When it comes to plotting, most writers will usually say they are predominantly either Outliners (Plotters) or Pantsers. Whichever camp you fall into, these 5 steps will help you create a roadmap for your story.

Outliners (Plotters) vs. Pantsers

The truth is, most writers fall somewhere in between outlining and pantsing. We may lean heavily one way or another, but outliners have some Aha! moments during the writing process, coming up with things they hadn’t planned; conversely, pantsers usually start with a roadmap of some sort. That equates to at least a bit of a plan. That plan might be sketchy and brief, but usually it includes some basic character and plot information.

When I think of outlining in the traditional sense, my brain freezes. Coming up with plot points before I’ve written is a sure way to send me to the pantry for some chocolate therapy. On the other hand, if I sit down to write and I know nothing about what I’m writing about, I’m equally stuck.

Hershey Kisses time!

Here’s the thing. Outlining can mean something different to different people. One person may view it as a complete summary of a story, scene by scene. Someone else may see it as an overview that hits only the main points.

What Outlining is NOT

Before we dig further into how to use “outlining” to plan your story, first let’s talk about what outlining is not

It is not the traditional outline we all learned when we were in school:






Using this format is perfect for planning an essay. You come up with your thesis, the main points, sub-topics, support and evidence of each point, and your conclusion. 

The is what comes to mind for a lot of people when they hear the word ‘outline’. If that’s you, abolish that notion once and for all!

Outlining is Really Story Planning

In reality, I don’t teach outlining. I teach story PLANNING. The reason I call it planning instead of outlining is to help get past the mental block many of us have when we hear that word.

In the self-paced course, Ready, Set, WRITE!, one entire module is about story structure, which is another way to look at outlining. If you think about your story in terms of a three-act structure, and then identify the beginning, a few turning points, and the end, that is a form of outlining. You’re planning the three acts of your story.

If you use The Hero’s Journey, as I do, developing the hero’s steps is a form of outlining. You’re planning the hero’s journey from the ordinary world, into new world, and back to the ordinary world.

Mapping your novel in 20 steps (part of the course) or completing a skeleton outline (also part of the course) are two more ways to outline…or plan…your novel.

Maybe you like Blake Snyder’s (Save the Cat) 15 Beats.

Maybe you like the Snowflake method.

Every writer has their own planning process. Whatever that process is, it is a form of outlining, and it is yours. The bottom line is that you have to figure out what works for you.


Another truth about outlining (or planning) is that you don’t have all the answers immediately and up front. Planning takes time. It takes thinking. It takes processing. 

I like to call the process of discovery Brainwriting. Your hands and fingers don’t control what you write; your brain does. It is the machine that tells every other part of your body what to do and how to do it. But your brain and hand(s) work symbiotically. When you are brainwriting about  you story ideas, you are actually discovering details. It is a discovery process.

As you actually write your story summary, an overview, or the story itself, new ideas inevitably emerge. These are my Aha! moments. They are story elements I didn’t plan ahead of time. They are the result of brainwriting.

Think About It

Rarely do writers write a detailed scene or a turning point or a reversal without first knowing the core parts of the story. How could Harry Potter have known how to put the three-headed dog, Fluffy, to sleep if he didn’t know it was there or what it was guarding or why he, Ron, and Hermione needed to get into the Underground Chamber? The odds are pretty good that JK Rowling knew that information and how it fit in the scope of the book before writing that scene. 

A Roadmap

I (and Daryl Wood Gerber, as you will see when you watch my Craft Chat with her) use the metaphor of an outline being like a roadmap. Say you are going from California to New York. There are myriad ways to get there. Knowing where you are starting (Los Angeles) is akin to knowing the beginning of your story. Who is the hero? What are they after?

Knowing where you’re going (New York) is like knowing how your story ends. The murderer is caught and justice is served. Harry Potter must face Professor Quirrell and Voldemort in a fight for the Sorcerer’s Stone. Maverick joins the team and successfully completes the mission. The ring is thrown over Mount Doom (Lord of the Rings) during a fight between Gollum and Frodo.

