Home » Writing Advice » Writing 101 – Outlining

Writing 101 – Outlining


(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Hello everyone. So…erm…yeah, I’ve done a great job so far keeping up with this resolution malarkey. Michelle has already threatened to fire me if I don’t show my face today and she (sometimes) makes a good point.

Here I am. Grovelling.

Please take me back, dear readers. I have…what do I have?…I have tips. I have tips on that most dreaded of topics – outlining a novel.

As I discussed previously, we writers tend to fall into one of two categories – Outliners or Pantsers. Which technique is right for you is all down to preference, but something I hear a lot from pantsers and those just starting out is what is outlining and how do I do it?

I don’t profess to be an expert (far from it). These techniques are based on what I’ve picked up through trial and error or through research and are in no way comprehensive.

What is outlining?

Outlining is a process for plotting out the key points and major events of your book, usually from start to finish. Although typically used for non-fiction writing, it does have its uses in fiction especially where there’s a need to juggle plot twists or multiple story lines. Outlines can be detailed, multi-page documents, or simple guidelines that serve as a road map through your novel’s plot, drafted onto index cards or sticky notes.

How to Outline

All these techniques assume you already have an idea for your book. If not, you may benefit from a brain storming session.

Using Index Cards/Sticky Notes

Until recently, this was my main method for outlining (more on this later). I’ll mostly be discussing index cards but this applies to sticky notes too. You need a few items before you can begin:

  • Index cards of a size to suit your needs (I use 3 by 5 inch cards (76.2 by 127.0 mm))
  • Coloured pens or stickers
  • Corkboard, index card box, or large floor
  1. On one side of a index card, write a single sentence summarising each of your story’s main plot points or scenes, ignore any subplots for now. Use a new card for each point and leave the other side blank.
  2. Number each card in sequence. This doesn’t mean you’re tied to the sequence but it’ll help if you drop or mix up the cards (trust me on this).
  3. When you’ve finished your main plot, do the same with your subplots. I tend to use a different colour pen (or sticker) here to help distinguish plot threads.
  4. Once you have worked through all your plot lines, arrange the cards out on the corkboard/floor.
  5. You can now move the cards around at your leisure and experiment with the sequencing/pacing of your story. Cards can also be grouped into rough chapter outlines.
  6. Use the rear of each card to further expand on the scenes, adding detail and snippets of text as it comes to you.
  7. Write your story

Text Document

This method is based on Microsoft Word package for Windows and Mac, although most wordprocessor programs have templates for outlines available for use. It’s less flexible than other methods as plot points can only really be moved through cutting and pasting text (although Office 2013, now allows you to drag and drop headings and associated text around).

I haven’t outlined using this method and so, rather than making a fool of myself, I thought I’d let Saikat Basu of www.makeuseof.com show you how it’s done.

Remember: each header should be a one-sentence summary of the key plot points of your story.


Writing 101 - Outlining

Scrivener’s Corkboard Feature

Scrivener is a recent discovery for me but is fast becoming my go-to program when it comes to outlining and plotting. Just like a real corkboard and index cards, the built-in corkboard feature allows for the creation of virtual cards which can be colour-coded in much the same way as the ones I described above.


Scrivener also has a separate outlining feature that gives a more traditional look to the outline (similar to the one created by MS Word). I intend to do a full review of Scrivener in the coming weeks but I just want to highlight that the software is available for both Windows and Mac operating systems and comes with a free trial download.


An index card is added to the corkboard automatically, whenever a new document is created and can be used as per the method above. I use the main face of the card to summarise a description of the scene, expanding on it in the document notes section (bottom right of the image).

So that’s about it from me, but before I go I want to mention a few things that you should considered when using outlines:

  1. The layout and format of an outline is a matter of personal preference – use one that suits you
  2. Outlines should never get in the way of the story – if the plot or pacing benefits from a change of direction then alter the outline, not the story
  3. Outlines should be organic, evolving as the story does – use it as a guide only.

Well, I hope this helps.

If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below. I’d also like to hear any tips you might have when it comes to outlining.



15 thoughts on “Writing 101 – Outlining

  1. You’re alive!!! Hurrah! I use different coloured prompt cards to plot out the different threads of storyline. I like to see how all the different sections fuse together to create a complete understanding for the reader.

    • I use coloured cards or sticky notes as well to help track main and sub plots. The visual impact of the colour lets you tell at a glance when too much attention is being diverted away from plots and even allows you to see if certain sub-plots are redundant (few scenes) or detract (far too many scenes) from the story.

  2. I was a sticky notes/index card girl (though I don’t really outline) until Scrivener came along. Now I just input my bubbles from the cluster into Scrivener and play there. The best part about Scrivener is if you move a scene or chapter, the outline changes automatically. I also tend to load all my scenes in chapter one and then organize them into chapters after the draft and viola, Scrivener changes the outline.

    Even though I’m a pantser, I do outline the book after the draft. Great way to find plot holes and fix flow. 🙂

  3. I have also recently discovered Scrivener, and it has really helped me to develop random thoughts and place them in some cohesive and sensible order. Even if I don’t use the other features of Scrivener (I still enjoy using Microsoft Word for actual drafting and editing), this sole feature in Scrivener has really allowed me to see the whole picture, even when all I am compiling is a short story. Great recommendations, thanks for sharing!

    • I tend to draft in Scrivener but the real benefit it gives me is the outlining functionality, especially the corkboard feature. I do make use of Microsoft Word quite often but my process is very non-linear and Scrivener is more powerful in that respect. Writing and writing preferences are very personal and I’m glad that you found some benefits in reading the post. Thanks you.

  4. My process is similar to Robyn’s in that I locate all my scenes in Chapter One in Scrivener. I’m also like her in that I create the outline *after* I’ve done a substantial amount of drafting. I have a vague idea of where the novel I’m working on now is going, but I’m enjoying the not knowing and the discoveries I’m making. At some point in the coming weeks, I’ll start a rough outline of what I have so far and where I think I’m headed. A very useful post. {8~)

    • We all work differently and the benefit of Scrivener is that it can adapt to our ways of working. I am impressed with people who can write “on the fly” when composing works any larger than a short story. Even though I often set out with a clear direction, if I don’t outline at least the bare bones, I have a tendency of going off on a meandering tangent and eventually losing interest in the project.

  5. Great tips Chris, and particulalry useful to me as I am working on an outline for a potenfial novel and the project will be undertaken with a writing partner. Any clues as to how we’re going to tackle such a massive undertaking are always welcome 🙂

  6. I outline extensively, do character psychological profiles, complete histories (that are mostly never used), and other plot line structural engineering, and all before I start writing. As a result, my first draft is almost the final draft–it’s just tweaking and line editing from there. James Frey’s step method has been a wonderful tool for building a plot made of cases and effects. Good outlines make it almost too easy. One benefit is if I get stuck on a scene, I just skip it and write a scene from later in the book. Bouncing back and forth helps me make the early scenes sharper and lets me plug in foreshadow or red hearings with ease.
    I’ve gone so far as to write from the middle backwards and jump around all over the book while doing it. With an outline well designed sequential writing isn’t necessary. Larry Brook’s book Story Engineering is also very helpful in understanding how to outline. It is good to know if the the story will work before investing months writing it.

    • Lots of good tips for this panster to try. Thank you! I’ll look up James Frey and Larry Brooks as well. Always interested in ways to do it better even as a non-outliner.

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