, I will end up with 2 to 3 pages, depending on how long the ideas have been percolating in my head beforehand.

Then, I can go back, reread it, and begin to break things down and add in more scenes where there are gaps in the timeline or plot holes. I can also move things around if I want (I don’t mind cutting and pasting, but that’s just me.)

 I use this method regularly to test out whether a story idea I have has enough depth to become a full-length novel. That’s one reason I try my best to do it in one sitting, but that doesn’t always happen. The more consecutive hours I spend writing, the more ideas form from other ideas. So this method, for me, is like speed writing to see how far my story idea can run.

The caveat here, is that I am very wordy person in writing and in speech. If you are not a wordy person, it may not be the best idea for you.

Instead, you should try this.

Using a calendar template

This outlining method is fantastic for people who are writing plots with tight timelines. Plots that take place over Christmas, for example. Or plots that span a single summer, or a single season . Also, calendar templates in Microsoft Word won’t allow more than a sentence or two per day, (with the monthly calendar template.)

My first series revolved around college students, so I utilized a calendar template constantly, because I wanted to loosely follow the schedule a college student would follow.

Each month is laid out on one page. You can type a sentence or two within each day

Calendar templates allow you to fill in basic things like major or minor holidays, and I used it to fill in characters’ birthdays or other major days of significance in their lives. This gives you an idea of what your characters are going to be experiencing throughout your story, and it may help jumpstart ideas for you. For me, it helped to visualize the timeline in my head so I could maintain consistency throughout my plot. This is a great option for people who need to see details visually laid out.


Again, this is not an exhaustive list. You can explore plenty of workbooks and beat sheets online. Find what works for you. You may use more than one, like I do, or you may find that some of your story ideas require a different style of outlining than other story ideas.

Whatever you choose to do, don’t he afraid to outline. Ignore the negatives, look for the positives and have fun with it. Isn’t that what writing is all about?

2 thoughts on “When Everyone Keeps Telling You to Write an Outline

  1. Thanks for this educational post of outlining methods, Sara Beth! I’ve found Plotrr to be a real game-changer because it does give you those various options depending on what type of book you’re writing. It’s worth the money, and also worth getting in on the “ground floor” before the price goes up! (not affiliated in any way, I just love the product) It makes outlining and brainstorming so much easier than my old “everything is in a binder” method.

    1. I completely agree, Laurie. It’s a good idea to get in on it now, since it’s so new. That inexpensive price tag I’m sure will go up in the years to come. It is really nice to be able to visualize the scenes and particularly, to split the POVs into 2 different lines so I can work on their story arc as one. That has helped me a lot 😀

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