Your 3-Step Plan for Outlining A Novel

There’s only one reason writers ever talk about outlining. It’s a tool that’s supposed to make our jobs easier. But it isn’t always clear how to accomplish that. Do you just start writing a list of events that might happen in this story? Do you create an actual Roman-numeral outline like you were taught in high school? But… isn’t that awfully arbitrary? And, as such, how exactly is it supposed to give you a great story right out of the gates?

Good questions, all. Perhaps it’s time we stop thinking about outlining as outlining and, instead, call it structured brainstorming. Outlining is a period of discovery, in which you get to explore the far boundaries of your story from a safe observatory post before diving headlong into the hurly-burly of the first draft.

Over the past decade, I have taught thousands of writers how to outline, through my website and books (and now my brand-new Outlining Your Novel Workbook software!). The system I’ve created starts with the big picture and slowly narrows its focus until you know enough about your story to do it justice in the first draft. The following three basic steps will help you create an easier writing process and brainstorm a better book.

Step #1: General Sketches

Before you can create a tightly structured scene outline, you must first discover your story’s big picture. You can do that by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. story structure, plotting, outlining, story writing, novel writing writing a storyWhat do you already know about this story?

Start by writing down everything you’ve already daydreamed about this story: full-blown scene ideas, characters, images that have flashed through your head, snippets of dialogue. These are the known points in your story, and from here, you’ll start filling in the blanks to create a cohesive and resonant whole.

  1. What are the plot holes?

Once you’ve laid out all your existing pieces, you can examine the blank spaces in between and then start connecting the dots.

This is where you start asking yourself, “What don’t I know about this story?” If you know you want this to happen before that happens, then what must occur in between to create a realistic causal link?

Keep asking and answering questions until a well-formed story begins to emerge.

  1. Who are the characters?

Purposefully explore your characters. Who are your leads? What do they want and why?

Pay special attention to your antagonists, since they will frame the entire conflict. They’re the ones who begin the conflict by standing in the way of your protagonist’s goals. But why are they standing in the way? What are their motives?

At this point, you don’t need to know everything about these characters. But plot, character, and theme must all evolve symbiotically. You can’t write a cohesive plot without also knowing how your characters are driving it in thematically meaningful ways.

  1. What is the conflict?

The deeper you get into your exploration of character, the more clearly your conflict will begin to emerge. Conflict is not arguments or violence or even confrontation. Conflict is simply an obstacle placed between a character and his goal. When two characters’ goals interfere with each other, that’s where truly thematic conflict begins to arise.

  1. What is the theme?

Theme arises from the intersection of plot and character. Theme is the summation of the character’s inner evolution, which, in turn, both drives and is driven by the outer conflict in the plot. As you begin to explore your characters’ inner needs and their outer desires, start looking for the corresponding Lie and Truth that will tell you what your theme is.

Step #2: Character Sketches

Once you’ve finished working through all the major story questions in the General Sketches, you’re ready to get down and dirty with your characters. I recommend interviewing them. You can do this “freehand,” simply by throwing them onto the page and starting a conversation. However, I find my best results when I use a guided interview process with specific questions. I have curated a list of over 100 questions, which I use on all my POV characters and antagonists.

This can be a lengthy process, but fully understanding your characters is key to bringing them to life on the page in purposeful and meaningful ways.

Step #3: Scene Outline

Finally, you’re ready to write the scene outline. When most people think “outline,” this is usually what first springs to mind. But as you can see, you’re not ready to write a scene outline until you’ve first thoroughly explored your story and brainstormed your way to its best options.

Your scene outline can be as simple as a sentence-long description. Or, like me, you may prefer to go seriously in-depth, working your way through the full cause-and-effect of proper scene structure, exploring your character’s motivations and reactions scene-by-scene, and equipping yourself to fully choreograph each scene when the time comes to actually write it in the first draft.

Your outlining process should be highly personalized. Figure out what you’re trying to accomplish and dig down to whatever level of information will best optimize your creativity in the first draft. Outlining is a tool to help you better understand and control your stories. But it should also be fun. Surrender to the wild possibilities of brainstorming and enjoy the ride!

