How To Outline a Book

Readers who devour new books look forward to heading into unknown territory. The author has provided them with an opportunity to learn something new, whether it is through a vivid story, a memoir, new recipes, or a financial “How To” manual.

Imagine the reader has boarded a tourist bus, and you, the author, are the driver. Now imagine starting the tour through the pages of your book’s journey without a clue as to where you will be taking these trusting passengers.

Your bus is zigzagging all around town, with nary a clear destination in view. The tourists (your readers) are befuddled and confused by the wild ride they have embarked on, with absolutely no idea where you are taking them.

One by one, they stand up and demand their money back before abandoning the tour to nowhere. This simple scenario illustrates the purpose of a book outline and why every aspiring author needs to create one. Without one, the book can devolve into utter chaos.

If, at first, you reject this truth, ask yourself if you know better than J.K. Rowling, Joseph Heller, Henry Miller, or Sylvia Plath, all of whom relied on book outlines for their projects along with throngs of other high-profile authors. There may be plenty of authors who prefer to wing it, but the outline provides a much-needed roadmap for most writers.

Think of it as a Google map –– something to take the reader from point A to Point B while keeping them from jumping off the bus midway.

Once it’s understood that an outline will boost the reader’s experience, which will translate to more positive reviews and better book sales, now it’s time to learn how to write an outline for a book.

writing a book outline

What is a Novel Outline?

A book outline is, in essence, a blueprint. Just as an architect uses blueprints to aid the builder, a book outline provides the building blocks for guiding the creative writing process. If you can imagine the mess a builder would have on his hands without a set of blueprints to follow, you can easily understand the need for an author to have a book outline. In fact, learning how to outline a book from the get-go will save you much time and trouble down the road.

In school, we were taught how to make an outline for book reports that were assigned. Remember all those Roman numerals and indented letters? If you are wondering how to write a book outline, know that the idea is basically the same as structuring your report outline. You will be creating a document that details, step-by-step, your characters, plot points, chapters, and such. Your outline can even include a schedule for additional structure, if desired.

Why You Should Write a Book Outline

There are a multitude of benefits for using a book outline for your self-published book project, especially for a first-time author. When you learn how to outline a book, you will enjoy the following benefits:

  • Define your book’s goals. It’s one thing to have a great idea for a story or nonfiction book, and quite another to execute the idea successfully. By writing a book outline, you can clearly define the goal of the book — whether it is to enthrall, educate, or enlighten the reader.
  • Save time. Making an outline will ultimately save you time. Instead of straying off the path onto time-wasting tangents or redundancy, you will be guided by a defined roadmap to help you complete your book more efficiently.
  • Gain motivation. A book outline gives you a series of benchmarks to reach as you proceed through the writing process. As you tackle each chapter or section of your book outline, it truly gives you a sense of accomplishment. This inspires confidence, and motivates you onward to the next benchmark, and then the next.
  • Stay on track. An outline helps you avoid veering off course and possibly losing continuity and focus. Having a tangible book outline to refer to from the outset keeps you disciplined and on task. As a result, the story will be less likely to suffer from a lack of cohesion.
  • Envision the story from beginning to end. It might be an exciting thought to dive right into writing a novel, and to allow it to unfold organically. While some authors can pull that off, the majority will find themselves with a big unwieldy mess. Writing a book outline prior to starting your novel gives the process some direction.
  • Provide a better reader experience. The smoother the reading experience, the higher the likelihood that the reader will stay engaged. Writing a book outline helps you avoid plot holes, redundancy, undeveloped characters, and a whole host of other mistakes that would otherwise doom your story. A book outline helps create a seamless reader experience.

How Do You Write an Outline for a Book?

Writing a book outline is a starting point for all authors, regardless of your book’s genre. The process for writing a basic book outline is relevant for all genres, albeit with some genre-specific modifications. Think of your book outline as an organizational system, a document that helps you flesh out your book chapter by chapter.

Authors can take liberties with their outlines, as there is no hard and set rule for writing a book outline. Some authors enjoy creating their outline with pen and paper, some may use an Excel spreadsheet, and others may type an outline like their teachers taught them in school. Stick with these basics and then make it your own.

Here is a step-by-step guide for how to start writing a book outline:

Step One

Define your book project in one sentence. Condensing the main idea for the book into a single sentence helps you begin the project with clarity.

Step Two

Answer the 5 “W” questions: who, what, where, when, and why. This process helps you flesh out the purpose of your story or nonfiction book and its various components. If your book is fiction, you can describe the setting, characters, time period, basic plot points, and the point of the story in a general manner.

If it is nonfiction, you will describe who the audience is, what knowledge they will gain by reading, why they should care about reading the book, and whether there is a region-specific or timeline-specific focus for the book.

Step Three

In this step, you will be filling out the details for each of those “W” questions. As you dive into and develop each of these elements, you are providing a framework for your book. This becomes the foundation of a workable book outline.

Keep in mind that while a book outline provides structure, it also needs to remain flexible. Allow yourself the freedom to adjust and modify your outline as your manuscript begins to take shape. Think of it as a living, breathing guideline and not a rigid set of rules.

