How to Outline a Novel- The Headlight Method

How to Outline a Novel- The Headlight Method

This post is Part 1 in a series entitled Outlining v.s. Discovery Writing, in which we look at a variety of methods to outline a novel, whether you are a pantser or a plotter.

E.L. Doctrow, quoted on the process of writing said,

Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.

Using the logic above, what would that look like when you begin to plan or write your story? What would you need to know about your story at the very least to begin? (I am interested in hearing from you on this.)

Outline your novel

Minimal Story Criteria

  • Main character
  • Conflict (without conflict you do not have a story)

You could expand this out further to add extra detail if you want but for simplicity, we will stick with these two sets of criteria.

Let’s take Bobby, a young fictional character I just imagined, and run through the planning process of our story using our headlights to view the story. However, since we cannot just drop Bobby in a story without conflict, let’s throw some at him. What if there was a vicious attack dog guarding a dark secret in the yard next door? – I like it.

Start Planning

Using the small amount of information we have come up with, we could plan the first few chapters using some brainstorming exercises (what-if game, mind mapping, and more) to start sketching out a rough outline. Remember we are not trying to plan the whole story, rather, just enough to begin writing. If you do not know what the ending will look like that’s fine; write what you can see now with your headlights.


  • Chapter 1- Bobby’s family moves into a new house and he sees dog chained in the backyard.
  • Chapter 2- One night Bobby witnesses the dog digging and sees what looks like a human bone in the dirt.
  • Chapter 3- Bobby’s family goes next door to have dinner with the new neighbors. Bobby sees the dog with dirt caked on his paws and what looks like blood on his teeth.

After you have brainstormed out the first few chapters and you feel comfortable with the beginning, you can start to write knowing you are heading for the furthest you could see with your headlights (in our case Bobby goes with his parents next door).

The story’s form is still loose in our head but there is enough structure that our mind should start to make decisions and connections to our set points. Ideas will spring up and detours may happen but the structure can hold your course.

When you reach the end of whatever chapter you last sketched out, take a break and look back at what you wrote. Do you like it? Are there characters that showed up that you did not expect and need further explaining? Yet, the question that is most important after reaching your stopping point is, “and then what?”

Ok, and then what?”

From here you take any notes you made during your initial writing (i.e. new characters, setting changes, name changes) and plan the next few chapters as you see them.

More than likely, while you were writing the first few chapters, your brain was already playing ahead and informed you of where the story wanted to go. Just remain aware of where your mind is going and take notes. That does not mean you have to use everything in your notes but having it written down will help with getting it out of your head so you can focus on writing.

Once you come up with enough meat for the next few chapters, sit down and start the process again. Then rinse and repeat until you have finished your novel.

“But wait!”, I hear people say, “You need more details than just a main character and some conflict to structure a story” – and my answer to that would be “maybe”.

In the craft of writing there are no rules, well maybe just one, and that is… there are no rules. You can start with nothing and begin writing or have the whole novel mapped out before you put pen to paper, your choice.

If you feel like you need more details just add them. We could have started our list with more details than just a main character and some conflict.

In James Scott Bell’s brilliant book Plot & Structure, which also has a section on using the headlight system, says you should start planning your novel using the LOCK system.


  • Lead (Main character)
  • Objective (His purpose in the story)
  • Conflict (What is trying to stop him from achieving his goal)
  • Knockout Punch (How it will end)

With those four details you should have enough information set in your mind that you could plan as much, or as little, you need to feel comfortable.

The idea behind the headlight system is that you do not have to know everything to start writing. You only need to know enough to begin and then keep going.

Therefore, if we are going to take the LOCK system and apply it to our example story it could look like this…

  • Lead (Bobby)
  • Objective (Find out what is buried in his neighbors yard)
  • Conflict (Vicious attack dog is guarding yard)
  • Knockout Punch (Bobby distracts the dog, traps him, finds that his neighbors have been burying bodies in their backyard, calls the police, and saves the day!)

That is an exaggerated story example but you get the idea.

The headlight method of planning may be a slower approach to writing your novel, due to all the looking back before going forward, but when it comes to completing your novel what does it matter how you got there.

If you are interested in the headlight method of outlining or want to know more about the LOCK system, I highly recommend you pick up James Scott Bell’s book Plot & Structure.

You can also find Mr. Bell’s Blog here.

I’d LOVE to hear from you about any tips or experiences you may have in the realm of outlining a novel. Please take a moment and comment below.

Next Week: The Seven Point Story Structure (This will be a sub series of this Outlining series)

Photo courtesy of Kenny Louie

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Jason McColly

Jason is an aspiring fiction writer, freelance blogger, and lover of all things writing. When not spending time with his family, you can probably catch him reading something about the craft of writing.
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  1. I like the hero’s journey method of outlining at

    • The Hero’s journey is a good, tried-and-true, method to structure a story with. Have you ever used the 7 Point Story Structure before?

      Thanks for sharing.



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