How to Pre-plan and Outline (Even if You’re a Pantser)

How to Pre-plan and Outline (Even if You’re a Pantser)
January 24, 2017 No Comments » For Authors, Writing Advice J.K. Allen

As the New Year begins, so do new writing projects. Whether you’ve finally decided to pen that story that’s been floating around your head all year, or you just got a burst of inspiration, you may be confused with how to get started. So let’s look at planning for your novel and outlining to get started.

Before you begin outlining, there are several steps you should go through developing your story concept and story world. This is where pre-planning comes in. This is where you develop your idea and story world. World building involves making cultures, peoples, and the setting and history of your story world and will be more extensively done for fantasy and sci-fi stories. Take your story concept and brainstorm in a special journal or notebook and develop your idea and plot.

geralt / Pixabay


  • The hook- the initial inciting incident that leads to the further plot. Make sure this will really hook the reader and keep them following along.
  • The first plot point- this is the first of your rising action that will occur somewhere between the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2 depending on which story structure you use. More on this later.
  • The midpoint- the second or third rising action that occurs at the dark moment of the second act.
  • The climax- the main event the entire book builds towards where the protagonist and antagonist meet head-on.
  • The resolution- how the story ends and is resolved.

Once you know these main events, you can move on to outlining based on story structures.

smartmomblogger / Pixabay

But first let’s develop our main characters. Last week I wrote on the six characters you can use in every story and you can learn about them here. First, you’ll develop your protagonist. Every main character should be well-rounded and fleshed out. You need to give them a story goal to work towards and a flaw to make them relatable. Your antagonist should be just as developed as your protagonist, so make sure you spend as much time on them as you do on your protagonist. Any other character that affects the plot and other characters and receives good page time are the rest of your main characters, so develop them and their backstories as well. Secondary characters need less development, but still need a goal and a flaw to drive them forward.

Some last big questions to ask before you begin outlining are:

  • What is my theme for this story?
  • How will my protagonist represent the theme in her journey?
  • What will be her inner growth?
  • How will other characters reflect the theme?
  • Who will have a positive character arc? Who will have a negative character arc?

To outline, I use index cards to build a scene list. I write one sentence explaining the main action of the scene (Tom meets Daisy). And one sentence explaining the conflict this causes (Jenny gets jealous and bullies Daisy). Then I write notes on my scene goals (developing relationship between character A and B, introducing plot device, etc.) I fill out cards for the major plot events then fill in cards for events in between until I have a fully developed plotline. To decide which plot points to hit, first decide on structure.


…and outline accordingly. I personally like the Fichtean Curve, which starts with the inciting incident and hits three crisis points before reaching the climax. Makes for a good page turner.

I prefer making a scene list (which I can shuffle around to find the perfect order) to writing a chapter outline because it’s not super structured while still giving me the direction I need to start writing. Any other notes I take in my journal or on blank index cards. This helps keep me organized.

And that is the pre-planning and outlining process. It’s not as complicated as it seems and can be adapted even for pantsers (those who fly by the seat of their pants). What’s your process look like? Share below and happy planning!

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J.K. Allen Julia Allen received her BA in Creative Writing and English from Michigan State University. She did her senior thesis in poetry under the tutelage of Diane Wakoski, but has been focused primarily on fiction as of late. Common writing themes that can be found in her work address identity and the type of strength that can be found in ordinary people. Julia is currently working on a Young Adult fantasy novel and can be found at local cafes in her hometown when writing, and painting, drawing, or reading when not.

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