Should you write a fancy outline for your novel?

Maybe- Maybe not.

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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. spirit-1272923_640

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.

Do you outline?

What type of outlines do you use?

Or are you a pantster?

Keep reading – Great articles at the bottom of the post!

I’d love to hear from you! Click the write me tab or contact me onTwitter @jeancogdell, Facebook at jean.cogdell and, stop by and say hey! The lights are on and I’m waiting.

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How to Outline a Novel- The Headlight Method

Outline Your Novel in Thiry Minutes


How to Outline a Novel (Even If You’re Not an Outliner)

Plot outline creation: 7 smart methods


23 thoughts on “Should you write a fancy outline for your novel?

  1. I did somewhat the same as you although I didn’t classify them as chapters. I patterned them after Jami Gold’s method of “beats”. Chapters can be well defined like I think you’re using in your method, or they can just be “pauses” to give the reader a neat and tidy place to stop until later. There are authors who don’t even use chapters. There’s just some extra space between scenes.

    Anyway, the strict outline is too much for me. I like doing the small summaries.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am definitely not a panster. My mind likes tangents and I have to maintain control with some sort of structure. Lol. I start with the basic bell curve plotting out the points…after I know my characters and all their back stories. Then I use word and map out quick billeted list. Purpose. Day of the week. Weather. And scene description. Then I write a brief paragraph for the chapter running through the beginning, middle, and end.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m betwixt and between. Without an outline things go off on meaningless tangents. Writing one becomes an exercise in navel gazing and abstraction as I struggle to figure out where I should be going. I’m beginning to think that maybe I should be starting from the end and working backward. That may not work for others, but I have a kind of gut feeling that this is the path for me. I’ll be trying it out later this year and see if I’m right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard a lot of writers work backward. Don’t think I could do that. Let me know how it works for you. But I do get what you mean about forgetting where your headed without any direction. Happens to my characters all the time. Sigh…


  4. I agree that each of us has to find the method that works individually. I do initial story-scribbles on a notepad. I like being able to cross out, write in margins, draw arrows, etc. Then I do my basic paragraph outline in Excel. It allows me to insert and delete rows, move rows around, It’s loose so theirs lots of room to play. I add to it as ideas come and as the story progresses, or it the characters make changes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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