I've just watched one part of Brandon Sanderson's lecture on writing, the section entitled Gardeners & Architects and I realised I'm a Gardener, almost exclusively. This often ends up with me writing very weak plot with no direction.

From the summary:

There are two main types of writers: “discovery writers” and “outliners”.

  • Discovery writers are kind of like gardeners, growing their story from some seed of an idea and not quite knowing where it will take them.
  • Outliners can be thought of as architects, mapping their story out from start to finish before they ever write a single word of prose.
  • Gardeners should watch out for “and then I guess it ends” type of endings.
  • Architects should watch out for “world builder’s disease”.

I'm used to writing in a way that I discover the work as I go. How can I practice writing like an architect, so that when I write properly I can use both aspects to my advantage? In particular, how can I learn how to outline before I start to write?

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    Some specificity might help. Do you need help in learning how to outline? how to follow an outline? What applicable skills are you lacking in? Is integrating the two where you have questions? Or do you just need prompts and exercises? Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 0:31
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    This's the one, I think: "Do you need help in learning how to outline?"
    – Mussri
    Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 1:30
  • That's a much more specific question that what's here, and one that's more likely to be answered. Will do another edit to make this clear; please revert or further edit my edits if need be. In the meantime, you may also want to delve into the planning tag here on Writers.SE; you may find some questions to be of interest. Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 5:42
  • @NeilFein I think you've got what I mean better than I did. Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 21:23

5 Answers 5


Considering the question: "How can I learn how to outline before I start to write?", I will give you the gist of the 'Architect' paradigm and how to go about it.

As an Architect, you start with the big picture and work out a storyline and three-act structure.

A storyline is important as it will plant the seed of your novel's plot. It may range from a line to a couple more. Note: it doesn't have to be perfect. It is for your own track.

As soon as this is done, you create a synopsis which is derived by expanding the storyline; branching it out into a paragraph and hence into a complete three act structure which is quiet famous (or the five act structure if you want):

Almost always, you must have a synopsis to sell your novel. A synopsis is a document roughly two pages long that describes your plot, and it’s an essential part of your book’s sales process. To get an agent, or to sell your book to a publisher, you need to write a query or a proposal. Either an agent or a publisher will want to see a synopsis. Therefore, knowing how to write a good synopsis is mandatory for every novelist. Here are the basics:

  • Write in third person.
  • Write in present tense.
  • Summarize your entire story in about two single-spaced pages. That gives you about 1,000 words.

Now you need to plan the three act structure of the Novel by expanding the synopsis into three major branches:

  • Expand the first sentence (the story setup) into a paragraph or two, describing the story backdrop.

  • Expand the second sentence (leading up to the first disaster) into about half a page.Use two or three paragraphs to tell how you’ll get to your crucial first disaster and the decision that defines your story question.

  • Expand the third sentence (leading up to the second disaster) into another half page. Again, use no more than three or four paragraphs to summarize the high points of the story. Don’t worry about glossing over details or ignoring some story threads. Cut to the bone.
  • Expand the fourth sentence (leading up to the third disaster) into yet another half page. Once again, use no more than three or four paragraphs. Be brutal in leaving out details. The publisher does not care about those cool subplots you cooked up; the publisher cares whether the main story works.
  • Expand the fifth sentence (the ending) into three paragraphs that tell how the ending works out.

Once you have the three act structure ready, the real engineering of the novel begins-


A scene list helps you keep track of your scenes. To develop a scene list, you write a short summary of each scene. Managing all those summaries is challenging,so you can use a Spreadsheet to give each cell it's respective scene. I was an outliner. I used Ms-Excel.

Now, each scene can be either of the two types:

  • Proactive: This type of scene includes a goal, a conflict, and a setback.
  • Reactive: This type of scene includes a reaction, a dilemma, and a decision.

A little extra description:

For Proactives:

  1. Goal: At the beginning of the scene, the POV character has some goal that he hopes to achieve by the end of the scene.
  2. Conflict: During the middle of the scene, the POV character tries repeatedly to achieve his goal, but he runs into obstacle after obstacle as the scene unfolds.
  3. Setback: At the end of the scene, the POV character hits a nasty setback. Normally, he fails to reach his goal and is now worse off than he was before. Occasionally, he achieves what he wanted, but something bad happens to nullify this minor victory.

