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Planning Your Novel

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How to Plan and Outline Your Novel

Planning isn’t for everyone -- it wasn’t ‘for me’ either until I found an outlining system that worked for me.  Since I started planning and outlining more thoroughly, I’ve found that I no longer suffer from writer’s block (not yet, anyway *crosses fingers*).  Now, if I’m not writing when I could be writing (like right now), it’s because I’m being a procrastinator.

Let me begin by saying that planning is not for everyone -- I know some people who have the ability to sit down and type, planning as they go and keeping track of everything in their headspace.  Especially with a novel, this doesn’t work for me (my headspace is filled up with thoughts of when I’m going to have pizza next).  Other people work with varying degrees of planning from basic plot and character ideas to full on detailed outlines and supplemental material.  I fall in the latter category.  

Also, the method I’ll be using below might not work for everyone because everyone is different and will have their own style of doing things.  I’ve even seen one writer start with (lengthy) individual character plots, print them out, cut them up, and put them into sequential order.  I would never be able to keep track of all those bits of paper, but that’s what works for her.

Here’s an example of how to plan your novel using a made-up story synopsis that will probably be lacking.

Where to Start?

Again, I’m just going to show you where I like to begin planning, and things may be a little different for you.  Maybe you like to come up with your characters before writing your plot, or maybe you like writing the end of your novel first and work backward to the introduction.  Whatever works.


Step One: The Basic Plot Points

The first thing I do is jot down the basic plot points, without any detail whatsoever.  This helps me get the general idea of how long my story is going to be.  (Generally speaking, the more plot points, the longer the story and the few plot points, the shorter the story.  Once again, this isn’t always true in all cases.)


  1.     Boy meets Girl
  2.     Boy falls in love with Girl
  3.     Girl doesn’t notice Boy
  4.     Boy gains superpowers from eating radioactive broccoli
  5.     Girl is abducted by Evil Mutated Vegetable Warlord
  6.     Boy fights Evil Mutated Vegetable Warlord and all of his Evil Mutated Vegetable Minions (probably with help)
  7.     Boy saves the world | Boy saves Girl
  8.     Girl falls in love with Boy
  9.     Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

Step Two:  The Details

Now that you know where your story is headed, it’s time to fill in some of the details.  You can do this by separating your story into three parts (part one, part two, and part three).  For now, you won’t be getting overly specific, but it should clarify some of the greater plot points.

  • Part One: The Introduction

This is where you’ll be introducing your characters, namely your protagonist.  This is also where you’ll be creating the setting of the story (which can be changeable, of course) and where you’ll begin to introduce problems that your main character will be facing.  Remember that nobody else will be seeing this except for you (unless you show them), 


  1.  Boy lives in Nowheresville, New York in 2017.  He’s 16 and is attending Nowheresville High.  He has two friends, Comic-Relief-Bob and Steve, and is the head of the AV club.  He idolizes Girl, the Mary Sue cheerleader who is beautiful and excels in everything (except for not getting caught by monsters and being a damsel in distress). 
  2. Boy tries everything to impress Girl: reciting Shakespeare outside her bedroom window at night, buying her lots of expensive things like bouquets of flowers and concert tickets, even decorating her locker daily with paper-mache hearts and love notes.  Nothing works.  
  3. One dreary October day, Boy was eating in the cafeteria with Bob and Steve.  Bob says some funny things to establish that he is the funny one.  Steve agrees with everything Boy says.  Boy knows that the broccoli looks funny that day (is broccoli supposed to glow?) but decides to eat it anyway.  
  4. Later that night, Boy discovers that the severe indigestion was actually the imbuement of superhuman abilities like super-strength and super-speed and also he can fly!  Neat.  (Also, it made him at least three times more attractive, because it did.)
  5. The next day, while showing his friend his newfound abilities, an army of Evil Mutated Vegetable minions breaks into the school and the leader kidnaps Girl (because she’s the best, duh).  


  • Part Two: The Middle Bits

This is where your MC will decide to solve whatever problem was presented to them at the beginning of the story.  This is the largest part of your story, and a lot of important information happens here, so plan accordingly.  In this section, your characters will be more fully revealed, they’ll have trying moments that teach them valuable lessons (probably), and you’ll develop an interesting story along the way.  This section should also be building the story to its climax while keeping enough conflict to keep this part of the story interesting.


