Did you know you can outline your novel with ChatGPT? No? Me, either. But I asked my super-smart techie novelist friend MK Swanson if she had used ChatGPT, and she said she had. Specifically, she told me that she now believes “novelists can use ChatGPT to supercharge their process. For instance, you can outline your novel with ChatGPT.” Then she offered to write a blog post for my readers showing her first-time process in doing so!
Below, MK describes how she approached ChatGPT for outlining assistance—and the surprisingly good results she got. As you’ll see, MK first needed to get ChatGPT up to speed for the task. To do so, she first picked a specific approach to novel outlining (from the gazillion available). She chose to work with the plot clock-–which is what I use to help my clients with their outlines.
Then, based on what ChatGPT discovered about the plot clock, she had the program ask her appropriate questions to get her ideas flowing and on track. “Watching” them work together is fascinating!
Here’s MK …
I’m MK Swanson, a novelist who’s interested in tech. I wanted to see how I might put the large language model (LLM) ChatGPT to use as a creative writing partner. At first, I found its responses stilted and awkward. I said to myself, “This is fine if I was a middle school student cheating on a take home assignment. But I’m a real writer. It doesn’t offer me anything that I can’t do better myself.”
But I tried again. And now I think that every writer, especially novelists, can use ChatGPT to supercharge their process. For instance, it is ideal for the delicate project of outlining your novel.
How to outline your novel with ChatGPT
Create a dialogue
You want to enter into a dialogue with ChatGPT. Start that dialogue by giving ChatGPT a clear prompt.
MKS (prompting ChatGPT): You are a writing coach who uses the plot clock method to guide writers to create an outline of their novel, and I am your client. Ask me a series of questions that will give me a good outline of my novel, stopping to allow me to answer after each question.
This prompt sets up the interaction between me and ChatGPT. I use the prompt to tell ChatGPT what perspective I want it to take (“you are a writing coach”) and what outlining method I want it to use (“the plot clock”). Finally, I set up a conversation-style interaction where it will ask me the next question fluidly.
Story starting point
ChatGPT (responding to the prompt): Of course! I’d be happy to assist you in creating an outline for your novel using the plot clock method. Let’s begin by diving into some key aspects of your story. Remember to take your time to think about each question and provide as much detail as possible. Here’s the first question:
What is the initial situation or setup of your story? Describe the world, the main character, and their ordinary life before the inciting incident occurs.
MKS: Livendra is a young woman living on the remains of the Florida peninsula in the future. The world environment has become more unpredictable and dangerous. Coastal cities have been submerged. Livendra makes a living as a pirate, stealing treasures and supplies from salvage corporations whom she blames for the state of the world. She believes that civilization is in its death throes.
ChatGPT: Thank you for providing such a vivid and detailed description of your story’s initial situation. It sets a compelling backdrop for the events to come. Now, let’s move on to the next phase of the plot clock:
What is the inciting incident that disrupts Livendra’s ordinary life as a pirate and sets the main events of the story into motion? How does this incident change her perspective or force her to confront new challenges?
MKS: Livendra tries to steal a boat from a corporation, and is caught, but the man who catches her not only lets her go, he joins her. After they escape, he insists he can help her reach her most precious goal—to retrieve a sculpture her mother carved from inside the flooded borders of Jacksonville, which is guarded by a paramilitary group.
Conflicts and obstacles
ChatGPT: Excellent! The inciting incident you’ve described adds an intriguing twist to Livendra’s life as a pirate and sets the stage for new challenges and unexpected alliances. Now, let’s move on to the next phase of the plot clock:
As Livendra and her companion embark on their mission to retrieve the sculpture, what are the major obstacles or conflicts they encounter? Consider both external factors, such as the paramilitary patrols, and internal struggles that Livendra may face along the way….
ChatGPT and I continue this back-and-forth all around the plot clock, with me making up a host of other details.
You can also ask ChatGPT to help you outline your novel using the Snowflake method, the hero’s journey, a chapter-by-chapter approach, or any other outlining method you desire. And, you can ask ChatGPT to be a character in your novel, then engage it in dialogue to learn more about your character’s motivation.
Other things you can do with ChatGPT
You can use ChatGPT to outline a draft of an existing novel-in-progress in order to add complexity, straighten out a plot tangle, or create a timeline. You might also ask it to use the outline you created with it to summarize your novel, write a book jacket blurb, or come up with an elevator pitch.
If you’d like to learn from the best novelists of all time, you can even ask ChatGPT to outline novels in its corpus. It offered me a quite reasonable outline of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
Things you can’t do with ChatGPT (yet)
Of course, there are many things ChatGPT can’t do, such as:
- It can’t retain context in a chat window for more than a few thousand words. (If the AI model begins to lose focus, switch to a new window and give it the outline so far.)
- It isn’t completely private. (Read the fine print.)
- It doesn’t offer truly creative ideas. (Those come from you!)
ChatGPT might not be a magical solution to all your writing needs, but it’s not just a cheat sheet. With patience, you may find you can use it to invigorate your outlining process. And once it’s done that, what other ways will you find to make it work for you?
* I used OpenAI’s free research preview of ChatGPT for this example.