Planning Efficiently: How do I do it?



I have an idea for a story that I kinda wanna skip my meticulous planing for. However, it is quite a complex idea and I need to keep track of things (think: something along the lines of a super non-linear, multi-strand storyline), so I’d like some sort of foundation to at least rely on while I write. Also… I don’t really know how to plan without obsurd detail. I’m getting kind of sick of it.

What are some good questions to ask myself about my plot/characters that will give me enough information to write without getting too stuck along the way? Alternatively, what’s a good way to plan easily and efficiently, so I don’t get bogged down in the planning process?

(This is coming from someone who spends years planning without actually writing–your answers will be highly appreciated, trust me!)


I’m a huge plotter and know that elaborate stories can be tough. I’m writing a multi-season story with an ensemble cast and multiple storylines and this is the first time I’m winging most of the writing. It’s going well though, so I know it can be done.

1. Start with the basics: Beginning, Worst moment and how your character will get out of it (i.e: The Climax), and the Ending. It seems stupid-simple, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know those three basic elements to the story they want to write.

2. Then, do a high-level outline of your story and keep it super-brief. “The main character poisons the King at the banquet.” Don’t go into a lot of detail here unless you get a creative spark for how the scene plays out or need to capture some specific detail. There are tons of outlining methods, so if you tend to get sucked too far into pre-planning, stick with one of the more basic ones. I like Michael Hauge’s 6-Point Story Structure which, while designed for movies, can be used for novels as well and tends to produce tighter plots.

Here’s a video that reviews some of the major and most popular techniques:

3. Park all of the research you do along the way, inspirations, and brainstorming ideas somewhere where you can easily find what you need later. I use Scrivener and Scapple (mind-mapping software). But those have a cost, and there are free alternatives: Microsoft One Note, Evernote, Google Drive, Free Mind Mapping Software. Look around and you’ll find something you can work with.

4. And then start writing. Start with the scenes that inspire you most and the ones in the outline and then go from there.

Everyone is different, but I went from waaay over-planning to semi-winging a multi-season story with heavy world-building and I’m 1/3 of the way into Season 2, so “knock on wood” it keeps working and may work for you too. :slight_smile:


Don’t often hear about people who plan TOO MUCH.

I don’t envy your non-linear timeline. I personally find it tricky business to decide what scene goes where when not relying on a ‘this happens because this happens so they do this next’ linear timeline. Personally, i Just use a Google Sheets/Excel spreadsheet to outline a few basics for my books including the date the chapter takes place, four or so bullet points on what happens in the chapter, who is in the chapter, and word count. I’ve used other columns if necessary to track things like healing of injuries and who knows what at what point.

If it were me planning a non-linear story, I would probably write separate timelines for the different threads just to keep them individually clear for myself. The next thing I would do is decide on key points. I personally really use the midpoint as my anchor in plotting and for me, the midpoint is almost always the stage when something drastic happens that changes the character’s goals in a big way. And most importantly, I’m pretty opening to having to go back and change my outline to adjust for new ideas that crop up.

The struggle I’ve always had with non-linear storylines is creating the structure. It’s hard to decide where to place scenes for the biggest impact! I think the best start would be figuring out the scenes that HAVE to occur at a certain point and build from there. But try to limit yourself to four or so bullet points per scene. Maybe try to good old cue card method to move scenes, find some anchor points to hold a familiar story structure, and build around those.

It might be helpful to find a ‘gimmick’ (that’s not the word that is most appropriate, but my vocabulary is unforgiving at the moment). I’ve used a sort of ‘mirror’ method in a book where the second half of the book mirrored the first half in the sense that, for example, the main character goes to a party in the first half where he has an encounter that changes his plans. In the second half, he goes to a different party and chooses to have an encounter that solves some of the conflict that arose in that first party scene. The whole book is just mirrored scenes and it works really well and helps add structure to a really character driven novel.

Hopefully this wasn’t just rambley nonsense!


What I would do is write out the whole plot. Like what you want to happen throughout the book. But in really simple, non detailed terms. So you kind of get where the plot is going.


The point of an outline is to keep you on track and keep things consistent, while, at the same time, be flexible enough that you can change it if you feel differently about something as you write the story.

