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  • Writer's pictureYessica Jain

Outlining: What, Why, and How

Outlining—you love it, hate it, or respect it against your will. The things you should outline before starting your novel really depend on your genre.

Things to Outline


This one is not optional. Really. Even if outlining is your archnemesis, you will struggle with writer’s block throughout your first draft if you don’t have a plan for your plot. You should at least have a few sentences or bullet points outlining the major events in your novel, including the beginning, climax, and resolution. Of course, you can choose to make it more detailed and write scene-by-scene outlines. Consider writing brief outlines for your subplots as well. Know the stakes: what motivates your characters to be a part of the plot?


Most fiction novels are character-driven. This means having well-developed characters. The best way to make sure your characters are fully fleshed out is outlining their appearance and personality. You should have a basic idea of your major characters’ background, relationships, strengths, and weaknesses before beginning your novel. What are your characters willing to sacrifice to achieve their goals?


This depends on your genre. If your story is set in the modern world, you may not have to outline the world. However, most fantasy and science fiction authors will have to work to develop systems of magic, technology, religion, and government. You want to know what role your characters hold in their world and how this affects them.

How should I outline? This, again, is up to you and your genre. Be sure to try new things, but in the end, use what you are comfortable with.

Outlining Formats


If you like free flowing visual outlines, try using a mind map or an idea web. This will let you jot down all the ideas in your head and determine how they are connected. If you want a more organized outline, you can draw a timeline. This will help you hone in on the sequence and length of events. If you prefer words over visuals, try summarizing your novel.


Create character sheets to list out your character’s traits. I use Google Sheets for this, because I find it useful to compare my characters side-by-side. You can also draw your characters. Just make sure you also know their personality traits.


Create a map of your world (or universe). Label places which are important to your plot and characters. You can do this by hand or use online map creators. Draw your world’s clothing, transportation, animals, or anything else important to the world. I trust my words over my drawings, so I list important details about my world.

Outlines can be extremely detailed, nonexistent, or anywhere between. As a writer, only you can determine how much you need to outline.

There are three groups of writers when it comes to outlining.

Types of Outliners


Planners outline everything. They can visualize their minor character’s entire room before writing their first chapter.

  • Pros: You know what they’re getting into. You have a clear plan for their story and are less likely to be overwhelmed by writer’s block.

  • Cons: Having put so much effort into a detailed outline, it can be difficult to stray from it. Remember you are always growing, and if you think you have a better plan for your plot, use it! If you think your character’s personality doesn’t suit the setting, change it. The outline is supposed to help you, not restrain you.


Pantsers are the exact opposite. They’re what most people think of when they imagine authors. They sit down and write whatever their heart desires.

  • Pros: You’re free! With no outline holding you back, you can write whatever your heart desires in your first draft. Your characters truly drive the plot. They make the decisions, not your outline.

  • Cons: You may be engulfed by writer’s block at times because you don’t have a clear vision for the end of your story.


They have the best of both worlds. They outline some events but leave others to be determined by the characters.

  • Pros: You can choose to lean in either direction. You can have a relatively detailed outline or a five sentence summary of your vision for your novel. You know you can stray from your outline, but you always have one to refer to in times of writer’s block.

  • Cons: NONE! Of course, this doesn’t mean it is the best strategy, since writing is subjective and an art. However, if you are a pantser, try outlining a little bit; if you are a planner, try relaxing your outline. See if it helps!

So... the million dollar question: is outlining worth it? It’s up to you! Do what works best for you, but don’t be afraid to explore. I used to be a pantser, and ended up with many unfinished WIPs. Ever since I started outlining, however lightly, I have made a lot of progress.

What type of outliner are you? Let me know in the comments!

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