Special Offer: This week only, if you purchase the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software, you can get free copies of my books Outlining Your Novel and the Outlining Your Novel Workbook! After purchase, just submit your Order # here to receive your free books.

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY, NIEA, and Lyra Award-winning and internationally published author of Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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Sheree Johnston
Sheree Johnston
1 year ago

Hi. I recently purchased The Outlining Workbook. I already own your Outlining Your Novel book. I find that both tools are excellent. The only problem I have is that I’m unable to create a second project in the Outlining Workbook. For some reason, the program doesn’t recognize that it’s a second project and keeps telling me that the file already exists. Are you able to give me any advice? Thank you very much.


K.M. Weiland
1 year ago

Does the second project have a different title? Hmm. Please email me, and either I or the developer will see if we can figure this out for you.

Nissa Annakindt
3 years ago

I am going through the Outlining Your Novel Workbook and writing the answers in a composition book. I’ve already added some things that make the plot stronger like a villain character to add intensity. It helps me explore my story idea without writing a lot of chapters that I can’t use.


[…] to final product. Clare Langley-Hawthorne takes us from idea to novel, Becca Puglisi shares her 3-step plan for outlining a novel, and K.M. Weiland explains flat […]

3 years ago

Katie, you’re ALways amazing 🙂 So nice to see you here with THESE amazing ladies! I happen to have Structuring Your Novel AND the workbook, though have yet been able to put them to use with no time to write 🙁 Love you gals!

K.M. Weiland
3 years ago
Reply to  :Donna

Thanks for stopping by, Donna! 🙂 I hope you enjoy the books!

K.M. Weiland
3 years ago

Outlining definitely requires patience. Every part of the process is good. We just have to slow down enough to appreciate each part and use it to its full potential.

Robert Doucette
Robert Doucette
3 years ago

About five years ago, I started to really try to write novels. I had an interesting idea for the plot and friends suggested likely characters so away I went. Hundreds of hours later I decided I didn’t know what I was doing and needed to find someone who did.

After studying Ms Weiland, Jami Gold, Janice Hardy, James Scott Bell and many others I’m getting close to the point where I like what I’ve written. Even better, I like the writing itself. Knowing where I am going makes the trip more fun, not less.

Thank you all very much.

K.M. Weiland
3 years ago

I think that’s the key, really–learning what need to know to enjoy the process. That’s what it’s all about!

3 years ago

Such a great post. To me this is such a terrific way to ease people who might be reluctant to embrace structure toward the idea that creating a road map isn’t a creativity killer.

One of the most common frustrations I see online is the “I don’t know where my story is going/I don’t know what my characters really want,” and I honestly don’t know how many times I have suggested outlining and story planning and sent them to your book or site. Yet often I get the response, “Yeah, but I just don’t really work that way.” I find this frustrating, because IMO, if you are struggling in ANY area of fiction, you need to be open to new ways of doing things to get past the obstacle.

I used to pants more than I planned. Both work, but pantsing takes a lot longer. People should do what works best for them, but knowing key things before you start a story will help you write the characters more authentically because you’ll understand what motivates them and who they are deep down, and these two things are critical for everything that follows. Brainstorming key areas helps you intuitively see the story ahead. I think even going through the exercise of outlining is valuable, just to get a person thinking, even if they choose not to follow it when they write. 🙂

K.M. Weiland
3 years ago

I think there’s this major, and ultimately harmful, misconception floating around that creativity and logic can’t work together. We feel that if we try to impose logic on a story, then–poof!–the creativity disappears.

But just the opposite is true. True mastery is the harmonization of subconscious creativity with conscious understanding/logic. When we find that sweet spot, the two no longer get in each other’s way, but rather strengthen and enable one another.

3 years ago
Reply to  K.M. Weiland

PREACH. Honestly, this was one of the biggest epiphanies I have had to date. Structure doesn’t confine us–it frees us. Once we understand it, our brain is free to work its magic in a way that will ultimately do the best job of getting the story we see in our imagination onto the page.

K.M. Weiland
3 years ago

Exactly! It’s a framework that *supports* us so our creativity is freed from basic storytelling problems to really be creative.

K.M. Weiland
3 years ago

Thanks so much for having me today, ladies!