  1. Boy has a huge decision to make.  Will he leave the safety of his ordinary life behind to save the girl of his dreams?  Yes.  Yes, he will.  He places his parents in a sleep-stasis, before heading out with Bob (who makes some funny remarks) and Steve.
  2.  By the context clues left at the scene, namely an address, the boys know they will be traveling to Austria.
  3. Together they travel the Oceans by giant turtle (because speaking to animals is yet another one of Boy’s abilities), and they traverse the Alps (all 1,200kms of mountain) they finally end up in up in Vienna, Austria.
  4. They find that the inhabitants of Vienna are under the mind control of the Evil Mutated Vegetable Minions, who try to capture you all on sight.
  5. During an intense battle, Bob is captured.  Now Boy is really determined to find the Evil Mutated Vegetable Warlord’s hideout and save both his to-be girlfriend and his friendly comic relief.
  6. Upon finding the lair, both Boy and Steve fall into a trap!.  They are imprisoned in the Warlord’s lair.


  • Part Three: The Ending

This is what your entire story has been leading up to -- the climax.  Your climax should be exciting!  It’s the big reveal, or the final battle, or the most important piece of the plotline.  This is also where you’ll be tying up loose ends and letting the reader know how the story ends.


  1. As it turns out, the bars on the imprisonment are made from anti-superhuman-ability materials, and Boy can’t break his way out.  
  2. Luckily for Boy, Steve can pick a lock as well as the next guy (if the next guy were a locksmith). 
  3. Once freed, Boy and Steve try to defeat the Warlord and his Minions
  4. An epic battle occurred, in which there were many times that the both sides gained the advantage and even a moment where it looked like the bad guys would inevitably win.
  5. In a most epic and trying moment, Bob is finally able to defeat the evil army with the power of fruits!  As it turned out, Evil Mutated Vegetables’ greatest weakness was perfectly ripened fruits.  And luckily for the protagonists, a fruit vendor wheeled his cart into the lair.
  6. Boy and Steve defeat the Warlord and his Minions before setting Girl and Bob free.
  7. Bob says funny things.
  8. Girl falls in love with Boy, and they live happily ever after and Boy continuously saves Girl from various antagonists until the end of their days.
  9.  The End

Step Three: Storyboard Time

Next, I like to make a storyboard, where I can pile all those plot points in chronological order and fill in the blanks.  This also allows me to add any and all other ideas I have for the story (subplot points, random quotes, and other ideas) into the story on some sort of timeline.  Perhaps you’ll want to throw in some sort of plot twist or have finally figured out one of Bob’s extremely funny jokes.

There are a ton of different ways you could storyboard.  

You can use the old thumb tack to wall (or cork board) trick.  Take index cards with all of your plot points and ideas and stick them to something (sticky notes work, too, but be careful that the adhesive doesn’t wear out before you’ve finished).  This way you can freely rearrange the storyline at will.

There are also programs that allow you to move ideas around freely like Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep, and Zim.

I personally enjoy storyboarding on Google Keep because it’s simple, allows me to move those notes around, pin the ones I want to keep in place and save images and links from the web when I get into the ever-important research phase. 

Whatever you choose, if you’re planning on using a physical approach (like a cork board), I suggest taking a picture or copying it onto into a program or document for backup purposes.

Part Four: The Nitty Gritty

Now that you know where your story’s going, there are several main concepts that you're going to have to figure out.

