Tools of the Trade – Outlines

Every artist has their tools. For a painter, it’s paintbrushes and canvas; for a musician, it’s their voice or an instrument; for a sculptor, it’s the clay and their fingers. Authors have a wide range of tools to choose from. Some of them send writers running for the hills while others are used without ever knowing how important a role they’re playing.

Today, we’re going to start taking a look at some of the different tools used by novelists of all types. These tools include:

  • An Outline
  • Paper
    • Wide-Ruled/College-Ruled/Unruled, Looseleaf, Parchment, Notebook, Legal Pad, Napkin
  • Writing Utensils
    • Pencil, Pen, Fountain Pen, Quill, Typewriter
  • Document Processor
    • Word, Notepad, Google Docs
  • Voice Recorder
  • Dictionary & Thesaurus
  • New Age Tools
    • Scrivener, Grammarly, Pronoun

Let’s kick things off with the big one…

An Outline

There are some writers out there that believe developing an outline is a waste of time because they see it as a rigid, immovable structure for the story. That’s a myth. In truth, an outline is more like a cookie recipe. The basic ingredients — flour, sugar, baking soda, ect — are there, but you can mix and match the fillings. Add chocolate pieces to make chocolate chip cookies. Or add peanut butter and oatmeal for vanishing oatmeal cookies.

Like recipes, outlines are guides that can be changed on the fly to fit all sorts of things.

It’s no secret that I outline my novels before ever writing them, and highly recommend it for those partaking in NaNoWriMo. But what you might not know is that there are a variety of ways to outline.

The Structure-Plus

Said to be the most traditional of the outlining formats, the Structure-Plus can contain very in-depth details and descriptions of the individual scenes. You might have used this type of outline before, in school as part of developing a research paper or essay.

This version always reminds me of a play because it’s broken up into three parts ( set up, reaction, and resolution) that get applied to each chapter.

Below is an example of a Structure-Plus outline layout.

WARNING: Contains The Sovereign Flame Spoilers!


Of course, this example doesn’t have nearly as many details of my REAL outline, but this is just to give you an idea on how to structure this type of outline. You can add as much detail as you want; dialogue, thoughts, actions, ect.

You’re welcome to download my Structure-Plus Worksheet to get you started on your own outline.







One of the drawbacks of using this type of outline is how time-consuming it can be to piece together. However, with all the details already planned out, it can severely reduce the time needed to write the novel itself.

The Signpost/Flashlight Outline

If you’re one of the writers that balks at the idea of outlining, this might be the one for you.

The Signpost or Flashlight Outline provides a gentle guide while leaving out the tiny details that most “pantsers” find too restricting for their writing style. This is just for setting the groundwork for what’s to happen, and leaves the meat of the story wide open for whatever specifics you come up with while in the drafting stage.

Below is an example of a Signpost Outline.

WARNING: More The Sovereign Flame Spoilers!

The park
CHARACTERS: Jinx, Omen, the villain
PLOT: Jinx’s and Omen’s meet is interrupted when an angel attacks without provocation. Omen is wounded in the fight. Jinx manages to escape into the Rift with Omen.

Fun Fact! Mark Twain used this style of outline for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Here’s the Signpost worksheet for you to download if you’d like to give it a try.

While it does allow for more creative discovery, the main drawback of this type of outlining is the high potential to hit “dead ends” when drafting.

The Notecard Technique

Like the Structure-Plus outline, you might have come across this technique when developing that research paper or speech for school. Whether you choose to use 3x5s or 4x6s is up to you, but you do want to make sure to note the important stuff such as setting, characters, and the plot. How much detail you want to put on the cards is up to you, but can range from very specific (like the Structure-Plus) to vague (like the Signpost).

The biggest advantage to the cards is that they’re easily rearranged to aid in story flow. Their greatest drawback, however, is that they don’t come with a digital backup. In other words, don’t lose them.

The Spiderweb

This is a complicated way to outline, but, I admit, does cover many angles that might not have been considered for the story before. You basically start with an idea from your novel, and branch off idea after idea, detail after detail until you have all the answers you need (oftentimes more than necessary).

Below is an example of a Spiderweb outline.

WARNING: Contains Spoilers! (Again)


The drawback to this one is that it is time-consuming to pinpoint all the little details. You don’t, however, have to draw all the circles like I did. I only did that to separate the details.

The Storyline

This is the technique I use. I basically combine the Signpost and Structure-Plus outlines to free write a detailed, play-by-play story. It’s basically the rough draft’s rough draft.

The following image is from the notebook that contains The Sovereign Flame. You can see the details of the Structure-Plus, but you don’t see the margins, which contains details like: chapter number, time and place, characters, and key events. But you’ve seen those details in the typed up excerpt from The Tainted Soul (farther below).

WARNING: Yup, Spoilers.


Complete with margin notes:


I hope these examples have given you a few ideas for structuring your next book. Don’t be afraid to mix and match and experiment to develop your own outline techniques.


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