Skeleton drafts: A better way to outline novels - Authors A.I.

Steffanie Holmes
September 29, 2020


Skeleton drafting is the technique you can use to plot intricate, action-packed, emotionally charged books quickly – while enjoying every word you write. It’s the perfect technique for you if you consider yourself a pantser/gardener (you don’t like to outline and prefer to discover the story as you write), but heavy plotters may find it valuable, too.

You’ve probably never heard of this method, right? I talked about it last week with bestselling romance author Lucy Score on Authors A.I.’s First Draft Friday event, check it out above. We created a one-page flyer that condenses this blog post, you can download it at

Skeleton drafting works on the premise all writers use the same building blocks of plot and character to put together a story – it’s just the process that changes. Some writers like to do their plotting in hard copy before they start the book, while others – like me – do our plotting in our heads, often while we’re already writing our manuscript. This means we’re prone to wandering off in random directions and often experience writers block figuring out what happens next. 

Skeleton drafting enables you as a gardener to lay your hands on the tools and building materials of your novel more quickly, so you can stride boldly forward with your story without changing what you love about writing.

Step 1: Get psyched to start writing

This first step is about understanding what you’re trying to achieve so you don’t get sidetracked. 

You’re creating a draft of 10-20,000 words for a standard-length novel (70,000-90,000 words when finished). You’re going to do it fast, and you’re going to do it messy. You do not care if you leave sentences unfinished, if your characters don’t have names and your setting is completely non-existent. Your focus is laying out the bones of your scenes and chapters with key dialogue, emotional turning points, and action scenes. 

You will not go back to fix things (yet). Your motto is, “I’ll fix it in post-production.”

Step 2: Start with your foundation – character, hook, ending

You only need three things to start writing your skeleton draft: 

  1. A character. This is your protagonist. Now, your story might have several protagonists or POV characters. In the beginning, focus on one character who will be the person acting on your hook to bring about your ending.
skeleton drafting
Download the free Skeleton Drafting handout to improve your outlining.

Your skeleton draft is how you get to know your character, but you need to have some spark of them before you begin. You may have a certain archetype you want to write, or an idea for an interesting moral dilemma you want to explore, or just some unique traits/wounds you want to throw into the world of your hook.

As gardeners, we don’t “waste time” filling in character sheets or asking ourselves questions about this character yet. We learn about their eye color and their wounds and their vernacular and their didgeridoo skills as we write the book.

  1. A hook. This is the spark that interested you in the story idea in the first place – the detail that seemed interesting enough that you might want to spend months or years immersed in an imaginary world based upon it. The hook takes your idea and ensures it has enough meat to become a fully fleshed-out story.

When you’re outlining and writing, your hook is your “X marks the spot” – it keeps you on track and stops you from going completely off the map.

What does a hook need to work?

  • A character (see above).
  • A conflict.
  • A genre.

That’s a lot of work for a couple of sentences. But don’t worry. You can rock this! 

  1. An ending. This is the most nebulous of the three essential requirements. You do not need to know exactly how the book will end right now. Of course, you can’t know this – you haven’t written the book yet. You can’t slot the pieces together when you haven’t even taken the pieces out of the box. What you do need to know is how the book will resolve.

Is your book a mystery? If so, your resolution is that the mystery needs to be solved for the reader. Is your book a romance? If so, the reader needs a happily ever after. Is it an epic fantasy novel? Cool – then you know the bad guys need to be defeated. 

That’s it. Time to start writing!

Step 3: Let your character lead the way

Plots come from characters. You take a person who thinks a certain way because of all the events in their life that have led up to this moment, You thrust ‘em into a situation, and what they do next is entirely hinged on who they are

Start your skeleton draft by writing your beginning. You know what needs to happen at the beginning of your novel because you’ve defined your hook – the hook has to be revealed in the first 30 pages or so. Ideally in the first chapter. 

This is enough to start working on the opening scene – don’t waste any time worrying if this actually IS the opening scene. You can fix it in post-production. You’re skeleton-drafting so nothing is set in stone. Just get the reader to the hook and introduce your main character and throw them into the conflict. 

Based on what little I know about my character at this stage, I’m able to move to the next scene by simply asking myself, “what would they do next?” I let my heroine take the lead and as she reveals herself to me I learn more about how she grows and changes, and I build and build on those ideas in a flurry of imperfect words until I type THE END.

Step 4: Use set-pieces to build your plot

In skeleton-drafting, you’re relying on your character to lead you logically from one scene to the next. Along the way are little helpful scenes I like to call ‘set-pieces’ that are already effectively done for you (in your head). 

All you need to do is lead your characters to these scenes. Set-pieces are the shorthand you use as an author to power through your skeleton draft.

Set-pieces are the scenes readers expect in your story. Some set-pieces are based on your book’s genre and tropes. For example, a murder mystery book needs a scene where the heroine finds the dead body. It needs another scene where the heroine is threatened in some way, perhaps with a mysterious note.

Other set pieces come to you because of the Chekhov’s Gun principle – if you show the readers a gun on the wall in the first scene, by the end of the book that gun has to go off. As you plant your own Chekhov’s arsenal in your books, you’ll have to tie up those story threads later on in their own set-pieces.

And finally, some scenes will be obvious based on your character and her emotional wound. If your character secretly doesn’t believe she deserves to be loved because her parents abandoned her, then you’ll immediately realize there are several key set-pieces you need to incorporate so readers understand this wound. She needs to push away someone who cares about her. She needs to tell a lie to herself about how she ‘doesn’t really need anyone’. She needs to see that forging ahead without backup gets her into trouble. She needs to experience a moment where someone pushes against her boundaries…

In your skeleton draft, you use your protagonist to stitch together these set-pieces into a cohesive story. You’re basically writing a plot outline – only while working on the actual book.

Step 5: Revise your skeleton draft into something workable

By the time you write THE END on your skeleton draft, you’ll have a messy stream of half-finished dialogue and notes to yourself like, “INSERT SEX SCENE HERE.” 

The story is still new and fresh to you, and you’re excited about the twists you’ve created, but you also understand its rough shape and how your protagonist arrives at the ending. Congratulations – you’ve written a book outline while also knocking off the first 20k of your manuscript. Clever clogs.

It’s time to start from the beginning of the book again, only now you know what’s coming. You’ll flesh out each scene until it sings. You’ll weave in foreshadowing and red herrings. You pick up on literary motifs and repeat them throughout, and build in light and shadow in your vocabulary to turn a ghastly rough draft into something beautiful.

As you edit, keep a second file open on your computer. Use this document to make notes on plot points to wrap up, character traits you need to refer back to (like eye color), and any sections of text you delete (I keep everything because I never know when I might use it later).

That’s skeleton drafting! It’s how I’m able to write a 90k novel in less than two months, publish frequently, and build a badass author career. 

For more information, listen to my podcast on skeleton drafting, and join my newsletter to be updated when the skeleton-drafting course goes live.


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