One of the best things I’ve learned as a writer is the power and important of a book outline. This is one of those things I wish I’d known about years ago. Certainly something I wish I’d learned in the writing classes I’ve taken over the years. Writing exercises are great, but I wish writing teachers would spend more time on how to flush out a book outline.
It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to write a book one day” but once you have a book outline, that book then has the chance of not only being written, but a chance at being published.
Knowing the details of each chapter helps not only stay focused on writing the story, but also on moving the story forward.
I’ll be honest, I struggled with the ‘moving the story forward’ part when I first started writing. I believed a new chapter began with a different scene. But I learned that a chapter ends when you’ve laid out something that changes the character from the beginning of the chapter. Something that propels the book forward.
How did I move past that? I read. A LOT. Once it was in my head to look out for it, I noticed it everywhere. One of my favourite authors, J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts, although I love her ‘In Death’ series more) does this very well.
What goes into a book outline?
The book outline is the document that guides your book. Someone should be able to read your outline and get a clear sense of what your book is about and know the form it takes. They should understand the character arcs, who the villain (real or imaginary) is. They should be able to see the inciting incidences played out, know where the climax is, and then be clear on what the protagonist accomplishes – or doesn’t – in the end.
Before you even start writing, you need to have an outline laid out in detail. You should know your characters inside and out. You should be able to visualise the ‘world’ you are creating clearly. Then, by the time your outline is complete, you will be ready to write your manuscript.
A book outline is where you detail out, chapter by chapter, what the storyline is, what’s revealed in that chapter, how the story advances, who’s point of view (POV) each chapter comes from, and any notes you have about that chapter (the things you can’t forget and what is imperative to the story).
Let me share with you how I write an outline.
I use multiple steps. Not all authors do this, but I find it helps take the ‘idea of a story’ and create it into a full-scale manuscript.
1. Before I’ve begun this process, I know clearly who my characters are.
I’ve already created the characters. I’ve followed what I laid out in the post “Creating Complex and Believable Characters“. I know the character’s quirks, their strengths, and their challenges. Now, with the outline, it’s writing out how the story will unfold. The big question is: What do they want and what’s in their way of getting it?
2. I do a rough outline on my sketchpad.
This is taking the idea of a story, what I’ve most likely scribbled down on my iPad at god-thirty over coffee and flushing it out further on a sketchpad. The idea gets tossed aside sometimes; the story doesn’t go anywhere. But most times, it becomes clearer as I sketch it out.
On the sketchpad I sketch out the beginning scene and then each main thing of what happens in each chapter as I continue down the page. I also note who the POV is, if I am writing with multiple POVs.
Here, I ask myself: Is the setup clear, before moving to the inciting incident, then to the climax, then to the falling action and finally to the resolution?
3. Then it moves to index cards.
Seeing the story on a sketchpad is one thing, but it’s difficult to change things up. It can quickly become an eligible mess. Once I have the idea sketched out, I get out the index cards. I write the chapter outline on individual index cards to visualise the story.
Then, I shuffle things around to ensure the story makes sense, and that the story flows. It’s a great way to understand where the gaps are. I can move chapters around, remove parts of the story from one chapter if it doesn’t work and move it to another. I can add chapters. The index cards allow me to figure out details.
4. Once I am happy with everything flows, I open up Excel.
This is my last stage in the outline process. This is the final document that keeps me in line, focused. I sometimes wander as I’m writing, so with this document right next to me, I keep on track. It’s saved my story on many occasions.
Here are some other posts you may find helpful in the writing process: