Writers: How do you plan your stories?



Hello fellow writers!

I’m simply wondering how you plan the outline of your stories? Do you jot them down in a notepad? Microsoft word? Or do you collate them all in an Excel spreadsheet?


Personally, I’m still experimenting with stuff. I’ve tried step-by-step bulleted outlines, summaries written in notebooks, mind maps, etc. Currently what’s working for me:

  • One document with a story overview … basically, a short summary/description that hits all the major plot points
  • One document for each chapter that generally ranges from 2 sentences to 500 words — however much it takes to figure out that chapter’s beginning, outcome, and service to the plot/characters

It may not work for everybody, but that’s the method I’m really liking right now.


I outline in docs and in a folder. I like to outline major plot points first and a butin the character,General appearance mainly and as I write I’ll start chapter summaries to help me pace.


Basically, lately I’ve tried a general short version of the plot, then start plotting out the prologue/first two chapters in detail, then start making character sheets.

Two half-finished sheets and 1,000 words later, the planning is off the table and the story does what it wants


I’ve tried outlining, but I always stray from it. Any time I write it’s usually because I can’t get something, an idea or characters, out of my mind and they keep bothering me. It may sound pretentious, but the story and the characters really do just go wherever they want to go. I may have a general idea, and they decide otherwise. The only time I’ve gone off an outline is for a novelization, where naturally I had the source material available and just added my own little flourishes.


I use google docs and write down the main points that I need to hit throughout the book. I also write down all of the main characters/major characters in the book and write out what their role is. Since I write historical fiction I write down all my research in a notebook


Smaller details get put and organized into a Word Document. The majority of the story such as the main plot, just gets put into my head because often times, I plan the story in my head before I even figure out anything else.

There are times when I do plan it on the document, just so I get a clearer picture.

I mainly write down what happens, the basics of each character, and why things happen along with a couple other details.

I start off with the main idea. What is the story about? Who are the characters? What genre could it be in? Then I continue to flesh it out by adding in the subplots. What happens in the story? What are the conflicts? Why are these things happening?

And… That’s pretty much it. :joy:


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.


I outline my stories in Excel because it’s easier to make changes. Or rather, I jot things down on paper and then most of it makes it into the sheet. But I may change things a lot as I go as I get better ideas based on the in-between content that actually happens in chapters. But basically, I divide my outlines into acts and build from there.

With three acts, the second act is twice as big as acts 1 and 3, but it’s divided by the midpoint. When I’m outlining, I pick out a rough word count goal (usually 90k) and chapter 16-18 usually ends up being my midpoint and for me, that usually means something has happened that changes the protagonists mind about something entirely, so it changes were they book is heading. That’s the midpoint. In perfectly equal division, the beginning of act 2 begins around chapter 6-8 ish and that’s another significant event usually, something changes the game a bit and the protagonist reacts to it. The beginning of act three begins around 23-25 ish and marks a point when maybe things were starting to seem like they were going right for the protagonist until suddenly they are not and this moment should spur the protagonist toward the climax. The math totally depends on your word count goals and how long your chapters are, but giving me rough points in equal chunks helps me figure out how to fill in the blank spaces between.

(i have a writing book in the wattpad writer’s portal with images explaining the act structure in more detail but that’s the gist.)


ah that makes so much sense! i’ve been following the save the cat beat sheet and story engineering on Excel and i was a bit lost with the concept.
Thank you so much for the clarification! :grin:


I realize actually that most of my structure comes after the first draft. When I start editing, rewriting, and revising, that’s when I’ll move stuff around and make sure things are tight and taut.


No problem! Advice meant for screenwriting can sometimes get weird because a lot of films revolve around multiple story threads happening at once so some of the structure doesn’t adapt perfectly to novels, especially ones with a POV protagonist. Some of it adapts so well! I like to do 1-4 beats for a chapter for novel outlines.

I suppose the act structure isn’t that different from the good old inciting incident/rising action/climax et cetera stuff from English class, but it really helps me divide a book up into smaller chunks and planning doesn’t seem so intimidating when I only need 8 chapters between the beginning and the next act and such.


On a completely unrelated note I just wanted to tell you that I loved your story ‘Natalie’s Diary’. I read it not too long ago and was amazed :see_no_evil:


Ok, I never have a full plot. I take a general idea and go with he flow.


I put my plans/notes in a separate journal. It’s often just a general plot followed by brief sentences of what each chapter should contain.


Oh! You’re so sweet. I haven’t been spotted in the wild like this is so long <3 my heart, it swells.


I’m not sure if this counts as planning but I think of the last sentence of a chapter first before writing the whole chapter down in one go. I never rewrite any chapters because that’s the feel I want at that moment and it’s going to stay as it is. I tried briefly drafting out every chapters for one of my stories but I never get past the prologue until now.


I have two processes when I start stories. I purchased a nice little travel journal that I always keep with me. A lot of times, I’ll be inspired by everyday conversations I hear or from seemingly small interactions or objects that I see. I jot down the smaller components when an idea hits me (ie: genre(s), protaginist gender identity, what inspired me at the time, other things that escape me right now).

After that, I’ll go back and touch it up to see if it’s something I could potentially make a story out of. If so, I’ll work it on and off until I have the skeleton of the outline. Then, I transition over to Google Drive where I have everything organized in folders. I have one for a running list of my story ideas with very basic descriptions and then individual folders for the stories themselves. I maintain a sort of reference sheet with a breakdown of characters, locations, behaviors, etc that I reference and add to as I update.


I use the lessons from 20 master plots and 45 master characters!


I read how people plan their stories and now I am in a cold sweat. I wrote a couple dozen completed books in my life and I did never plan anything, planning sounds like a chore to me … I just let the story simmer and play as a movie day after day in my head, and when it’s ready I start writing it and don’t stop until the last word :thinking: