How to Create a Flexible Outline for Your Novel

Are you a writer who longs for an outline that doesn’t leave you feeling trapped, pinned down or creatively restrained? Then you’ll love this fun and flexible technique for plotting out your novel’s twists and turns.

Outlining is a tricky balancing act. Too much and it can feel like all the life has been sucked out of the story. Too little and you’re flailing in the dark, not a clue where your novel’s going (some writers thrive on that and, if you do, you rock).

Is there a way to create an outline that guides the plot without forcing it to conform? Yes there is, dear writer. It’s called the plot card method and I’m taking you through its six steps today.

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Step 1:

Gather Your Materials

We’re going back to the handwritten basics here. Grab a stack of index cards (slips of paper or Post-It Notes work just as well if you don’t have index cards on hand). These are your ‘plot cards’.

Got your materials ready? Great. On we go.

Step 2:

Create Your Plot Cards

Now we get down to business. Write down any (and I mean any) ideas for scenes you have in 1-2 sentences, one scene to a plot card. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how these scenes will fit together yet or where they’ll go in the story. Let your muse take charge and dump any scene ideas you have on the cards.

Done that? Time to familiarise yourself with this simple story structure.

Step 3:

Learn the Milestones

There are five major milestones I try to pin down in an outline before I do anything else:

  • The Hook
  • The First Plot Point
  • The Midpoint
  • The Third Plot Point
  • The Climax

Before I start using these terms willy-nilly, let’s define them. I use the system K.M. Weiland teaches in Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story* to plot out my stories, so it’s her definitions I’ll be using for each of these milestones.

The Hook

The Hook is what reels in your readers, the opening scene that piques their curiosity and asks a question. It happens right at the start of the story and, if it does its job right, it’ll keep your readers reading on to find out the answer.

The First Plot Point

This falls around the 25% mark and is the point in the story that changes everything. The characters react in a way that is irrevocable and leaves them unable to continue the way they had before. This is their personal turning point and, by the writing gods, it’s going to be exciting.

The Midpoint

This falls (surprise, surprise) at the middle of your story. Think of it as the point around which the whole story hangs, a centrepiece and pivotal moment in which the tides begin to turn. Your characters stop reacting and start acting.

The Third Plot Point

This falls around the 75% mark and is the moment that sets your protagonist racing along the path to the Climax. They hit their lowest point in the story and it’s from this bleak place that they must rise in order to reach the Climax.

The Climax

Pretty much all writers are familiar with what the Climax of the story is—the point that has readers on the edge of their seats as the protagonist comes to a life-changing epiphany. The Climax usually begins around the 90% mark and covers the final part of the story.

So now that you’re clear on what the five major milestones are, let’s start positioning those plot cards.

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Step 4:

Place Your Milestones

I recommend grabbing a clear patch of floor or a table to build your timeline on because, depending on how many plot cards you have, this thing can get long.

Where to begin? Here’s the order I position my plot cards in:

I almost always have an idea of my Hook and Climax scenes from the beginning so I start by putting the plot cards containing those milestones at opposite ends of my timeline. If you don’t know exactly what your Hook and Climax scenes are yet but have plot cards that describe scenes near those points, place those instead.

Next, if I know what scene I want at the Midpoint, I place that in the middle, between the Hook and Climax cards (make sure you leave plenty of space between your milestones). Again, if you don’t know exactly what will happen at the Midpoint, position plot cards that you know occur near that point.

Now it’s time to fill in the First and Third Plot Points. If I have plot cards that describe these scenes, I place them at the quarter and three-quarter marks of the timeline respectively.

Here’s what a compacted version of the timeline would look like. (And remember to leave plenty of space between those milestone plot cards!)

If you have enough plot cards to chart out the five major milestones, your timeline should be looking a lot more structured by now. If you don’t, don’t worry—as you’re filling in the rest of the timeline with your other plot cards, you’ll start to bridge the gaps between the scenes you already have planned.

Speaking of, it’s time to position the rest of your scenes.

Step 5:

Fill in the Gaps

A lot will happen between the Hook and the First Plot Point, between that and the Midpoint, and so on. Take your remaining plot cards and slot them into your timeline where they’d logically fall in the story.

For example, if your characters are in a café in Paris at the First Plot Point, then at a bazaar in Cairo at the Midpoint, you need scenes between that get them from one to the other. This is a great way to brainstorm scene ideas if you have any gaps between plot cards—what could happen between the plot cards you do have to get them from A to B?

What if you can’t work all your plot cards into the timeline? After the brainstorming you did in Step 2, you may have some scenes that just don’t fit in with the outline you’ve created. You have a couple of options here.

  1. Rework your story to fit those plot cards in. It may take some major rejigging of the plot to make this work, so I’d only suggest it if you feel those left-out scenes are very important to the story.
  2. Keep those cards on hand, but don’t include them in the story (yet). You may love these scenes, but they may not be right for this particular novel, at this particular point. As you write the story, you might find new ways to work the scenes into the plot, or it could be that the scenes are best saved for another story. Either way, keep those spare cards safe, just in case.

Step 6:

Move Forward

Once you’ve placed all the plot cards you can on the timeline, take a step back and admire your hard work. Congratulations. You’ve just created the outline for your novel. Write down a permanent copy of the order of your scenes, give yourself a pat on the back, and start writing that story!

But your plotting isn’t over just yet. Remember how I called this a flexible outlining technique? Its true power comes into play after you start writing. Inevitably, things will change as you explore your story through the words you write rather than the things you imagined happening—and that’s okay. Your plot cards have you covered.

If your outline ends up evolving as you write, grab your plot cards, lay them out in your timeline again and switch around the scenes that have moved, replace the scenes that have changed and remove the scenes that have disappeared. Rework your timeline, adding in new plot cards where necessary, then make a permanent copy of your new outline and continue writing. How’s that for flexibility?

Do you feel restricted by outlines? @Writerology has one flexible way to plot out your novel’s course.

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Got too many story ideas crowding your head? Turn those plot bunnies into something magical in Don’t Panic! What to Do When You Have Too Many Story Ideas.