In the book writing process, you need to create a journey for the reader, whether you want to write a fiction or nonfiction book. Your task is to take them from the first page to the last and keep them interested and engaged along the way, and also make an impact that lasts after they have finally put the book down.
Forging the path on that journey is your responsibility as a writer. One of the most effective ways to fulfill that responsibility, and do it well, is to create an outline—a skeleton of ideas, concepts, themes, and messages that you will flesh out in the actual writing process.
This article will explore the importance of writing a book outline. We will offer some insights and expert tips to help you get started and key points in the literary structure. So, if you are ready to get started, read on, and do not forget to save this article for future reference.
The Importance of Writing a Book Outline
The outline of your book is its structure. It is the scaffolding on which you will build the house of your book. Without an outline, you may end up writing aimlessly, finding yourself frustrated at dead ends, and having to start again, which can be incredibly time-consuming. However, you have a roadmap to rely on if you have a good outline. You will still need to figure things out along the way, but you can refer to the outline and adapt your course whenever you get stuck or lost.
Moreover, having an outline is how you push through the doubts, fears, procrastination, and writer’s block that so often accompany the book writing process. Even the most seasoned writers are prone to blocks and self-doubt from time to time. With an outline, you may still experience those feelings, but you have a structure, a safety net you can fall back on when you lose your way.
“I don’t start a novel until I have lived with the story for a while to the point of actually writing an outline, and after a number of books, I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline, the easier the book is to write. And if I cheat on the outline, I get in trouble with the book.'”John Grisham
The Benefits of Book Outlines
Not all writers strictly follow an outline. Some fiction writers choose to freestyle the process, but they do so at their peril. It is possible to create a work of literature without creating a specific outline, but those who do so often have a lot of experience with writing and have honed the ability to freestyle. They may have outlined novels in the past and done so often enough that they can follow a story arc with rich characters and engaging plot points without mapping it all out first.
Still, unless you are a master, it is best to start with an outline. There are so many benefits to using outlines, such as:
- Sustained and maintained focus
- Space for quality over quantity
- Faster writing process
- Minimize the occurrence of writer’s block
Outlines can help create both fiction and nonfiction. While some fiction writers forego the outline, it is a must for nonfiction writers. Whether you develop an outline yourself or use a free book outline template, having one will help significantly. Focus, consistency, and motivation are some of the main factors why writers experience writer’s block, so anything you can do to overcome these obstacles will help you move from the outline stage to the publishing stage.
How to Outline a Novel
“I always work from an outline, so I know all the broad events and some of the finer details before I begin writing the book.”Mercedes Lackey
So you want to start writing a novel. The greats inspire you, and you have noticed how great works of literature can impact the human psyche and soul. You want to create a work of art to influence and inspire others. Step one? Your outline.
To write a good novel, you need a thread that runs all the way through from beginning to end. Without your novel outline, you may lose track of that thread. So, to begin the process of outlining your novel, a great place to start is to consider your premise.
To get started, try to sum up your novel in a sentence. It is not always easy, but in the process of trying, you will eliminate thoughts and ideas irrelevant to your novel.
The premise is the why behind your novel. Why do you want to write? What kind of impact do you wish to make on the reader? Essentially, what is the book about, and what is the importance of the story?
We will cover the plot next and how to flesh it out. However, before you start with it, while still crafting your premise, consider other important literary elements:
- Setting (Where does the story take place?)
- Characters (Who is in the story? What role do they play?)
- Theme (What is the message of the story?)
Is it a political or social theme? Is it about good vs. evil, friendship, revenge? Is it a coming-of-age story? These are all key aspects of your fiction book outline because they help you stay focused and clear on what should happen in your story.
2. Plot Points
What happens in your story? Craft a timeline or sequence of events that happen throughout the novel. Your final draft might not even occur in that sequence, but having one will keep you focused and on track as you flesh out the skeleton.
Consider the plot’s common and universal literary element and its components: exposition, rising action (or conflict), climax, falling action, and resolution (or denouement).
The exposition is the beginning of the story and introduces the main characters, the setting, and other crucial elements. The rising action is when conflict enters the story like the main character wants to achieve some goal. However, a struggle, challenge, or obstacle must be conquered.
The climax is the highest point of tension in the story and is usually a confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. The falling action covers the story as it continues past the climax—the loose ends, the aftermath of the climactic action.
The resolution is the resolution of the story. That does not necessarily mean a happy ending. It can simply be the place where the story as told ends.
3. Map Your Character Arcs
It is crucial to create a detailed outline of your character arcs. Your characters are the connection between the real world and the world of your story, and they are responsible for keeping your reader engaged and emotionally invested in your work.
It is wise to spend extra time outlining, defining, and refining your characters, making them as three-dimensional as possible. Each character in your story has their motivations, background, and desires. Mapping these out in detail will help you more accurately portray your characters as realistic and relatable to the reader. Their arc includes their progression through the story and their flaws and how they deal with them, the conflicts they face, and the lessons they learn.
