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Getting a Head Start: How to Write a Book Outline

When the subject of discussion wanders onto how to write a book outline, writers can be quite divided on the matter – when, how, where or even if to use them. Whether or not you felt your eye twitch a little upon reading the title of this article might be an indicator of where your own opinion falls!

This is usually because outlines can be liberating for some, yet confining for others. Some writers like to generate meticulous lists, detailing each event in their story in chronological order before they even lay the first word on the page. Others like to fly by the seat of their pants.

No matter how you personally prefer to approach your craft, there’s no denying that outlining can help prevent saggy middles, dead ends and flat character arcs – so they’re worth a try if you’re amongst the uninitiated.

Discovering how to write a book outline is actually quite a fluid process – because to get the most out of outlining your book, you need a process that’s both flexible and dependable; one that lets you discover the narrative paths that feel right for you.

Think of a good outline as a road map: you have a start point and a destination, but not what you’ll see out of the window along the way. Detours are also perfectly fine!

The outlining method detailed below is a common one used by many authors, but bear in mind that there is no definitively right or wrong way to do it. You just need to find one that works for you – so if you’ve never done it before, give these steps a try and then tweak and refine your process later down the road.

 

  1. Nail down the basic premise

Your premise is the elevator pitch, the basic idea for your story; something broad enough to give the story breathing space, but solid enough to keep you on track. Start by answering the following questions:

Who is the protagonist?

Who are they at the start of the story?

How are they going to change throughout (how do you want their arc to develop)?

What is their main goal?

What – or who – is preventing them from achieving that goal?

When you begin to write a book outline, it only makes sense that the foundation you start with is the high-level view of your narrative.

 

  1. Write down any scene ideas you have

You probably carry a notebook, or some kind of recording device, around with you most of the time (and if you don’t, it would be a good idea to start), so now’s the time to go through your notes and sort out the ones that may have potential for inclusion in your story.

If you’re looking to write an outline for a totally new idea, start brainstorming some cool scenes you’d like to write about, even if you have no idea how they’ll fit into the plot yet. After a bit of work, they will.

Once you’ve finished, read through your list and write down any questions raised by each idea in the context of your story. If your character has to fight a monster, what is it? If the villain has a change of heart, why is that?

Answer these questions for yourself, being sure to write everything down alongside the action of the scene. The more you answer, the more you’ll start to tie each scene into the broader framework of your story – breathing life into what appeared to be disparate elements, and adding narrative points you didn’t think of before.

It’ll also help you to see, early on, the emergence of plot holes, which will save you a ton of work later on – one of the primary benefits you get when you write a book outline.

 

  1. Interview your characters

Now’s the time to get to know your cast. Some writers like to create character sheets listing personal attributes such as age, race, eye color, physical build and so on. Alongside those, you may list social and familial background such as parents’ names, your character’s home town, academic status, and job role(s) – even the first make of car they ever owned.

At this point, some writers like to imagine they’re having conversations with the character, asking questions about their life, their world view, their likes and dislikes, and imagining how they react to certain questions throughout the interview.

There can be a hefty amount of role play involved here – after all, you’re ‘talking’ to an imaginary person in your mind – but doing this can really get you prepared to let the characters guide your hand as you place them in certain situations.

Figuring out how they react (not just to events, but to each other) and move the story forward is much easier – and often leads to fewer contrived moments – when you can let yourself be more of an overseer than a puppeteer.

Whatever your preferred method, it’s time to discover who you need in your story and what makes them tick.

 

  1. Flesh out the locations

A well-written location can be a character in itself. Draw from real life memories, scout locations on Google Maps, or even look at movies for inspiration. Do certain events have to happen somewhere specific? Do you need a small town complete with sawmill, diner, auto shop, and library?

If you can find very similar real-world examples of your location, grab a collection of photos to give you a visual sense of place as you write. You might even want to quickly sketch your more fantastical locations out – or have a more artistically-inclined friend do it for you if you aren’t too gifted on the visual side of things.

If parts of your story take place within buildings or complexes, now’s the time to map those out on paper (or even digitally, these days). Draw the floor plans and consider how the action might unfold. Would there be an opportunity to add tension if you were to shift a certain room down to the end of that corridor, allowing for a short chase or a race against time?

Knowing the places and spaces within which your scenes will unfold will help you immeasurably when it comes time to write the action – whether a character moves left or right, looks up or down, and takes minutes or mere moments to go from one place to another will be an effortless decision when it’s time to bring the scene to life.

