Jan 16, 2014

Novel Writing Made Easy, Step One: Seat-of-the-Pants Outline

OK, here we go!

As I said in the last post, I'm not a huge planner, but I DO plan a bit at the beginning of novel-writing, for a few reasons:

1. It helps keep me focused once I do start writing. If I feel writer's block coming on, I can take a look at my S.O.P. outline and remind myself where I should be going next.

2. It breaks down the HUGE project of writing a novel into bite-sized (less intimidating) pieces.

3. I can feel accomplished when I fill in a few blanks on my outline.

I speak from experience: I wrote my first novel, Jump the Cracks, almost completely by the seat of my pants. If I'd had to write an outline, it would have looked like this:

Girl impulsively runs away with little boy she fears is abused.
Girl brings little boy home again.

That's it.

It was a painful experience. That novel took a REALLY long time to write, with lots and lots of rewriting and dead ends, and staring out the window wondering what comes next.

It all turned out OK. I learned a lot about writing from writing that book. Mostly, I learned that I never want to write a novel that way again.

Thus I give you the Seat of the Pants Outline.

I call it that because it's really very basic. Here's what it looks like, before I've started any actual writing:

This is an Excel spreadsheet. I could hand-write it, but Excel makes it easy to add new columns and rows as I go along. You could probably build a table in Word that does the same thing. But Excel will add up the word count column for you, which is nice.

I've made a few assumptions, namely:
A finished length of about 40,000 words, broken into approximately 27 chapters of approximately 1500 words each.

I know from having written my other novels that this is a comfortable length and format for me. And I really can't fully outline without knowing this number, or at least taking an educated stab, because I wouldn't know where the percentages would fall. If you've never written a novel before, it can be hard to predict how long your book will be. You might try choosing an average length, based on the age level and genre you want to write for. Nothing is etched in stone; you can expand or contract as you go along. But I think it helps to have someplace to start; to have some sort of roadmap, even if you end up taking detours.

A few words about the columns:

Chapter numbers

Pretty obvious, but you have to start somewhere. I feel so accomplished because ta-DA! I have officially started my book! As I start writing, it will show me at a glance how I’m progressing toward the story markers in the "Turning Points" column. (More on that below.)

Running Word Count

I keep track of the word count chapter by chapter, because:

a. I want to be somewhat consistent. I think consistent chapter lengths help the story’s rhythm.

b. It keeps me honest. My goal is an average of 1500 words per chapter, with a min/max of around 1000/2000 words. If a chapter is skewing short, I know I need to beef it up, or blend it into the next or previous chapter. If it’s skewing too long, I need to cut some fat, or break it into two chapters.

c. Another chance to feel accomplished, as the running total grows!

Chapter summaries

Here is where I’ll jot down the most crucial plot points of each chapter. Once they’re all filled in, it will be a sort of synopsis of the whole book. Right now, I don’t even know what to enter for Chapter 1. I have to actually, you know, start writing.

Turning Points/Story Markers

I use the percentages as pretty strict story markers: 1-15% means that the inciting incident (or story problem) had better be introduced quickly; somewhere in the first 6,000 words, or first 4 chapters. (15% of 40,000 = 6,000 and 6,000/1,500 = 4 chapters)  Ideally, it will happen in the first or second chapter. If it hasn't happened by chapter 4, I'll know I'm taking too long to set things up, OR my book might need to be longer after all. (Chances are it'll be the first thing, though.)

In the same way, the first turning point, where we move from Act 1 to Act 2, as the protagonist chooses to commit to a task or journey, needs to happen about 25-30% into the novel. (All these numbers can slide around a little, but ONLY a little.) That means I'd better have my protagonist launched on her adventure by around 12,000 words, or by chapter 8 or so.

(And when you think about it, 8 chapters is plenty of time to launch my protagonist on her adventure.)

By the way, these percentages are taken directly from Making a Good Script Great. I'm writing a novel and not a screenplay, but they are both vehicles for telling stories, and good story structure is good story structure. It works for me.


Anything else I want to remember that doesn’t fit in the other columns. For now, I’ve listed other terms for the turning points. They remind me what I’m aiming for in each section.

Additional columns

I might add another column for my timeline, or to list the characters and/or setting for each chapter, or whether each chapter ends on an emotional high or low note. Whatever helps me visualize what’s going on. Add and subtract as needed.

OK, enough procrastinating, I guess. Time to start writing. Wish me luck, and I’ll report back here with my progress, filling in the chapter chart as I go. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions or comments.


  1. I posted about this on my blog Thekidlitter.blogspot.com.

  2. Stacy, wow, I really need this right now. thanks. I'm wrestling with plotting out a middle grade, and having quantifiable benchmarks for word counts sounds like an approach that will help immensely. I've posted a link to this on the writers' rumpus FB page.

    (and hello to Marianne Mitchell; not many of us share the same name spelled the same way!)

    1. I'm glad you're finding it helpful, Marianne. It's really been a lifesaver for me! And thanks for sharing on FB.

  3. Wow! So helpful!
    Thanks Stacy,
    Nina Johnson

    1. I'm glad you found it helpful, Nina! Thanks for letting me know.

  4. This is a good number for a middle grade book, but I'm trying to do 80,000 words. I am past the half way point. I outline in my word processor. I do a few notes on each chapter and then I add the details as I go along, deleting the outline as I fill in the pages. Whatever works for each of us. But, I like a loose outline. Thanks. Cher'ley

    1. Cher'ley, you're so right! Theoretically, you could still use the above outline for an 80,000 word novel. As long as you have a rough target length, the outline will work. Good luck with your project!

  5. Stacy, I think you're writing this blog just for me. Thank you.