I didn’t always outline.
I thought I was a pantser* for a long time. In fact, I wrote three books without an outline, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they suffered from soggy middles, meandering B-stories and poor character arcs. After years of this, I figured there had to be another way.
Then, I learned this super simple technique for outlining my novel. I was hooked.
If you’re a true pantser and you already have a system that works for you that doesn’t require an outline, feel free to skip this one. But if you find yourself wondering how you’re going to come up with enough scenes to fill up the middle of your novel, if you’re stuck on what comes next, or just curious about novel structure, this one’s for you.
And if you don’t want to read a whole post to learn how to outline, feel free to click here to download my Down and Dirty Outlining Worksheet, where I lay out this technique in a clear, fill-in-the-blank format that anyone can follow.
First, set up your Acts.
Most stories follow a basic three-part structure. You’ve probably heard it called a beginning, a middle and an end. Divide a blank sheet of paper into four equal parts and label those parts Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, and Act 3. The middle is broken into two because it should be twice as long as the beginning and the end.
Next, come up with some scenes.
I like to do this on notecards–you’ll see why in the next step. Grab a deck and write down every scene you think should go in your book on a different card. Don’t get too detailed: “Main Character meets cute boy” is enough.
Start putting those bad boys in order.
I like to find an empty space where I can spread out all my notecards. Some scenes will naturally follow one after another (Main Character meets cute boy > Main character tells bestie about boy over lunch > Main character finds out bestie likes the SAME BOY) while others won’t fit with everything else that’s happening (Main character adopts puppy.) Toss the cards that don’t fit, and write new scenes to connect cards that don’t follow logically.
Keep doing this until all of your scenes follow one after another. Eventually you want around 35 to 40 scenes, or about 10 in each Act.
Whoa…hold up. Does your plot seem kind of boring? Let’s fix it!
The biggest, most dramatic scenes in your book should happen at around 25- 33% of the way through, 50% of the way through, and 75% of the way through your book. Or at the end of Act 1, the end of Act 2a, and the end of Act 2b. Can you make whatever’s sitting there now juicier? Can you switch around some scenes so that the meatier moments happen at the right times? Get on that.
*term meaning someone who writes by “the seat of their pants” instead of outlining first.