Outlining nerdiness

by Claire Rousseau

I must confess, I’m a complete outlining nerd.

I scheme, plot, sketch and play around with my ideas pre-November, stopping just short of the ‘No prose before November’ rule. When I tried discovery writing (Nano ’09 and ’10), I found myself wandering aimlessly from November 5th onwards. Though I enjoyed these Nanos, I know that’s not what works best for me.

That’s not to say discovery writing isn’t a good way to go (in fact it might be the best way to go for you), but simply that there are about as many ways to get ready for Nano as there are Wrimos.

So if you’d like to do some plotting now, here are some resources and techniques I find useful:

Basic structure

In order to keep up with the pace of month-long noveling, I like to have a structure in place before I start. Not necessarily something extremely detailed, but a road map I can turn to when I don’t know what my characters should do next.

I swear by the first few steps of writer Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. The idea is to start with the most basic summary of your novel possible, then expand in stages (five sentences, then five paragraphs):

A reconnaissance squad travels across the galaxy to investigate an unresponsive colony.

Setup – A Federation of Planets reconnaissance squad sets off on a mission to the other side of the galaxy.
Initial Problem – A freak storm badly damages the ship, forcing the Captain to take the mission off-course in search of affordable repairs.
Bigger problem – As soon as it resumes its course, the freshly-fixed ship is targeted from the inside by a saboteur, and from the outside by a massive, top-of-the-range rebel warship with a grudge.
Biggest problem – When the truth and horror of the Federation’s methods come out into the open, the crew turn onto one another, treason and murder afoot.
Resolution – Having gotten rid of the spy-turned-assassin, the crew land safely at the colony they were sent to investigate and part ways, escaping the Federation’s dictatorship.

A word of warning though, I never go past step four as the later steps are way too detailed even for me (it makes for an interesting read, but I would certainly not recommend it for Nano).

Arcs, arcs, arcs

I use the Seven-Point Structure, popularised by YA-author and podcaster Dan Wells to situate character arcs and subplots in relation to the main plot. My favourite way to do this is in a table where I can check things at a glance:

Structure Main storyline Comms Officer
Initial situation
Crew leaves home planet Works for Federation, has memory loss
Plot turn 1
Call to adventure
Mission is taken off-course Hears foreign language she can understand
Pinch 1
Added pressure
Discovery of broken component >Realises she is being watched by Federation
From reaction to action
Attacked by rebel warship Hears reports of Federation modifying memories
Pinch 2
Take stand alone
Betrayed by one of their own Gets evidence of what the Federation did
Plot turn 2
Power is in you 
Get rid of the saboteur Decides to trust rebel captain
End situation
Crew arrives at destination planet Breaks conditioning, recovers true identity

Have a listen to Episode 7.41 of Writing Excuses for a five-minutes explanation of the system, or if (like me) you’re a dork for in-depth structural analysis, check out Wells’ 5-part YouTube series on the subject.

Filling in the gaps

Once I’ve got a continuous thread to cling to, I start making some emergency bucket lists. Brainstorming for these is pretty simple: I set a timer for 10 minutes and jot down as many ideas as possible without pausing. A lot of what comes out never gets used, but the coolest ideas make it in my notebook.

Around week two, when I have absolutely no idea what should happen next, I’ll use these as custom prompts. For instance, here are some of the dangers I can incorporate if I need a space variant of the ‘Just have something blow up’ strategy:


  • Space pirates, smuggles, slavers
  • Ship boarded by rebels
  • Solar storm, meteor showers
  • Lose lights, power, access to controls
  • Break vital piece of equipment

If you’re of the insane Plot-A-Lot kind, share your Nano outlining tips and tricks below!

Claire is a co-ML for London, has been Nanoing since 2008 and blogs about writing, reading and assorted geekery over at www.clairerousseau.com.


  1. technothriller Ben
    Oct 29, 2012

    I am a devotee of Robert McKee’s ‘Story’. Start with the overall story arc, break down into Acts, then keep breaking down until you have a scene-by-scene plan.

    This approach means that the planning takes a good chunk of time – as you end up with about one word of plan for every ten words of novel – but writing is easy as it’s all there. Best coupled with planning & writing software like Scrivener.

    • Claire / Asphodele
      Oct 29, 2012

      I don’t think I know anyone who plans as much as you do – I’m quite impressed. If you haven’t yet, you should definitely read the full Snowflake article linked above, seems like it’d be right up your alley.

      I find it intriguing but I’m not sure I’d have the steam to keep going after planning out this thoroughly. I like to know where each scene should start and end, but then ‘pants’ the scene itself.

      • technothriller Ben
        Oct 30, 2012

        There seem to be a whole bunch of methods that essentially amount to the same thing: start with your beginning, middle and end, then flesh out each, then break down into ever-increasing detail.

        I’ve written two novels. The first one, I had a beginning, middle and end, and one-and-a-half characters, then I started writing. It wasn’t very good, and every agent on the planet told me never to darken their doorstep again.

        The second one I planned down to a scene-by-scene level. I think it’s good, I sent it to five agents and one of them took it on.

        So I think I know which approach works for me!

  2. Kevin Hiatt
    Oct 29, 2012

    I followed you here from Writing Excuses, and just have to tell you that I am the EXACT SAME when it comes to how I plot/outline a story. Both the Snowflake and Dan Wells inspired 7-point system. I used to think I was excessive in my planning and that I should try to be more of a pantser, ala Stephen King in his ‘On Writing’, but seeing you makes me think maybe I’m not such an oddball.. just different. :)

    How fascinating that there’s someone else out there who fell into the same routine.

    Thanks for your post!

    • Matt / Omega1989
      Oct 29, 2012

      I do not know how I’ve not heard of the 7 point structure before, but, wow, does it look excellent. I just watched the youtube series and it’s got to be one of the most succinct and informative things I’ve seen in quite some time. Thanks for posting thing, incredibly helpful.

  3. Jon
    Oct 29, 2012

    I think I favour a half-way approach; discovery writing is too far for me, but if I know too much about what happens, I can get bored of the story before I’m done with it. I have to be careful to leave enough empty space in the story for some exploration and random creativity, and avoid over-planning.

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