How To Formalize And Speed Up Your Plotting And Outlining, So You’re Finishing Novels At Top Speed

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Back in July, Rob asked me in comments:

The place I currently get hung up when it comes to being more prolific is the plotting/planning stage. I can write fairly quickly and cleanly, but it takes me a while to plot out a new book, especially if it’s the first in a new series. All the character and world building, then outlining… Bleh. It can take me forever. I have written some books off into the dark, skipping that step, and it’s worked a few times, but I also have A LOT of unfinished books that way, too. So it wastes as much (or more) time.

You seem to plot your books at lightening speed. I think if I could nail that piece, the amount of books I could write in a year would go up a scary amount. 🙂 If you have any tips/thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them.

There is a shit ton of advice on the Internet, and in book, about how to write faster.

There are much fewer sources that talk about plotting faster.

There’s a reason for that.

Despite what Rob said, I don’t actually plot at lightning speed. It does take me time to plot out a book, and sometimes far longer than I think it should, which I find frustrating.

I’ve had a lot of practice at plotting. I have grown faster at it over the years, but those gains have been incremental.

I have also spent a lot of time and money reading books by experts and other writers, who discuss plotting and outlining, in hopes of finding the ultimate plotting tool that seamlessly takes me from blank page to finished outline, in the quickest time possible.

I don’t think such a scheme exists.

Part of the problem is that there are just too many ways to structure and plot stories.  Three act structure, four act structure, the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, Story Grid, Story Physics or Story Engineering, and on and on.

These are all story structure models, plus plotting and outlining tools. All of them work, and you may have your own favourite.

However, none of them will give you a 100% reliable path to efficient plotting that you can just follow from Point A to Point Z and finish with a solid outline, every single time.

Plotting is an iterative process. Because every story starts in a different place, or is inspired by a different element, your start line is never in the same place for two stories in a row. You may have a scene in mind that inspires the entire story. Maybe it’s a character. I’ve even written books based purely upon a feeling that I wanted generate in the reader by the end of it. There are writers who are prompted by strong themes. Then there are others who want to write a book that is exactly the same, and just a little bit different than the bestsellers.

Any story can be inspired by any aspect of the story: theme, structure, character, steam, dialogue, setting, and so on. I also know writers who are inspired by pre-made cover art, or fine art.

Or you may experience the bliss that I have once or twice, of either dreaming or being struck by a story that is almost whole and complete in that first moment of inspiration, and requires very little more than simply writing the story down.

Where you start when you set out to write a book is different every time. For that reason, there is no step-by-step process that will streamline plotting down to the most time efficient operation possible.

However, there are ways to speed up the process, so you don’t fumble around and waste precious time.

Plotting and Writing are Different

If you are rolling your eyes at me, good.

If you follow my work log, you know that I separate my time into “writing” and everything else. However, even my writing time is split into plotting and writing. They are two distinct processes.

Your production schedule and your writing schedule will be far more accurate if you split your plotting time and your writing time as I do. It helps you keep track of exactly how long it takes to plot a book.  This will be useful later on.

A Basic Process

This is a basic plotting process that works for any version of structure, plotting and outlining that you use, or want to use.

Write down everything you know about the story.

Get used to the idea of using up a lot of paper, or opening a lot of documents, when you are plotting.

To begin with, write down everything you already know about the story, or think you want to include. You can even tell yourself why you want to write this particular story, and keep it at the top of your work, or on a storyboard, to remind yourself as you are progressing through the story.

While you’re musing about what you would like to see in the story, include the beginning of the story as you think it might happen right now, and also what the finale could be.

Many writers use mind mapping for this stage. If you like mind maps, this is the perfect time to use them.

However, you will eventually have to transfer that mind map to a linear outline on paper or in a document (and I strongly suggest you start using a digital document as soon as you can). That makes mind maps of limited use, while the words you rattle out on the page or the screen can be transferred, copied, rearranged, and are generally more functional for story outlining.

As we are trying to find the most efficient critical path through the plotting process, monitor how much time it takes you to shift between a mind map and a text file. You may find is not worth the time sink.

Ask questions and write down your answers.

Now you start filling in the blanks in your story outline. You don’t have to use a formalized structure yet, but you do have to fill in all the big holes. Do that by asking your self a series of questions.

  • Who are your main characters?
  • Why are those characters going to do what you think they might do?
  • What happens as a result?

This stage is particularly messy. I will open a new document every time I move on to a new subject. So, when I start developing a different character, for example, I’ll open a new document for that character.

Don’t be afraid of having many files open. You will consolidate them later, and keeping everything segregated into big chunks helps you develop discrete aspects of the story, without worrying about other elements.

TIP:  For this mind-dumping and arc developing phase, especially for heavy world-building, and research-thick novels like science fiction and historicals, I use Microsoft OneNote.  I can create new pages with abandon, drag them to appropriate sections in the notebook (one notebook per book), and link to other pages and paragraphs, cross-indexing like mad.  I use the OneNote web clipper to clip pages from the net for research, character images, settings.  I can highlight and add notes.  I can even, when I’m feeling very lazy, sit in a recliner with a digital pen and highlight and scribble on my notes as I review them.

Later, when I start plugging everything I’ve developed into a formal story structure, I can copy and paste just as I do in Word (more on this later.)

If you can’t abide Microsoft Office (really don’t get that!), then Evernote is the “other” notetaking app that does the same things, just not with pretty colours or as many formatting options.  It also is not free.  Google has a “Keep” app that is a limited, but free, option, too.

