I’m writing my  next DCI Matt Proctor crime novel,(a series) and I’d like to share my approach to “PLANNING A NOVEL”.

How do you put your novel together? Please let me know.

I’ll set out my approach in separate blogs – this is the SECOND. There are SEVEN in all.  (If you missed the first see previous posts).

From the outset let me say I’m more a ‘planner’ than a ‘pantser’- but please, you ‘pantsers’ out there, don’t tune out – we can all learn from each other. (I wonder if there really are out-and-out ‘pantsers’ or ‘planners’ – or are most of us somewhere in between on a spectrum?).

PLANNERS                  IN-BETWEENERS                  PANTSERS

I may be a planner but one who leaves space for the story to breathe, to bend and flex, change direction at times. Yet the CORE story line remains.

I PLAN because I think it makes me write my book faster and better. I’ll tell you why later.


(A recap – if you read my first post on CORE skip down to OUTLINE – if you missed the first post see previous posts).

I need to know my story plot(s) in detail, understand the motivations, secrets and fears of my main characters before I can progress to writing my first draft. From my outline, I develop scenes and flesh out characters. The process is very much iterative, synergistic. I hop from one to another; adding to my character profiles, summarising a scene in a brief heading, modifying and reordering the outline chronology using a ‘scene order’ grid, to get a visual overview of the book.



(By the way this is a pic of an Acer notebook 10.1″ screen – not an Imax image!)

A great tool for doing this is Microsoft OneNote. Some swear by Scrivener, Ywriter; another good tool is Hiveword. There are others. I think writers need to experiment to find out what suits them best. Two factors influencing my choice are a) the ability to write the book content within the planning tool, and b) to work offline sometimes – I may be on holiday and want an hour or so of ‘writing therapy’ but might not want to go on-line, or have available on-line access.

By giving me an overview and instant access to the components of my story on a single screen, I get control of the project and so I find the process of drilling down into the ‘core’ of my story easier, more efficient and fulfilling. Certainly much less frustrating than switching from one screen to another, hunting down folders and files, hopping back and forth from page to page on websites and between different websites.   ARRRGH…



  • In planning my novel I use seven COMPONENTS.  They are not written in a strict chronology – that’s important. They have synergy, they feed off each other. Maybe it’s like bringing up a family – you don’t focus all your energy on one child and when that job’s done, move on to the next. Oh, no, – you don’t bring kids up like that. You juggle, you compromise, negotiate, discipline, encourage, motivate, and so on. You spread your attention, your focus, your love. (OK, OK, we didn’t have seven children but you get the picture!). Now – please let me show you in specific terms how all this works (and for me it definitely does) in practice


  1. CORE – Who is the Main Character, what’s their goal, problem, obstacles, what are the stakes for failure? In 50 words; yes, I keep this to 50 words. Concentrates the mind!
  2. OUTLINE – Two pages max. Written in present tense, with a start, middle and end. Split into key scenes with short headings. Leave room for the story to evolve.
  3. MAIN PLOT – Spine of the story, the heart of the MC’s journey. Sub-plots add complexity and richness. The main plot (and sub-plots) summaries need only be a sentence or two.
  4. SCENES – Scenes are the building blocks of the novel. These are where the action is. As you write scenes you are writing your book.
  5. CHARACTERS – Absolutely critical. The reader must care about these people.
  6. SETTINGS – Give ‘colour’, atmosphere, they complement characterisation, add credibility and context whether real or fictional places.
  7. SYNOPSIS – Comes at the end because a synopsis is a ‘selling’ tool; your book summary. You write a synopsis when you’ve finished your book. (I include it as part of planning because you’ll need it for submissions).

In this second blog in the series, I’ll focus on my second COMPONENT in PLANNING A NOVEL, namely the OUTLINE of my story. 

 2 (of 7). OUTLINE – your roadmap.


I keep my outline to two pages, single spaced. Write your outline as if you were telling someone about your story.

Using present tense gives a sense of immediacy – places your story in the ‘here-and-now’. Keep referring back to your CORE to make sure you stay on track with the main storyline.

In crime novels/thrillers your story will feature a main character, antagonist(s), an ally(ies), possibly a love interest.

Remember what I said earlier about the iterative nature of my approach to novel planning –  as you write your outline, dip in and out of your character profiles, throw  in snatches of dialogue if that helps, focus on the key scenes. Hang on, you say – I didn’t mention character profiles before. Well, yes I did if you look at my seven components. I said the components aren’t written in a chronological sequence – no, it’s done in a messy, flitting back and forth manner. That is the way the creative mind works, relax those synapses.

I set up my seven components in separate sections, files, folders – whatever – at the outset and as I work on each, I’m switching between them continually. However, it is important to be clear what component is your primary goal at any one session. Don’t be a butterfly, more a bee gathering pollen but always aware where the hive is.

