3 Ways to Outline Your NaNo Novel by Sean Fesko

Hello everyone!

We are continuing with the Preptober theme on Writers’ Corner! Today our guest writer is Sean Fesko who will give us tips and hints on how to outline your NaNoWriMo novel. Sean writes short stories, novels, and even non-fiction. His latest short story, Let’s Be Legends, was published in February 2019.

With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, also referred to as NaNo) just around the corner, you may want to explore using novel outline strategies and how one can enhance your novel. By getting all the legwork done ahead of November 1st, you’ll be able to focus all of your creative energy on the manuscript itself rather than worrying about “what happens next.”

Why Use Novel Outlining Strategies

There are a number of reasons why utilizing novel outline strategies is helpful. For one, you have the opportunity to identify plot holes as you look over your outline—you may notice there are large sections of story between major scenes that will need to be filled, or perhaps you’ll find that your pacing is much too fast and what you think will be the midpoint of your novel is actually in the first quarter of what you’re planning on writing.

The writing strategy opposite outlining is called “pantsing.” This means writing by the “seat of your pants” and letting the story take you wherever it seems to go. This isn’t an inherently bad strategy, but it always pays to be prepared; an outline is the best way to give yourself some structure.

Woman typing on a laptop computer.
Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Let’s take a look at three novel outline strategies and how you can employ them as you prepare for NaNoWriMo. I’ll use the plot of my novel All Things Together for some tangible evidence.

Chapter Novel Outline Strategy

A chapter outline is the simplest way to plot through your story. The idea is to get a 30,000-foot view of the plot by figuring out what will happen in each chapter of your book. The number of chapters doesn’t matter here; you could plan on 10 long chapters or 30 shorter ones. You might choose this number based on the genre you’re writing.

The layout for a chapter outline strategy is similar to a book’s table of contents. If you give your chapters names, begin with what you think it will be called and then provide a short synopsis. Here’s an example:

  1. Chapter One: Paige and her father James spend an awkward day at his home in Chicago.
  2. Chapter Two: Paige returns to Boston.
  3. Chapter Three: Paige meets Savannah and Jesse at the House of Blues for his concert.
  4. Chapter Nineteen: James visits the graveyard and attends an AA meeting.

And so on and so forth until the end of the story.

Scene Novel Outline Strategy

The scene novel outline strategy is more in-depth. Rather than going chapter-by-chapter and writing out what will happen, you go scene-by-scene to provide yourself with more information.

This is a great way to see if your story is too top-heavy or bottom-heavy. Are you spending too much time building up to the inciting incident? Is the denouement an afterthought? A scene outline can help you determine this.

For All Things Together, I chose to use a scene outline for the second and third drafts. I chose this method because the first draft was so condensed (approximately 37,000 words) that I needed to find places where too much time passed or things didn’t flow nicely.

When the story was complete, the first 10 scenes looked something like this:

  1. Scene 1: Paige and James spend time in Chicago
  2. Scene 2: Paige flies home and meets up with her mother
  3. Scene 3: Getting ready for the concert
  4. Scene 4: The concert itself
  5. Scene 5: Afterparty and the crash
  6. Scene 6: Paige’s reaction
  7. Scene 7: James calls Paige and his AA sponsor
  8. Scene 8: Paige’s next day
  9. Scene 9: James arrives in Boston and plans the future with Paige
  10. Scene 10: The funeral

And so on.

This strategy lets you leapfrog around and place major plot points into their spots first, and then fill in subplots around those major ones. Try utilizing an Excel or Google Doc spreadsheet as you can easily cut and paste scenes around in cells. You’ll also be able to see where sections need to be filled in.

If you’re having trouble figuring out where the major points should be in a story, check out “The 15-Beat Method for Writers,” based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. While the book was written for screenwriters, the plotting information it contains easily translates to fiction writing. Pay special attention to the way Snyder breaks up the story into four quarters. These can serve as the anchor points to fill in around.

Sticky notes on a wall
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Paper Novel Outline Strategy

The paper novel outline strategy combines aspects of the previous two but is even more in-depth. In this strategy, you can choose to focus on chapters or scenes, but you can add additional details such as weather, character appearances, dialogue you have already thought up, etc.

The final product will look something like an outline you may have written for a high school or college research paper. Here’s an example from chapter one of All Things Together.

