Word Vomit: Stage One of Outlining A Novel

So you’ve got your idea– this glistening, glowing idea wrapped in half visualized scenes and a general feeling of awesomeness.  Steampunk panda romances will revolutionize the market– you’re sure of it. You nod to yourself as you purchase stock in bamboo figurines.  

His soul cries out hot air balloon rides and top hats with gears glued to them.

Now what?

You could throw yourself into writing the novel, figure out if your protagonist is a male panda or a female sheep, possibly both, and delete entire sections with a steely gaze.  I’ve been assured such things tend to work out for the Pantser novelist the same way that movies tend to work out for Adam Sandler: kind of.  

When in doubt, make a movie no one remembers actually seeing.

I’m a Plotter, if you can’t tell, and I’ve found that there are three critical components to outlining your story: the word vomit, the scene list, and the character sheets.  Order isn’t necessarily important though I’ve found that everyone does better once they’ve done it my way first. Feel free to twist it in a way that pleases you once you think you understand where I’m going.

The Word Vomit

The word vomit is step one because it is in essence the first true story outline you’ll do, free of any structure than the order in which the ideas came to you.  The point of this exercise is to just get it all out; to tell that huffing OCD child within you to shut up for a minute because he’ll get to Lysol wipe and alphabetize it all later.

Open your word processor.  Stare at the blank page before you.  Feel it’s purity penetrate your soul.  Now….

This was the least disgusting picture I could find. You’re welcome, Internet.

Barf up every idea you have about the book, in roughly chronological order. Don’t even let yourself bunch things into paragraphs.

This can be hard for a lot of people, who get intimidated when I mention the word ‘vomit’.  If that particular bit of charming vernacular doesn’t speak to you, try to think of it like this: write your story like you’re a five year old who just saw a movie and won’t shut up about it (“–then she ran away and there were explosions.  Then she almost got eaten by a horse, but then bad guys came and she had to–”).  

Discontinue this particular piece of writing advice if you experience the need to punch a small child in the mouth.

See how that goes?  It’s just a list of events without more than a gasp or two of context– as it should be.  You’ll fill in the details later: this is just a loose framework.  The word ‘then’ should be all over this draft like phallic imagery on a middle schooler’s notebook because this is never going to be seen by another human being anyway.


So you’re feeling tired and dehydrated, staring at the blinking cursor by the words FIN.  Feel free to allow your OCD brain child peek it’s head out the door of your mind cage.  Now it is time to break up your ideas into paragraphs and rearrange the order of events in a way that can be understood by sane creatures.  Fill in details as they occur to you.

This next part is entirely optional, depending on how classic of a writer you consider yourself e as you sip your cheap wine cooler.  Sometimes I do this part, sometimes not, though I’ve found that the earlier you are in your development, the more it helps to understand your overall flow.  Break your story into acts I, II, and III.

For those of you who flunked high school English class:


  • Introduces main character
  • Introduces setting & time period
  • Introduces character’s initial state, problem, and stakes
  • Ends with the character attempting to deal with problem (to no avail, typically).


  • Character’s problems are bad and actively getting worse.
  • Contains any character arcs.
  • Ends at the climax.


  • Starts with the climax
  • Resolves any plot lines or arcs and answers questions.
  • Completes the story.

If you’re still not sure about where parts of your story fall into the three act structure: Google it.  This is the internet. Be resourceful.

Crammed It In.  And Now?

Onwards to the next step: scene list!

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