Next, break your outline into discrete scenes. No need to rewrite your outline here, just find the natural scenes in your outline, put in a paragraph break, then tag the paragraphs with a ‘to-do’ symbol. Now you are building up a scenes outline that you use as the basis for writing the fundamental building blocks of your novel – scenes.

Here’s the OUTLINE of my novel SARCOPHAGUS. (I’m only showing a short piece to give you the general idea – also I don’t want a spoiler – after all you may like to buy the book and read it!)


“SARCOPHAGUS is a political thriller set in Ukraine.

Ex-British army bomb disposal sapper GREG STEVENS (40 – born in Ukraine) gets a call from the past. His former army unit commander HAROLD BREWSTER, now UK defence minister wants to call in a favour; in Northern Ireland he saved Greg’s life. Now he wants to use Greg as a credible front to investigate a Ukrainian oligarch, BOGDAN KATCHENKO.  Katchenko is suspected of laundering EU/UK grants to fund fake diamonds production.

Brewster approaches Greg because he has a hold over him; also Greg’s industrial expertise gives him credibility. Weird thing is – Brewster wants Greg to give Katchenko the ‘all-clear’ – ‘UK security interests’. Greg, now CEO of Newton International is put under even more pressure from his chairman SIR OLIVER NEWTON who wants Greg to do Brewster’s bidding.  ‘Big defence contracts at stake’.

Greg resolves to do the spying job – not to repay his debt to Brewster; but to find the truth.

Greg’s father ANATOLY is dying and wants to see his Ukraine homeland a last time and be reconciled with his estranged brother PYOTR. Greg takes Anatoly and his daughter ELLEN to Kiev. He feels guilty about refusing Ellen anything; having been responsible for the death of her mother – his wife KAREN, in a car accident.

In Kiev, Greg meets NATASHA, a doctor related to Pyotr and they become lovers.

Greg crosses swords with Katchenko, a Mafiosi figure who runs the EU money scam (with Brewster as co-criminal).  He befriends TARAS PRAKHOV who is Katchenko’s chief scientist but who wants out of Ukraine. Greg offers to help and gets information on a memory stick about the fake diamond operation run by Katchenko.

He is mugged and his room searched by Ukrainian police, Katchenko makes his enmity of Greg clear.

Greg meets up with US journalist SEAN O’NEILL whom he knew from his Belfast army days. They team up – O’Neill is undercover US Homeland Security also trailing Katchenko, but investigating dirty nuke bomb making…”

Coming up NEXT. What’s the future gig?



© tombryson2015


3 thoughts on “PLANNING A NOVEL – STEP 2 – OUTLINE

  1. Hi Tom. I like your 7 components and agree they’re essential to planning. I would add one more – Structure. Having been reading and writing longer than I care to admit, it dawned on me just a couple of years ago that most books – especially genre books – have a similar structure that makes the reader want to read on. Researching this a little, I found that many other people had come to the same conclusion, notably John Truby in his book The Anatomy of Story, and Amy Deardon in The Story Template (in addition to those who have written primarily about cinema structure like Sid Field, Robert McKee and Blake Snyder). Writers in general, in my opinion, like to think that their work is original and is doing something that has never been done before … but stories that work best on listeners or readers usually have a structure that is more than Beginning, Middle, End, (Academic analysts have been on to this for a long time, for example Bruno Bettelheim and Vladimir Propp.) So I’m always sure to include structural elements like the Ordinary World (how the main character is currenly living), the Door (how s/he gets involved in another environment), a mid-point (where the character realises either that they’ve achieved a victory – but of the wrong sort; or, they’ve lost a battle and the antagonist isn’t who they thought it was, a Low Point (which speaks for itself) …; among other structural elements. It might seem confining, but actually it’s fun to make your story work in a structure that (hopefully) will entice the reader to continue reading, and to feel the Fear and Pity that Aristotle said was key to the best kind of story-telling experience.

    1. Keith,
      Thank you for your comment about the importance of structure. I agree with you and Christopher Vogler’s The Wtiter’s Journey covers the ‘mythic structure’ brilliantly, fleshing out and enhancing Joseph Campbell’s original thinking. I’m familiar with Field, McKee and Snyder’s work – not Truby and Deardon whom you mention and I’ll certainly check them out.
      Why did I not include structure as a component? Well, in my model structure is implicit. I’ll bring this out more fully when I get to writing ‘Scenes’ and the ordering of scenes -referencing back to the Outline and Core – to demonstrate the hero’s journey and growth…bear with me please.
      Oh yes – let’s all feel the ‘Fear and Pity’. That’s writing.
      Many thanks,

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