  • Characterization: This is where you’ll delve into the who and the what of your characters.  There are highly complex methods and more simplistic methods on mapping out your characters.  I made a list of characterization ideas +here, but it’s pretty extensive and grueling.  @Shadokat678 left a video link in the comments with a much more concise character mapping guide, and @MuggleMaybe left a list of HP-verse character-related questions as well!  
  • World-building:  If you’re writing an alternate earth or in a different dimension, it’s a good idea to establish the workings of your world.  Even if you’re not, it’s still a good idea to know what’s going on in the world that may affect the characters in the plot.  For example, you may want to establish types of government or the current economy (especially in the location(s) that the story is taking place).  @TidalDragon wrote a magnificent guide to world building +here
  • Establishing a System for Everything ‘Superhuman’: ( Or anything else that the reader isn’t familiar with.)  If you’re using Superhuman abilities, make sure to include why, and how they work, and what their limitations are.  The same goes for magic.  Fun things to include are if and how those things evolve over time and what the cost is for using or learning them.  For more specific information on writing magical abilities, check out Sanderson’s Laws of Magic +here, which I’ve found insightful.  
    • Also, things like unfamiliar races and creatures (Orcs, Halflings, Bugbears, Gods, etc.) should be explained somewhat for your reader.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to establish those things for yourself first.  What can they do?  What do they look like?  Where do they live? Etc.
      • Are there unfamiliar plants in your story?  What about substances?  Anything that the reader would feel unfamiliar with, or something you’ve created from nothing, should be fully understood by you, the writer, so that it may be understood by the reader.

Step Five: The Research

There are probably going to be some aspects of your story you’d like to research more.  In the case of the example I used during the plotting phase, I might want to research the Alps or Austria.  Maybe I’d like to research sea turtles and their migration.  Extensive understanding of what your writing will translate to your reader, making your story feel more realistic and believable.

Make sure you have a solid understanding of what you’ll be writing about.  This is also where I find that using the storyboard-able programs are helpful for storing and organizing information.

:wandinair:This is where some of you may think is a good time to stop and start writing.  Or maybe you would stop long before now and get to the writing. I tend to take things a bit further and expand my characterizations and plot points further, just so I know where I’m going.  Then, I get even crazier. :wandinair:

Sep Six: Chapter Outlines

This is where I break apart my story into chapters and extensively outline each chapter accordingly.  I didn’t do this initially, but now that I’ve started, I can’t stop.  This ensures that I always know what’s happening in my story and is probably the greatest contributing factor in eliminating writer’s block (for me).



That’s a ton of work to do, but it’s how I like to plan for my story.  This is not going to work for everyone, and you should definitely plan whatever ways work best for you.

:thankyou:Feel free to share different ways that YOU like to plan, if at all.:thankyou:


Edited by Rumpelstiltskin
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Wow! This is so detailed and useful; I'm definitely bookmarking this to reference in the future. Thanks for sharing this :D 

I wanted to share how I plan stories though, but I generally don't since I, for the most part, write one-shots and shorter stories, where I can let my understanding of the characters and a few central themes sort of control the story. 

I struggle with planning novels mostly because I don't have the patience for it, but whenever I start, I always start with the characters first. This is probably because most of my writing focuses less on plot and more on characters, so it makes sense to dive in first to the characters and let the plot events build off of their histories, personalities, and motivations. 

When I plan a character, I generally focus on these aspects: 

  • The surface--this extends to their reputation, their basic details, their appearance, the parts of their history that are common knowledge, etc. Essentially, I try to put myself in the shoes of an "acquaintance" of the character--someone who doesn't know them well, but isn't a complete stranger, either. 
  • The interior--these are the parts of the character that they keep to themselves: things like hopes, desires, fears, secrets, etc. and their view of themselves. Parts of their history that they don't really share. This is basically the nitty gritty of the character. 

From there, I sort of come up with an idea of how I want my character to grow (I.e. from timid to bold, from arrogant to humble, etc.--although it's never really that one-dimensional!), and that's where I start planning the plot events. I let the character interactions control the plot; this usually helps me ensure that my characters are not acting uncharacteristically,  but this whole process usually requires a great deal of patience... that I do not have xD 

I think I'll try merging my methods with the ones you outlined here though; this seems like a more straightforward way of planning. 

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I'm glad you've found this useful! :)

I know of a lot of people who also start with their characters, which is a fantastic method, too.  It never really works out well for me when I've tried -- usually, I'm left with a cast of characters that aren't doing anything.  Then when I do figure out what they're doing, I usually have to change them.  

That is a lovely, compact way to map out your characters, thanks for sharing!  It covers the most important parts of the characters that are generally useful within the plot.  And, of course, making sure you know how you want their growth to develop is an extremely clever idea.  Characters leading the plot is an excellent way to go about things.