Using a note-taking app for this stage will diminish the number of files you have open at once, if this is a concern.

Move your characters through the story in rough outline

Those multiple documents you have open will serve a purpose now.

Now you have a mountain of information and ideas, and vague feelings about how the story might go.

Go to your heroes document, or start a new file if you want. Given what you know about the character so far, develop in point outline or paragraphs your hero’s inner and outer character arcs.

  • Where does he start out?
  • Where does he end up?
  • What is the mid-point of his arc?
  • If you don’t know it yet, figure out why he does what he does. That is, back story and motivation.

You can fully develop a character for story just with these four points. Depending on which model of character development you follow, you may have more points you want to cover in the arc. Feel free to adjust the list according to your favourite model.

Build similar arcs for the antagonist, and any major secondary characters.

Build An Action Arc

Similar to character arcs, there is an action arc which stretches from the beginning of the story to the end.  In science fiction, it’s the story about the alien invasion or how the plucky crew win the day; for murder mysteries, is how the ministry is presented and resolved. In romance, it’s how the hero and heroine meets, their conflict, and how it is resolved. And so on.

This is sometimes called the external plot, to differentiate it from the internal plot a.k.a. character arcs.

Don’t fuss about structure at this time, or fitting it into a formal story shape. Just write down what you know, in the order that it happens, and if you see any big, glaring plot holes, fill them with rough notes about what you think happens at that point.

You can be as vague or as detailed as you want to be.

Sub-plots, Other Arcs

Repeat the process for every other element that will impinge upon the plot:  Major flashbacks, secondary plots, sub-plots.  Timelines can be built here, too, to keep everything straight.

Develop each arc separately, from beginning to end point, with critical beats in between.

Slot What You Know Into Your Favourite Story Structure

This is where the process becomes more formalized. You are shaping the material that you have developed so far, and starting to add the “rules” that make it conform with good storytelling.

Build a heading outline of your favourite story structure, that includes all the critical acts and scenes. I won’t give you a sample list, because what are considered critical scenes changes from model to model, and from genre to genre.

If you’ve never considered critical scenes before, try plugging into Google “essential scenes for a romance novel,” (for example).  Or, you could even try, “basic thriller plot,” and see what you get. (You will be inundated. Be warned.)

Don’t get too hung up on trying to find the perfect list of essential scenes, or the ideal or perfect plot model. There isn’t one. Pick one that seems to align with your own sense of story, and use it as the basis upon which you will tweak and build your own personalized model.

You can even save this basic, personalized model of essential scenes and story structure as a template in Microsoft Word or in Scrivener, or whatever software you use for writing.

Now you start dropping what you know about the story into your formalized structure, where you think that beat will happen. You don’t have to get it perfect. Striving for perfection at this point is a waste of time. Everything changes, even when you’re writing the story.

Strive merely to get everything that you want in the story put into the outline, somewhere which seems to make sense (for now).

You weave the main plot and the sub-plots, and all your character arcs together, so that there are not whole chunks of beats focusing on one person or plot, and all the arcs are broken up and spread out.

There are some beats you know must come before others.  There are some beats that are essential scenes all by themselves (the character’s midpoint is also the Three or Four Act’s mid-point, too, for example).

This is the point where the multiple documents that you have opened, or have saved already, or the contents of the book’s notebook (OneNote, Evernote, etc) are amalgamated into one–usually humongous–document.

The Mechanics Of Amalgamating Your Source Documents

Here are some of the best time-saving keyboard hacks I have ever learned.

When in one of your “source” documents, hit CNTRL+A to highlight the entire document.  CNTRL+C copies everything.

Move over to your outline document.  At the very bottom of the document, beneath all the structural headings, put a short row of +++++++++ and format them as a Heading 1 level heading.  (If you do not understand how Styles work, find out.  A basic understanding of Styles will save you oodles of formatting time, writing time and more.  Styles are not exclusive to Microsoft Office, either.  The basic principals work across nearly every text-handling application available.)

This heading acts as a divider in the navigation window on the left (make sure the navigation pane is showing.  In the latest version of Word, the check box to display the pane is under View->Show).

Everything beneath the ++++ divider is yet to be added to the outline in the proper place.  The bottom of the document acts as a scratchpad, or a landing place for things that you are copying over.

Click CNTRL+V to paste the guts of the document you just copied below the divider.

You can now move each paragraph into the outline above the divider.

Cutting and pasting is a laborious and frustrating process. If this is the only way you know how to edit text, then you’re most likely one of those people who thinks that Word is a pain in the ass to use.

In this process, though, Microsoft Word shines. Here is why.

One of the best ways I have found for moving chunks of text around the document is to put the cursor anywhere inside the paragraph I want to move. Then I hold down the CNTRL and ALT keys together. With those keys held down, I use the up or down arrows to move that paragraph up or down the document. I just tap the up arrow or the down arrow, or hold the arrow key down to scroll through the document, until I reach the place where I want the paragraph to be moved to. Release the keys, and the paragraph settles into its new location.

TIP:  This paragraph-moving hack also works in OneNote, and Outlook.

You can use the same technique with multiple paragraph, but you must select the paragraphs first.

If you like using index cards, then start thinking of each paragraph as its own index card, as big or small as you need it to be. You move the paragraph around and rearrange the plot the same way you would move index cards.

Repeat this process until all your source documents have been copied over and plugged into the story.

You’re Not Quite Done Yet

It may seem like this is the end of your outlining process, however there are two critical steps yet to come, and some ways to streamline the process once you’ve got the hang of it.

I will go into those two critical steps and some more hacks, next week.


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