 

  1. Write the outline, start to finish

You now have enough detail to create an outline and start your story. Work through the events scene by scene, arranging the details you outlined in the previous steps, until the shape of a story emerges with a beginning, middle, end, and all the necessary paths in between.

How comprehensive you want to be is your call: outlining is very personal to each writer. You can write just one sentence for each scene, or dive straight into a more detailed “rush” draft.

Either way, pay attention to how your story flows, but feel free to add in as many strokes of imagination and innovation as you please.

Once you’re done, read over your outline to ensure it flows well as a story – that events lead into each other as expected and you can definitely get an understanding of the core story movement from beginning to end.

If everything fits, now it’s time to go back to the start and – with your outline beside you – get cracking on the first draft of your novel!

 

So that’s our ‘in a nutshell’ guide to how to write a book outline. What’s your personal approach?

Do you keep it succinct and let your mind explore more as you go, or do you prefer to have a more in-depth synopsis ready to light your way?

Do you loathe the very idea of an outline and prefer to let your first draft flow straight from your brain to the page? Let us know in the comments!

 

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    Join the Discussion on “Getting a Head Start: How to Write a Book Outline”

    1. Betti says:

      I’ve tried planning a novel so many times, but it takes the steam out of my writing. All of my energy and fresh-thought are put into the outline, and I don’t have the burning desire to write it anymore… I’ve experienced the story, start to finish, in my head so many times, that it gets — predictable? Maybe this is a litmus test for my storylines, or maybe this isn’t my writing style. The only thing I can compare it to is like when that movie you’ve been dying to see comes out in the theater, and you watch it 10 times, then, when it comes out on Blu-ray it’s like, “Meh, all the excitement is gone.” So what happens when I plan instead of pants, is that I’ll take my outline, try to flesh out a few scenes, and put it away. The spark is dead. Is anybody else like that?

      1. James C.G. Shirk says:

        Yep, said the same thing before i saw your input.

    2. Eddie Lay says:

      I write the first draft as a punster, and then make a chapter by chapter outline for revision. The outline permits me to move things around, and make additions in order to maintain the flow. This works well for me.

    3. James C.G. Shirk says:

      I envy authors who have the discipline to make an outline, I really do. However, I cannot write that way. Planning it all out probably makes the actual writing easier, but it feels too stifling. For me, before I start I always have an opening and an ending in mind (along with the conflict between my protagonist and antagonist) but then I let my characters lead me. I inevitably get surprised by where they go, who they run into, and the sub-plots that evolve. That’s what makes writing fun for me. I’m sure I end up doing a lot more rewriting than if I had a start-to-finish plan, but you know what? I like to get as shocked and surprised as the reader about the story and the twists it takes. Anyway, that’s the way it has to work for me.

    4. Glenn says:

      I’m a pantser and I develop my characters, scenes, plots, arcs, and the moment of grace as they grow. Then I employ the KMW method of outlining to better define all parts of the story. And only then do I go back and begin the revision process.

    5. Ian K says:

      I like the term ‘pantsers’, and that tends to describe me. I run with an idea until I lose steam, then I go back and edit what I have and then, I’m off again. I don’t write my plots down as they are in my head… I do take down notes though as triggers, to remind me where I’m going. I guess I’m too impatient to plan and it doesn’t get me rocking along very well. If I plan, I get weighed down and my inspiration falters.
      I think Betti, you should just write what you have now and worry about the plan and how it all falls into place later, once there is something on your screen. Perhaps you have got into a poor habit and the ‘mojo’ just isn’t there when you need it.

    6. Bryan D Carlile says:

      You would call me a pantser. I let the characters dictate the story. I don’t know how it will end until it’s finished. In some cases, it isn’t even finished yet. So I write until I reach a stopping point and then edit. I don’t formally outline. I take notes. I write down ideas of how I would like to see things develop, but not formally outline. I find it stifles the creative flow, at least it does for me.

    7. Amanda Tams says:

      I am a pantser, although the story tends to be already there when i start. My ideas fly out of nowhere but I do work with a meticulous planner who sorts my thoughts and checks for anomalies as we go so I have the best of both worlds

    8. Sally Chetwynd says:

      Glenn, your phrase “the moment of grace” is exquisite! Thank you!

      I’ve written two novels and can be best described as a pantser, although once I’m about halfway into the story, I use an Excel spreadsheet to organize my scenes and chapters. This helps me to see where I’ve been and where I still need to go. My next project will be non-fiction, and outlining will definitely be one of the first things I establish. With this work, I already know the beginning, middle, and end – the story arc – but organizing it so it will be cohesive and coherent, but also engaging to the reader will be one of the biggest challenges.

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