Thanks so much for sharing!  Hopefully you'll be able to pick out the points that work best for you from the guide :) .  

Edited by Rumpelstiltskin

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Stella Blue

My main question after reading this is, are you going to write that story about the killer vegetables? ... Please? :P 


Also, this is a pretty helpful guide! I particularly like that you separated the outline into three main sections, because I think I tend to get lost in the middle when I'm writing a novel and having a more defined outline is probably a very good idea. (My idea of an outline when I write is just what you have listed as Basic Plot Points. :P)


I think I usually do somewhat of a combination between your method and forever_dreaming's. Usually I figure out the characters first - I make a list of character traits and a rough story outline/very general chapter outline, and then just start right in from there. If I ever have the patience (and 7 years) to write another novel, I'll definitely try doing that detail method before I start writing as I think it'd make the process much faster!

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My main question after reading this is, are you going to write that story about the killer vegetables? ... Please? :P 

The killer vegetables aren't waking up my muse, at all, unfortunately! :P

I'm glad you found it helpful!  The three sections I used is modeled after the Three Act Structure (mostly used in screenwriting).  I believe I have seen a Six Act Structure as well, which gets a bit more detailed.  If you're interested in a more descriptive Three Act Structure model, +THIS site explains it pretty well :).  AND it has this labeled structure picture!

3-act-structure.jpg Isn't it beautiful?  (Link to the website is also the credit for the picture, of course)
I used to hate, hate, hate outlining (usually sticking to the basic points like you, too), but it's grown on me.  (I do understand how it's not for everyone -- it can be super tedious when all I want to do is write words!)

Thanks so much for sharing :D !

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this is extremely helpful - thanks a lot for posting it!

i'm hoping that planning out stuff will actually help me finish a WIP. i used to try and wing it and it only worked with one-shots :P.

now i first figured out my characters, their personalities and the basic conflict they face...and then i tried to do the plot points in a way you described them. the only thing i don't think i'll be able to do is chapter outlines, i just feel like that's too constraining? i probably need to figure out a way to make them loose enough. but what about the filler-y type of chapters where nothing major happens? how to deal with those? they're important story-wise because of the setting, atmosphere and general interaction between characters but they also don't have major plot points in them. i think maybe the best way to deal with them is to have major stuff happen in them with the subplots of the story? are filler chapters bad? i don't think so because i feel like there needs to be at least some distance between major plot stuff happening.

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@starbuck My take on filler chapters is that they’re not bad if a) they’re revealing something new about the character that is nonessential to the plot, but still helps the reader’s connection to and understanding of the character, or b) they’re providing a reprieve from a series of really action-packed chapters, or c) they’re advancing a subplot.

I think in the case of a & b, fleshing out the characters beforehand really helps because their basic conflicts and histories generally guide the subplots, and obviously, the more you know about the characters, the more you can reveal about them haha. I think in the case of b, it really depends on where your plot is at. Sometimes, filler chapters aren’t that helpful. For planning purposes, I’d put a pin on it and say “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there”, and then move onto the next big section. Sometimes subplots develop themselves and you’ll have something to fill that chapter, and sometimes it’ll turn out that that chapter really isn’t necessary. 

The important thing about planning is to leave enough leeway that you can still be flexible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve deviated from my basic plan while writing because I intuitively felt that this new direction would serve me better—and 90% of the time, the new direction was ten times better than the original. But having that original direction helped prevent me from getting writer’s block. 

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@starbuckThe main reason that I have a difficult time finishing a WIP is that I start too many and then want to move on to even more before I ever finish what I've started. xD 

With chapter outlines, I usually post the basic points that happen in the story, followed up by some general quotes/ideas/information I'd like to share in the chapters. What happens MOST of the time, is that I feel like a particular chapter is either too long or too short. When I feel like it's too long, I generally split it up [but only if I feel as though it has the allowance for it]. If I feel like a chapter is too short, I check to see if I can borrow anything from what I wanted to include in the next chapter or [depending on how short it is] see if it might fit fluidly before the next chapter [or however I feel it's best to split it]. [Disclaimer: chapter lengths are something that I believe is (more or less) something up to the author's view of how the story feels balanced.]