Book Outlining Strategies

So, how do you start writing a book outline? Fortunately, there is a book outlining style to fit any author’s creative style. From freeform sketches to classic outline formats, there is a book outline strategy for you. Consider these outlining strategies:

  • Book Outline Template. If you find yourself stressing out over writing a book outline, why not utilize a handy online book outline template? These allow you to basically plug your ideas and story details right in.
  • Chapter Outline. A chapter-by-chapter book outline allows you to name and then flesh out the key plot points of each chapter.
  • Scrivener. Using an app like Scrivener can be an amazing tool for nonfiction writers and fiction writers alike. The program allows you to store and organize your research and data into handy folders, making it easy to access the information during the writing process.
  • Mind Map. This type of book outline will feel familiar, as creating mind map illustrations is a common tool used by English teachers in school. Basically, it promotes a freeform thinking method with offshoots related to a topic or problem in your book.
  • Sticky Notes. The sticky note method is exactly what it sounds like. You can use physical sticky notes on a whiteboard or a blank wall, or a sticky note template, to create the roadmap for your book.
  • Sketched Outline. If the author is artistically inclined, a sketched book outline may help them organize their story, characters, and plot points in a way that resonates with their right brain dominance.

writing a book outline

How To Write a Nonfiction Book Outline

Writing a nonfiction book will be a markedly different process from penning a piece of fiction. The nonfiction genre leaves no room for improvisation. Books in the nonfiction genre present factual information in a logical manner, so writing a book outline before tackling the project gives the whole process some much needed structure.

It is interesting to note that learning how to write a nonfiction book outline will also vary somewhat from a fiction outline. The process will follow the above basic steps, with some modifications specific to the nonfiction genre.

How to outline a nonfiction book:

  1. Define your idea for the book in a succinct sentence or two. Create a thesis or point of view from which to build your position. If writing a historical biography, decide if you are going to cover the entire life of the subject or just a particular time period in his or her life.
  2. Brainstorm the chapters, making a master list of possible chapter titles that will help to persuade the reader, or to tell a compelling personal story in memoir form. Narrow the list of chapters to reflect the material most likely to support your thesis and sway the reader.
  3. Organize the chapters in a particular order by creating a working table of contents. Divide the chapters into sections, if applicable, to the vision you have for your nonfiction book.
  4. Under each chapter heading, include:
    • The opening hook. Come up with a captivating opening sentence to draw the reader in.
    • The essence of the chapter, by briefly stating your arguments and what you want to teach or convey.
    • What you want the reader to take away from the chapter.
    • A transitional paragraph that leads smoothly to the next chapter.
  5. Ensure that the final chapter sums up and reinforces the thesis of the book. Make a list of the main points that were presented and restate the purpose the book fulfills.
  6. Notate the reference sources to be cited in the book.

While it’s tempting to go into deep detail while defining your chapters, try to resist. State the main ideas and fill in the supportive material during the book writing process.

A memoir is a genre included in the nonfiction category. However, when creating a memoir outline, it is best to follow the fiction book outline process as it applies to personal storytelling.

How To Write a Fiction Book Outline

Writing a novel or any type of fictional narrative can really be an adventure. You are involved in a fully creative process, which means there is an opportunity to innovate and explore your characters, scenes, emotional plot twists, and settings. You can see how it could be risky to attempt writing your fiction book without a set of guidelines to keep you on point.

Learning how to start writing a book outline for fiction might seem daunting, but fear not! Fortunately, there are plenty of fiction book outline templates available online at no cost. These come in various formats and styles, so finding one that fits your personality and writing preferences is helpful. Some authors prefer to set up their fiction outline as if it was a play with Act 1, Act 2, etc., with chapters inside each act.

Here are the basic steps for creating a fiction book outline:

  1. Define the premise or central idea of your story. Every other step of the fiction writing process is based upon a clearly developed central concept for the book.
  2. Create a list of characters and describe each in some detail. Give them personality traits, flaws, physical features, and endearing qualities to bring them to life.
  3. Begin the storytelling process by describing the story arc –– the beginning, conflict, emotional points, conflict resolution, and ending. Prepare for these details to evolve during the writing process.
  4. Start detailing scenes and organizing chapters. Construct a visual for the reader. Expound on each scene by jotting down the specifics of the setting, the weather, the time of day, who is present, and what is occurring.
  5. Revisit your premise to confirm you have successfully executed it with the resulting book outline. If not, tweak it until you have captured the essence of your central story idea or theme.

Book Outline Tips for Clarity

Consider these handy tips for ensuring your book outline is the best it can be:

  • Think of the book outline as a valuable tool for actually finishing your book. Embrace the book outlining process as the first step in eventually seeing your book in print.
  • If a particular type of book outline doesn’t sit right with you, don’t give up! Just shift to another book outline strategy that might be a better fit for your creative style.
  • Allow your book outline to evolve as needed. Remember that you are crafting a piece of literary art, not pouring cement. The characters and plot may take off in a different direction when you begin the actual writing process.

A Book Outline is Only the Starting Point

Now that you are armed with the basic tools for creating your own book outline, you are ready to progress to the actual writing process. Always remember that you are writing a book with the intent to sell a top-notch finished product. Once your manuscript is completed, there will be many publishing decisions to make.

Why not partner with the editing experts at Gatekeeper Press for our guidance in creating a polished product? We provide proofreading, editing, and cover design services and will guide you along the entire self-publishing process. Give us a call at (866) 535-0913 or visit us online today!

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