Prewriting and outlining for the outlining impaired

I had struggling writer ask me, “How do you get all those words? I start writing and then I just fade out. The story just stops. How do I expand my story?”

The short answer is to prewrite and outline. I can hear the pantsers screaming. And I get that. I’m not an outliner by nature, but in the last ten years, and almost twenty full length books later I know the value of at least a bare bones set of notes of where the story is going before I start.

I’m not talking a full-on bullet pointed outline so detailed you only have to add conjunctions to make it a book. I am talking a list of scenes, or a few pages of notes so that when you get to the swampy middle of the book, and you will, somewhere around the twenty-five to forty-thousand-word mark depending on the length of the book, you will have a way forward.

If you are one of those folks who can just whip out eighty thousand words with no outline, look away, this post I not for you. There have been some very famous and successful writers who never outlined and could simply sit down and write their books with nary an outline in site, and that is fantastic for them. This post is for us mere mortals who need at least some direction to keep going forward in our work. But wait you say, I’ve already started my book, or hey stop, I’m twenty thousand words in and stuck how will this help me? I got you, my friend. You can go back and do this work no matter where you are in your process. If you are stuck/blocked/frustrated as hell and ready to burn this manuscript, this is a great way to get unstuck. Follow the steps using what you already have written as the basis for your answers.

Step One of Prewriting

Here is what I consider the basic list of things you need to think about before you start writing your novel, or if you are stuck what to think about/do to get unstuck.

  1. What kind of novel am I writing? Is it genre fiction, literary fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, memoir?
  2. How long is my story? Here is a link for expected lengths of novels, ( )  By sticking to these lengths/guidelines you will increase your chances of being published/finding an agent, if you are going the traditional route. If you are indie publishing you can do what you want as far as manuscript length goes, however, be aware that readers of different genres have expectations and preferences for book length, but you do you and don’t be afraid to push boundaries/try new things.
  1. Who are the characters? How many do you need to tell your story?
  2. What Point of View am I writing from? For help with point of view, I highly recommend Sandra Gerth/Jae’s book Point of View: How to use the different POV types, avoid head-hopping, and choose the best point of view for your book. You can find it here: )
  3. What do your characters want? You can download my free character workbook here:
  4. How do my characters change over the course of the novel?
  5. When does my story take place? This decision will inform your research.
  6. Where does my story take place? As with question seven, this decisions will inform your research.
  7. When do I want to have my first draft complete?
  8. When do I want to have my final draft ready?

Answer these questions first, in as much detail as works for you. It might take two or three days for some questions, like the ones about your characters, and their wants. After that take your time and write out very broadly the story, not in detail but the big scenes, tell it to yourself like you were explaining it to a writer friend over beverages. You wouldn’t put in all the detail but you would highlight the most important points of your story, and that is what needs to be in place for the next step.

I use pen and paper for this, usually a dollar store composition notebook.  A cheap notebook makes it feel less fraught, less precious, and lets me scribble without the pressure that comes with staring at a blank document on my computer or writing in a fancy journal stressing about *WRITING A WHOLEASS BOOK* (Feel free to insert your own personal freak out here).

Step Two of Prewriting

Index card with names of characters and highlighter colors used for them

I use this to keep track, the numbers are the number of scenes told from their point of view, the changes are where increased or decreased their scenes.

After you finish your story, set it aside for a day or two. Come back to your notes. You could start writing at this point, and some folks do, but this is where if you can save yourself some time on the backend of writing your novel by getting the major parts your structure and pacing sorted before you start writing. Now transfer the scenes of your story to 3×5 cards, yes it needs to be 3×5 cards, because if you use 4X6 cards you will cram way more than needs to be on the card and defeat the purpose of distilling your story down to its bones. Use just a sentence or two of what the scene is about, who is in it, and the point of view it is written from and any other notes that you want to include. Keep it simple. Use short phrases such as “Attacked in the tavern” or “Busted making out in the car.”  If you are writing multiple points of view, use a highlighter to run a line across the top of the card to identify the point of view the scene is written from.  Give each character who has a point of view a unique color of highlighter and write it out on a card so you don’t forget and marks the wrong color on the wrong card..

When you are finished lay the cards out on a table/floor/whatever flat space will hold the cards chronologically. I tend to have about five to six scenes per chapter so organize them by chapter as well. (insert photo here). Sorting and viewing the cards this way helps with structure and pacing.  It will demonstrate gaps/plot holes in your storyline before you get there in your project. If you are working with multiple points of view in the story it also will show you who how much time each character is given to tell the tale.