While I realize that that's not necessarily what you meant by 'constraining', I wanted to use that an example for this: an outline is NOT something you need to EVER, EVER, EVER stick to. It's not a concrete device that you'll ever have to follow to the point and you'll find yourself naturally following an idea born from what you're writing [I mean, probably -- I don't know you so you MIGHT not, this is all conjecture at this point.] 

Anyway, the reason that I like to chapter outline is that when I'm writing a longer piece [especially one that I'm posting chapter updates as I go instead of writing the entire piece, editing, then posting on a scheduled time (which, let's face it, for me is ALWAYS)] I tend to go one direction and then decide I want to go another as well as have long, unrequired tangents while I'm writing out my story that have absolutely nothing to do with my plot. As you can probably tell from the many, many parenthetical asides in this, this happens to me OFTEN.

So, I find that if I've written a chapter outline it gives me some sort of direction, especially during those post-midnight writing hours while I'm manically drinking my coffee and wondering why I can't fall asleep [obviously not the excessive amounts caffeine rampaging through my system *cough*] when I start getting manic, post-midnight ideas. Instead of smashing them into the story and not thinking about the consequence of my plotline, I can then look at my chapter outline and see where, if ever, this might be a good idea to include in my story. If I cannot find a good spot, I jot the manic, post-midnight idea down for a time when it is not post-midnight to review again. [Spoiler: most of Rumpel's manic, post-midnight ideas are not awe-inspiring and generally include some form of mutated/altered race of humanoids [like fish-people or radioactive vegetable people, or whatever.] 

As for filler chapters, @forever_dreaming raised some EXCELLENT points. I also believe that filler chapters are a great way to A, B, & C! Also, the points on flexibility are very accurate -- nothing is ever set in stone.

As far as planning filler chapters, I suppose they happen just as you'd plan any other chapter. Just jot down what you're trying to achieve with that chapter and the major events of that chapter. I usually find that filler chapters aren't something I necessarily plan, but come into play as I'm writing when I feel like SOMETHING is lacking and it needs to be addressed, then I can plot out the chapter and slide it in where I feel it's needed. And if I know that I'm having a "filler" chapter [like you said, some sort of reprieve some the major plot points] I might just jot down a bullet list of WHY the chapter is there [what character interactions are happening and why, what's being affected in a subplot, what is the reader learning about (person, place, thing), what kind of relief is meant to be achieved (comic vs serious)]. So, when I say 'write down the major points', I mean the points of THAT specific chapter, regardless if they have anything to do with the plot or not. 

For example, a chapter outline of a filler chapter could look like this:

  • Sirius and James go to the Quidditch Pitch after curfew 
  • Sirius confesses to James about his life at home and the expectations placed on him by his family
  • James listens and offers Sirius his sympathy
    • during this time their friendship is strengthened and a newfound sense of trust is established
  • James and Sirius decide to go get some ice cream from the kitchens

Now, this story could be about how the James, Sirius, and Peter found out that Remus became a werewolf in Second Year, but let's say this reprieve was necessary in my eyes as a writer to establish some deeper relationship ties as well as reveal some backstory that I think is important for the characters. So this chapter wouldn't be presenting any major plot points or even setting up the next major plot event but it does have major points WITHIN the chapter that can be mapped out.

I think what I'm really just trying to say in this long-winded ramble is that I think that planning is going to be very personal for you as a writer. Some things just aren't going to work and some might work fantastically. What I listed in the original post are things that work for me [most of the time] and I've excluded any and all methods that don't work for me [but might work for you]. If a chapter outline feels too constraining, then it is perfectly okay to not use one. Sometimes I feel like if I don't have everything planned out extensively that somewhere along the line I'm going to forget what I'm doing or just head out on a long spree of writing things that don't make any sense to my plot. I've met people who are able to write entire novels WITHOUT PLANNING and my mind is completely BLOWN by those people because I would have a bunch of ongoing thoughts that lead absolutely nowhere. 

And I've absolutely gone off the deep-end with this reply so I apologize and can only hope that something up there ^ helped you in any way. 

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