“The character’s flaw will shape every other aspect of your book. The flaw is the engine that drives your entire book, from hooking your reader’s interest to propelling the plot to its climax – so choose your flaw with care, and make it count.”Libbie Hawker
4. Brainstorm Your Chapters
Each chapter is the reader’s journey. You have already mapped out your plot points as a sequence of events in the story, so the next step is to decide the series in which you will write them (it is not always in chronological order).
Do you have flashback scenes? Moments where characters in the present recall past events previously unknown to the reader? Map out your chapters one by one—what needs to happen chapter by chapter so readers can fully immerse themselves in the story without predictability or boredom.
How to Outline a Nonfiction Book
Creating a nonfiction book outline differs from a novel. With a novel, the aim is to engage the reader in a story for entertainment. Sure, social and political themes may run through the story as an undercurrent, but the story contains a world where you can get lost or experience it.
In nonfiction books, the reader wants to learn. Your book offers exploration, discussion, education, and insight into a particular issue, problem, or concept that the reader wants to know more about.
1. Identify Your Reader
Identifying your reader is step one and the most important step in the nonfiction outline process. It is wise to narrow your target reader or audience down as much as possible because that helps you craft a more solid, impactful, and lasting message.
Some writers make the common mistake of trying to write for everybody. In doing so, you sacrifice your book’s potential impact. You cannot reach everybody, but you can reach a certain group of people interested in your niche.
So, who is your book for? Is it for people of a certain profession? Do you want to reach healthcare workers? Business investors? Beginners in the stock market? Do you want to reach stay-at-home parents or recent college graduates? The more you can define your target readers, the more likely you can reach them.
2. Solidify the Concept
The next step in outlining your nonfiction book is to get a solid grasp of your main idea. What message do you want to convey? What is it about your book that will change the mind, the attitude, or the entire life of the reader?
Solidifying the main concept might sound obvious. It might even be nearly impossible to write a book without the main idea, but many writers mistakenly begin the process with a loose grasp of that idea and falter along the way. It is important to flesh out your idea as much as possible and hone it into a clear, distinct message.
3. List the Relevant Topics
Most nonfiction books are a well-put-together collection of ideas contributing to an overall message. You will need to cover several topics and tie them together in writing. So, the next step is to make a list of those topics.
To help you collect all relevant thoughts, ideas, and information around your book—brainstorm. Create a mind map or spider map on a large sheet of paper with your main idea in the center of the page and branch out from the center with everything you can think of.
You might be tempted to create your entire mind map in a single sitting, but it is wiser to keep the page open in front of you for as long as you can. Ideas and inspiration can come unexpectedly, such as when you are out for a run, cooking dinner, or just sitting down with your morning coffee. It is best to record ideas when they are fresh and brainstorm to maximize the possibilities of the concepts you want to cover in your book.
Once you have listed all relevant topics, the next step is to conduct diligent research on them. If you are thinking about writing a nonfiction book, you might already have extensive knowledge about your topic, but it does not hurt to keep researching until the book is complete. After all, you never know when inspiration or more ideas will arrive. The research is not necessarily part of the outline, but compiling that research into sections allows you to move to the next step.
4. Create a Chapter Outline
How will you carry readers from the first to the final chapter? Once you have listed the relevant topics you want to organize, how will you offer each message to your reader? Your chapter should follow a logical sequence.
For example, you can begin the introduction with questions and explain the problem you will address. Then you want to cover the history of that idea and other approaches to solving the problem that has not worked in the past. Next, explore your solutions—back up your claims for an effective solution with the research you have diligently carried out.
How to List Your Chapters
How many chapters will there be in your book? Most nonfiction books average at about 10-12 chapters. One effective way to outline these chapters is to get a bunch of index cards or post-it notes and write each chapter’s title or main message. Line those up and create rows or columns next to each chapter with subchapters, headings, or subheadings. These ‘subs’ will help you break down your chapters further and make it easy to write them.
How to Structure Your Chapters
Each chapter must bring the reader another step further on their journey. As such, it is wise to have an effective structure in place. Begin with a hook—something that grabs the reader’s attention. This can be a fact, an anecdote, a statistic, anything that sparks interest and curiosity.
Once you have got them hooked, you offer your thesis. Your thesis is the argument you want to make and the entire purpose of the chapter. Arguments alone do not primarily impact the content compared to those with supporting facts and stories. Use evidence-based information, clearly outlined research, and logic and reason to support your thesis.
Once you have made your point, summarize the chapter’s main points and ideas. Do this concisely, in a way that helps the reader feel like they can carry what they learned from the chapter into the next, or their day if they choose to read chapter by chapter with breaks in between.
Finally, do not completely satisfy the reader. Leave them curious and wanting more by showing them how this chapter and the points made relate in an interesting way to the next chapter.
“The outline is 95 percent of the book. Then I sit down and write, and that’s the easy part.”Jeffery Deaver
Writing a book outline helps you get to the end of your book and prepare it for publishing faster than you would with no outline at all. If speed is not the advantage you are looking for, you must know that an outline also helps you keep the story or idea afloat through the middle, where many writers get lost and where readers are likely to disengage.