I can guarantee that the stories The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and all the Harry Potter books did not spring whole from JK Rowling’s and JRR Tolkien’s heads, like Athena from Zeus. All the obstacles Maverick faces along the way in both of the Top Gun movies did not appear, complete, to the screenwriter. 

Plotting…outlining…pantsing…whatever you call it, it takes time. 

It takes brainwriting.

Writers who outline (plan) in detail take more time on the front end thinking and creating and plotting. 

Pansters come up with those same story elements, but it happens as they write. Their brains kick into gear and fill in the blanks. 

Whether You Consider Yourself an Outliner or a Pantser, a Roadmap Helps

Whatever type of story planner you are, there are a few things you can do to help you with the foundation of your story. This is the general roadmap—something you can begin, then fill in as you write (pansters), or develop, in detail, before you start writing (outliners).

Either way, you are brainwriting your way through your story.

5 Steps to Creating a Roadmap

#1: Think about your story. Identify its genre.

This is important because you have to know what kind of book you want to write. My advice is to write the type of book you like to read.

#2: Identify the universal theme(s) in your story.

This is important because it helps frame the type of story you ultimately write. It also helps readers connect to a story. A sci-fi book can have a dominant theme of survival. So can a romance. And a suspense. And a western. The plots and story elements may be different, but survival is survival; auniversal theme is a universal theme. It is something we can all relate to. 

#3: Develop the main characters in your story.

This is important because these folks carry your story. They must be interesting. At least one should be relatable to readers. Having a basic understanding of who your characters are and what their goals are will impact how your plot will unfold. The more you know up front about them, the better.

Start by discovering the villain and the hero. Do some brainwriting to begin to flesh them out. They will continue to evolve as you write, becoming more and more real. Because of this continued development, I usually end up going back to the beginning to flesh out the characters and to embed more of their personality (goals, conflicts, traits, warts…) into them. 

As you develop your main characters, think about your their goals. What do they want? Why do they want it? What happens if they succeed? What happens if they don’t?

The protagonist is the hero on a journey. They will have growth. Think about who they are at the beginning of the story and who they will be by the end (what changes they will undergo).

Next, do you know other characters in your story? Who are they? What is their relationship to the hero and/or the villain (protagonist and antagonist)? More will likely be added to your cast of characters as you write (brainwriting!). The goal right now is to identify what you currently know. 

#4: What is your story’s main conflict. 

What does your protagonist want? What does the antagonist want? 

This is important because conflict propels a story forward. The protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals should be in direct opposition of one another. 

This means you need to look deeply at your antagonist. They drive the conflict of the story. Everything your hero does is in response to the antagonist’s efforts. The conflict starts with the villain. Their presence/actions prevent the protagonist from getting what they want. The antagonist thwarts the hero by throwing (literal, metaphorical, implied…) obstacles in the protagonist’s way. So, just as you did for the hero, think about what the villain wants, and why.

#5: Think about your plot. What do you know at this point? 

If it’s a mystery, do you know the crime? 

If it’s women’s fiction, do you know where the story takes place and under what circumstances? What is the internal conflict the heroine faces?

If it’s a Sci-Fi, are their aliens, a new world, a space ship, or something else? 

As you think of about the elements of your plot, write down anything you know at this point. Do you have any scenes in mind already? Additional conflicts or turning points the hero will face? Any other themes the story will touch on? 

One thing to remember: Brainwriting/planning/outlining now does not mean your are married to it. Writing is a fluid process. The details of your story can, and most likely will evolve. Planning is the first step. It gives you the foundational elements you need to get started. It gives you a roadmap: a place to begin and a place to end. 

Wrapping Up

All writers plan to varying degrees. 

Outliners are front-loaders. They plot the details of their story before starting. If you are and outliner, these five steps will get you started; from there, it is easy to continue to create scenes and sequels, flesh out plot points, identify holes, then fill them in. Get as detailed as you want!

Pantsers rely more on brainwriting during the actual writing process. Having a solid foundation, or a roadmap is still incredibly important. If you are a pantser, these five steps will guide you through identifying the key elements of your story. From there, it is easy to start writing and let those Aha! moments happen. Brainwriting will work its magic, filling in your plot along the way.

Click here to read about 6 Tips for Writing Killer Scenes.

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