Index cards laid out on floor

Here is the book sorted into chapters, with six scenes per chapter and space for two additional scenes if needed.

This visualization is helpful in sorting out if you really need to have a character tell their part of the story or if it would be better to tell it from one point of view, before you get into the project and find out you need to change in the middle of the story. Nothing is more difficult than having to rewrite a story from the beginning because you have too many or too few points of view or need to change the point of view entirely to have the story work.

I base my number of cards I use to tell the story on an average length of 1000 words per scene. Because scene lengths vary, 1000 words is a good average and will provide a rough gauge for many scenes are needed to make up the novel. If you find yourself with too many scenes, combine them or cut them. If you cut them set the card aside, don’t toss it out, as you may need to use it later if a scene you thought would work doesn’t or if you need to add more to a scene to make your story work.

Some folks will complain that they can’t use this method because they don’t know the ending of their story, or how to break things down to scenes that are just a line or two of notes. If this is you, all I am asking is for you to try this method. If you will be submitting to an agent or publisher, some require a short synopsis of your story, doing it now, even if your story changes it is a great exercise in seeing through all the trimmings to what your story is about. This goes double for folks who have dozens of half-finished manuscripts and unfinished novels littering their hard drives. Try this method to revive those works. So many people stop writing because it feels too big, too much, too confusing, or they have lost the thread of their story. Don’t let this be you.

Writing your story notes, distilling your novel down to bare bones breaks the story up into manageable chunks. Writing eighty thousand words is overwhelming, but committing to writing one scene a day or one scene a week? Not so daunting. Breaking your work up into bite size bits also helps with planning your writing time. If you are cramming your writing time in around other things in your life, having it already broken up into manageable pieces helps with consistency. Many folks also quit writing or don’t even start because they believe they have to have hours of hours and hours of interrupted writing time to write a novel. Very few folks have uninterrupted writing time, most of us, even full-time writers have lives outside of our writing caves. Writing consistently, a little bit every day, beats marathon sessions every time.

            A few caveats about this method.

  1. Genre fiction, has one feature that makes it easier to outline than other fiction, in that you know your ending based on the type of fiction you are writing, for example, if you are writing a romance, a happy ever after or happy for now is required (if there is no happy ever after you are writing a love story, and that is fine, just don’t call it a romance). If you are writing a mystery you have to solve the crime, if you are writing a thriller you have to catch the big bad/defeat the system before the big bad thing happens, and so on to meet the expectations of genre. If you are writing other types of fiction, it is still very helpful to know the ending of your story before you start writing. You don’t have to know details, but you need a destination. Why? Because you need to know what you are working toward in your writing, a marker you can see on the horizon. If you don’t know where you want to go with your story, you will wander and may never finish because your characters had no destination to work toward. It doesn’t have to a tangible destination. Your ending can and should be emotional as well, your characters need to change in some way, and this counts as part of your destination/end point of your story.
  2. Will this method work for you? I don’t know. Try it. It may work, or you may write me back and tell me I am an idiot and it was a complete waste of your time. Time learning what works for you as well as what doesn’t is time well spent. Experimentation is part of being creative person. Take what works for you and leave what doesn’t.
  3. I didn’t invent this method. I adapted it from this video of screen writer Dustin Lance Black talking about how he distills his massive amount of research using index cards and sorting them into a ninety-minute movie. It is a great video and well worth the watch time. You can find it here: ( ). I combined his method with what I learned from the book Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld. You can find it here ( ) or borrow it from your library. It is worth your time.  As I watched Dustin sort his cards in the video, it occurred to me I could do the same with my novel, with each card representing a scene. I base my number of cards on an average length of 1000 words per scene, so eighty-thousand-word novel equals roughly eighty scenes. Because my scene lengths vary this was a good average for me, and a good gage of how many scenes I need for a manuscript. Your mileage may vary. If you have not written enough to know your average scene length, or are just starting out, start with each card representing a 1000 words.  This method is cheap and will work with whatever word processing system you use (Word, Scrivener, Pages, etc.).

That is it for this post and step three in my steps to writing a novel series. If you missed the first part of the series, start here .  Please share this post and newsletter with folks you think would find it useful. I hope this post is helpful to you in some way. I know some folks are hard core digital and the idea of anything analog is not for them. I get it, but if you don’t know where to start or have not made progress in your writing projects, try this. What have you got to lose? I

 I’ll be back next month with ideas for the next step, your first draft.

2 thoughts on “Prewriting and outlining for the outlining impaired

  1. Loved this. Very helpful. As a pantser, trying to keep track of series details is a nightmare. I’m going to try this method for book four and see what happens. Thank you!

Comments are closed.