  1. Chapter 1 – Paige and James spend an awkward day in Chicago
    1. Weather: chilly and rainy, sunny
    2. Locations: El Train, James’ apartment, Navy Pier
    3. Characters: James and Paige (alternating viewpoints)
    4. Key points: James silent interaction with woman, Paige’s phone call
    5. Begin showing tension between Paige and James, Paige and mother
    6. Dialog: “I will as soon as you will.” (reference to Paige forgiving her father, spoken to her mother)

This is the most intense strategy, so don’t be alarmed if you feel overwhelmed. It may be something to save for a second draft—the important thing is to get the story written first. If this feels like a roadblock, choose one of the other options instead.


Plotting a NaNo novel is a big but important task, and using novel outline strategies is a good way to help get your idea into a tangible form before writing. Freeing up your mind from trying to remember everything that will happen allows your brain the chance to focus on actually writing the story rather than spinning in circles and accomplishing nothing.

Each novel outline strategy has its own pros and cons. Which one do you think is the most helpful for you?

About The Author

Sean Fesko

Sean Fesko is a writer by trade, working for the world’s official SAP publisher. When not in the office, he writes fiction and poetry, and photographs news events. You can find Sean on Twitter, Instagram and at www.thewritersean.com.

Are you a writer? Whether you are a published author or an aspiring writer, you are welcome to contribute to a feature on Writers’ Corner, whether it is an author interview or a guest post. Check out the details here!

Photo by Autumn Mott Rodeheaver on Unsplash

12 responses to “3 Ways to Outline Your NaNo Novel by Sean Fesko”

  1. I am mostly a pantser.
    If I plot, it’s a bit like the scene technique, but less specific. There is usually a handful of things that I want to happen and that is that. I feel like getting specific is detracting from the time I could be spending on writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely way more important to focus on the writing itself! If an outline distracts it’s better to not use one. I find myself thinking things through too much if it’s not laid out ahead of time so that’s why I play around with and recommend these three different techniques. Happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very informative!! Years ago, I started writing with no outline just going wherever the words took me but as I got older I started to outline my stories more and more. That made a load of difference later on so I always had an idea where the story was going and was less prone to writer’s block. So now I fall somewhere in between pantser and plotter. For NaNo this year I think I am going to try the scene novel outline strategy and lay out all the scenes I know I want to write and see where the gaps are that I need to fill in. That way I’m ready for November! 😀 Thank you for the post!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s really fascinating to see how different methods work for different writers. Jai Lynn, I was the opposite, where I started out believing I had to plan. Later, a friend got me into pantsing, which I initially didn’t believe in, but slowly came to enjoy. Yet, eventually, I got “stuck” and went back to a bit of plotting, so I was mostly a plantser. Some years later, I changed again, and became a pure pantser. I don’t get stuck anymore; however, sometimes my creative fuel will go down, and I would feel too fatigued to go on. In these cases, I could replenish my fuel by, e.g. reading other people’s books, engaging in my non-writing life (to take a break from writing), or by writing random scenes that may or may not end up in my story.

      These random scenes could be a glimpse into the (possible) future. They could be a mere fantasy scene that you know will never happen in the story, but you write it anyway for your own personal pleasure. They could also be a scene written from an unexpected POV, such as from the villain’s perspective. I find that these activities that free my mind, and break me out of “the frame”, really help to replenish my creative energy, and I can carry on with my pantsing until I finish the novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It really is fascinating!! I like the idea of writing random scenes that you mentioned. It keeps the writing fun when you need to take a break and who knows? You could discover something really great that may or may not make it into the story later! Or at least something that brings you immense joy haha! 😀

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I’ve been writing some random scenes for fun as well. I find that they are helpful (and fun to write) during the outlining stage since it helps me to get to know my characters (sometimes I don’t really get to know my characters until I start writing about them haha.) So far I don’t intend for these scenes to end up in the actual novel, but who knows? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Best of luck with your WIP, Jai! Hope the strategy helps you…would love to hear back in December if it made your NaNo easier!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another really helpful post (: I love this series that you’re putting together.


    1. Glad you found it helpful, Charlotte! Which strategy do you think makes the most sense for you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Probably the chapter novel one. Although for figuring out the world & setting I’d go more into the level of detail of the last one.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Sean Fesko wrote a great guest post about outlining several weeks ago. Be sure to check this out as well! My approach to outlining is a […]


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