For Reactives:

  1. Reaction: At the beginning of the reactive scene, the POV character is reeling from the setback in the previous scene. She spends some time reacting emotionally and finally gets control of her feelings.
  2. Dilemma: During the middle of the reactive scene, the POV character has to figure out what to do next. If her setback was significant enough, then she has no good options. She has a dilemma, and she must think hard to choose from the least-bad option.
  3. Decision: Eventually, the POV character makes a decision. That provides her with a goal for her next scene, which is normally a proactive scene.

A proactive scene starts a character out with a goal, hits him with loads of conflict, and then rocks him back with a setback. A reactive scene picks up immediately afterward, taking that character through an emotional reaction, then working him through an intellectual dilemma, and finally taking him to a decision — to pursue a new goal.

This completes the basics of the outliner's job. Once done, you will need to concentrate on the dialogues, and action and the description. Although Outlining is a hectic job, It has it's advantage. But now, I am a snowflaker. And i'm happy with this paradigm shift. All the best!


Read and write.


Innumerable guides and advice exist for outlining and plotting a story. Pick a few and read some! This will help you absorb fundamental concepts, common techniques, and typical pitfalls, so you're not wandering around completely blind.

Dip into some simple Google results. Spend a couple of bucks on an ebook or two. Stack Exchange isn't a great place for resource recommendations, but Ansen Dibell's Plot is a superb book which lights up different aspects of plot construction.

Reading is the easy part, though - you don't need to read everything, just enough that you feel you're not getting too much from new resources you read. What you read shouldn't freeze you up when you sit down to write - most advice is subjective and doesn't work for everybody; and it's absolutely fine to make mistakes and go against the advice you've read!


The only way to really gain experience is by practicing. Outlining is a particular skill you want to develop, so you want to exercise it!

I think you'll gain quite a lot by practicing outlining stories and novels - even if you don't go on to write the actual thing. That's a good exercise you can do many, many times, until you feel more comfortable with it. Of course, whenever you are able to write the story that goes with the outline, your experience will be much fuller - you'll be able to see how your outline maps to the actual writing experience, and that'll give you a sense of what parts of outlining work well for you.

Here are some specific outlining exercises you might enjoy:

  1. Write a query for a prospective novel/story. Take a look at resources like Query Shark in order to get a sense of what works well in queries and what doesn't. Often, you can write a really interesting query without actually having a book written... and a query gets you a long way towards an outline, since it describes the major touchpoints and goals of the story!
  2. James Van Pelt suggests the Seven-Sentence Story, which helps you write a basic story outline according to a simple template. This is a great exercise for your goals.

Check out the Snowflake Method

He forces you to start with a single sentence that sums up your entire novel. That's step 1 of 10. Then he has you expand it, over several of the steps, adding more detailed structure as you go. Step 2 is to expand the sentence to a paragraph, for instance. Your acts start showing themselves here. And so on. Interlaced with that is steps that develop the characters, etc.

The hardest part is squeezing your story down to that first sentence, but it's actually a really good exercise. Generally, if you can't do it, then your story is too vague in your mind. By the time you can, your story has much more depth to it. It's counter-intuitive, but it works.


I wish to recommend you two authors to concentrate on for the next 12 months.

  • Edgar Allen Poe.
  • Ernest Hemmingway.

Hemmingway can be considered the beginning of modern journalistic style. Descriptive to the point. Phrases and sentences of high value functionality.

Whereas, Poe builds his sentences into rhythms and occasional crescendos.

And then, use Standback's recommendation to summarise your stories into precis.


I've written stories using both "gardener" and "architect" models and find that it's much easier getting a longer piece to work, if I set down an outline at the beginning. I usually end up with 1-2 sentences per chapter (sometimes letting 1-2 sentences actually inform 2-3 chapters, once it gets to writing). I don't know that I intentionally trained to do it, but I suspect it's more a question of giving it a try.

I also do not let the outline stay firm, sometime you discover that your initial plan was wrong an end up revising the outline (in one case, the last three chapters I actually wrote happen to be the first three chapters of the book, because it needed not so much a bridge as a launch-pad). That happens and is nothing to be afraid of.

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