How to outline your story without doing an outline.

I’m not an outliner. I have never been an outliner. I will never be an outliner.

I see the benefits of planning out a story, but my brain just doesn’t work that way, so I’ve come up with a way to outline without actually doing an outline. This gives you a varying amount of freedom when writing for those who just like to go with the flow, but still need some direction.

Most writers will agree that there are five major elements to a story. Those elements are characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. As far as I’m concerned, my main area of weakness is conflict. I don’t feel that I have enough conflict in my stories and that is what I’m working to improve. My lack of character conflict is mainly what I’m talking about. All my good guys seem to get along a little too well at times. This is the whole reason I’ve developed this new system.

My “outline” consists of the five main elements to a story and I basically describe what these elements will be before or during the first stages of writing.


For each main character, (Most of my stories have a female lead, a male lead and an antagonist.) I write out the following:

  1. Name
  2. Role in the story
  3. Physical description
  4. Personality traits
  5. Keywords/phrases they might use frequently
  6. Backstory
  7. Any other important notes

For my secondary characters, I write out:

  1. Name
  2. Roles in the story
  3. Physical description
  4. Personality traits
  5. Keywords/phrases
  6. Other important notes.

I normally don’t give a ton of back story for my secondary characters unless it is important for the plot.


For each place that my characters will spend a good amount of time in, I write out the following:

  1. Location
  2. Description
  3. Senses (Sounds, Smells, Textures, Temperature, Air Quality, and sometimes Tastes.)

I also write out the overall mood of the story and keywords I can use to reinforce this mood.


I write out a paragraph or so about the main plot and several sub-plots. Sometimes I will add more subplots as I write or even take some out.


This is the big one (for me.) Since I’ve been struggling with introducing enough conflict, I decided to do some research on it. I quickly found that there are two kinds of conflict. There is external conflict and internal conflict. External conflict is something like an epidemic, a war, or a gang of thugs. These are for the most part beyond the control of the characters, but also something they must deal with. Internal conflicts (which is my weakness) are the values and morals of a character being put to the test. This would be like a character who is in love with a stripper, but is conflicted about that strippers’ line of work. Or a character who wants to be rich, but is trying to find out where to draw the line to get the amount of money they desire. Will they rob people? Will they kill for it? Those are the internal conflicts. So, this is what I ask myself for each of my main characters:

  1. What things do they want most in the world?
  2. What things do they actually need most in the world?
  3. Do these conflict?
  4. Do their wants conflict with the wants of other characters?
  5. Do their needs conflict with the needs/wants of other characters?

This helps to give me an idea of why my characters are doing what they are doing and lets me know when I need to make adjustments and find ways to introduce more conflict.


Finally, the easy part (for some.) Resolution is the ending of your story. You need to answer these questions:

  1. What will happen to the protagonist(s) in the end?
  2. What will happen to the antagonist(s) in the end?
  3. Is there room for more? (Could I do a sequel if I wanted to?)
  4. How will all the plots and conflicts be resolved?

And there you have it. An outline without an outline.

Side Note for Scrivener Users:

For those who use Scrivener, I find it very helpful to create a folder for each of the five story elements at the bottom of your story’s “Binder.” Then, create a text document for:

  1. Each main character, and one for all secondary characters combined. (Under “Characters”)
  2. All the locations combined, and one for the overall mood of the book. (Under “Setting”)
  3. The main plot, and another for all the sub-plots. (Under “Plot”)
  4. Each main character, detailing their conflicts and values. (Under “Conflict”)
  5. The protagonist resolutions, the antagonist resolutions, and the plot resolutions. (Under “Resolution”)

You can opt to have these folders left out when you compile.


Thanks for reading! I hope this helps!


4 thoughts on “How to outline your story without doing an outline.

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Kayla. I’m one of those writers who needs freedom, but also requires some structure. It took me a long time to figure that out. Prior to that realization I believed I was a bonafide pantser. Now I do a lot of what you outlined here regarding the characters and plotlines, but not those other key elements. Thanks for clicking on the lightbulb. 🙂

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