How to write a novel without an outline

Susan DeFCreative Writing, Reading, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

A lot of people come to me for help in structuring their novels. Which makes sense because, generally speaking, they either:

  • Studied creative writing in an academic setting and received no instruction whatsoever in big-picture story structure (honestly, I still cannot get my head around how this is a thing)


  • Read every book on structure they could find and wound up thoroughly confused, as all of these various approaches seem to contradict each other (or just really not apply in a clear way to their particular project)

I developed my own approach to story structure out of frustration, honestly.

Because I had done both of these things.

In my early days as a developmental editor, I’d also attempted to apply what I’d learned about story structure in books to the work of my clients, and found that it wasn’t just me—these structures just didn’t work for some projects.

So I set myself to the task of figuring out what DID work, for every kind of novel (with variations by genre), based on:

  • what I was actually seeing in published novels
  • the emerging body of brain science associated with reading fiction, and
  • the best of what I’d learned about storytelling from both school and books

All of which is to say, I love structure. 

I live and breathe structure. 

I sometimes spend time helping my clients sort out their story structures in my dreams—that’s how geeky I am about helping people tell compelling stories, so they can really connect with their readers (and have a real hope of getting traditionally published).

I help people develop kick-ass, super well-thought-out story structures, in many cases, by helping them develop kick-ass, super well-thought-out outlines. 

But here’s where I have a confession to make: I have never actually myself written a first draft based on an outline.

Not once.

When I go in on a first draft, I have notes on characters, on through lines, themes, and what I THINK will happen…

…but a lot of that tends to go out the window as I actually write the thing. (Maybe you can relate?)

Which means that the point where I start to outline a novel is when I already have a first draft of the story.

That’s what I’m doing now, with a new novel project based on a way-too-long short story that didn’t make it into my collection (which is currently out on submission—wish me luck!). 

First, I created an outline of the story as it stands–what it is. Then, over the past few months, I’ve been digging deeply into what this story could be in revision, by interrogating it on some critical levels:

  • What the characters do and why they do it (their goals and motivations)
  • What the sequence of events in the story is, how that works to create a sense of pacing, and what the clues and twists are (the plot)
  • Who the characters are on a deeper level and how the story pushes them to grow and learn (their character arcs)
  • What the essential backstory is on all of that (what the reader needs to know about the characters and the world of the story from the past, from before the story starts)

And finally,

  • How all that fits together into an outline—one with a page-turning plot AND complex character development

That’s all the sort of thing I teach in my DIY course on story structure, Anatomy of the Novel, and it’s what I work with my one-on-one clients on via Outline Coaching.

But I think sometimes writers think they have to either be at the very beginning of a new project in order to take this course, or to work with me in this way…

…when the truth is, one of the very best and most useful times to nail down your story’s structure is when you’re headed into a second or third draft.

Rest assured: No one knows better than me that sometimes you just have to write the story to figure out what the story is.

But once you have a draft, developing a solid, marketable structure for your novel can actually be pretty fun. Because that’s the point where you can really dig in to how the whole thing fits together, on all those tricky levels that make a story great…

…and in so doing, avoid winding up in an endless spiral of revisions.

Interested in Anatomy of the Novel? You’ll find the link to this DIY course here:

Interested in working with me on Outline Coaching? I have one spot available in May and one in June. To find out if we might be a fit for your project, feel free to fill out my New Client Questionnaire.

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