Here’s a list of links filled with outlining techniques:

Alderson, Martha. “How to Use a Plot Planner .” Jane Friedman. 26 Apr. 2016. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Blair, Robbie. “8 Ways to Outline a Novel .” Lit Reactor. 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Blumer, Adam. “How to Plot Your Novel with a Simple Spreadsheet .” Adam Blumer Books. 31 Jan. 2014. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Clark, Monica M. “How a Scene List Can Change Your Novel-Writing LIfe .” The Write Practice. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Clark, Monica M. “I’m Going to Start My First Draft!! But First, the Snowflake Method… ” Illegal Writing. 11 June 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Drake, Laura. “Organize Your Novel With Excel .” Writers in the Storm. 25 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Ingermanson, Randy. “The Snowflake Method For Designing a Novel .” Advanced Fiction Writing. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Lakin, C. S. “Why Outlining Your Scenes Will Help You Write a Great Novel .” Live Write Thrive. 25 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Meyer, Marissa. “Subplots, Character Arcs, and Color Coding: My Process for Major Revisions .” Marissa Meyer. 29 July 2013. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Murray, Jacqui. “Plotting a Story—with a Spreadsheet .” Word Dreams. 13 Oct. 2010. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Pattison, Darcy. “Shrunken Manuscript v. Spreadsheet Plotting .” Fiction Notes. 31 Oct. 2007. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.

Pattison, Darcy. “Spreadsheet Plotting .” Fiction Notes. 30 Oct. 2007. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Scott, Jeffrey. “How to Get a ‘God’s-Eye View’ of Your Story in Microsoft Excel .” Animation World Network. 21 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Strathy, Glen C. “How to Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps .” How to Write a Book Now. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Tod, M. K. “What Does Your Plot Look Like .” A Writer of History. 2 June. 2016. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.

Weiland, K. M. “7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story .” The Writers Digest. 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Wendigo, Chuck. “25 Things You Should Know About Outlining .” Terrible Minds. 2015. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.

Wendigo, Chuck. “25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story .” Terrible Minds. 2015. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

Zhang, Kat. “Outlining on Excel . . . (Yes, That’s Right, Excel) .” Publishing Crawl. 17 June 2015. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.

How to Write a Plot Outline .” Scribendi. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.


Oh, my goodness! Thank you for these resources. I bookmarked it :heart:


Thank you for your advice and encouragement! I’ll definitely make sure to do those three distinct things.


Not rambley at all! I do agree that it’s quite a hard task to do a non-linear storyline. Hopefully I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew… Thank you for your tips!


This is perfect! Thank you for compiling this great list, very much appreciated!


If I was writing this, I’d probably write a brief outline of each subplot separately, listing the events that occur in order.

Once that’s down, I’d arrange each scene in the order it would appear in the book (either on a word-doc or on index cards, so it’s easy to rearrange). That way I’d know how everything happens independent of other story lines, but can also see how they all fit together.

As for questions I’d keep in mind…

What is the main thing from each character’s backstory that shapes their actions? (e.g. main character had a murdered wife, and they’re carrying and dealing with this loss throughout the story).
What is each character’s main goal? And do these goals change at any point in the story?

I’d also ask myself what the ending is. Once the ending is solid, it’s a lot harder to get lost, even if you don’t have a detailed plan. You can keep the ending in mind while you write, knowing that each event will be leading up to that ending.


Thanks for this! I’ll definitely do what you suggested, and answer your questions for myself.


i don’t think i’ll ever get tired of promoting the snowflake method

no but seriously, it’s the most efficient thing i’ve ever seen.


I shove all of my important details and planning into because it does all the hard work for you. It really helps me organise my thoughts


This looks like such a cool website! I’m going to have to check it out.


Yes!!! I’ve used this method once before, and it really did help flesh the story out in such a short time frame. I totally forgot about it, thanks for reminding me!


so, i can’t guarantee that this method will work, as everyone is different and i haven’t finished my book yet, but i’m currently trying out a new method that i think is pretty helpful for me. i simply opened up a new document, and i started writing down the whole plot of the story in a short, condensed version. imagine you’re telling your friend a story, and write your plot like that. only include details that you feel you need to include in order to keep them in your head. the grammar can be terrible, you don’t have to worry about dialogue or actions, and it’s open-ended enough that, while you have less of a chance of getting stuck, you also have wiggle room to let your imagination take control.

idk, that’s what’s working for me, maybe it’ll be useful to you ^^

edit: also, this doesn’t have to be set in stone. just fly by the seat of your pants, and it’s obviously something you can change around in order to be consistent.