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How to Outline a Book

by Tom Ashford

Everyone takes a different approach when setting out to write a book. Some like to make the story up as they go along, taking an idea or a circumstance and letting it unfold before them. Others like to meticulously plan out each beat of their story so that when it comes to putting pen to paper, they only have to worry about making the words sound good.

I fall into the latter category, though I know plenty of successful writers (both indie and traditionally published) who swear by the ‘pantsing’ method. Perhaps one approach benefits stories with a more emotional, character-driven core, and the other benefits those with a greater focus on a thematic message. Or maybe each way of writing just lends itself better to some authors than they do others.

For those wishing to nail down their story before they even start writing, keep reading.

Which Outline is Right For You?

First things first, you need to decide how you’re actually going to outline your book. You might want to simply list all the different themes your book is going to cover (and how), or maybe you’ll want to focus on each character and how their personal arcs need to unfold (regardless of what happens in the overall story).

For those experimenting with Game of Thrones levels of intrigue and subplot-weaving, it might be worth assembling a mad (and likely illegible) spider’s web of storylines (and maybe re-doing that mind map once you’ve worked out all the kinks). I personally like to create what is sometimes called a ‘story map’ – a time chart in which I set out where the inciting incident and climax (etc., etc.) will fall in my story.

Some Things to Think About

Regardless of how you approach your outline, there are some questions worth considering in order to make your book the best it can be.

When all is said and done, what is your story actually about?

Why do you want to tell that story? And what makes your version of that story different to everyone else’s?

Who are your characters? How did they come to arrive in your story? What are their strengths, weaknesses, hopes and secrets? How do they relate and respond to one another?

And finally, what kind of story structure are you even going for? Something traditional, like the Hero’s Journey? Or something a bit more avant-garde, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas?

Break It Down

Let’s take the basic story map for our example (it’s the most similar to the one I use). Some call it a plot mountain, or a plot roller coaster. What’s important is that it mirrors the shape of what is usually considered the traditional narrative arc – starting with exposition and the establishment of the status quo, followed by a conflict/ inciting incident, the rising action (the events leading up to the main problem), the climax (the main problem), the falling action (as the characters try to solve that problem), and finally the resolution.

Take your time and work out what in your story needs to go where. What will set your character on their journey (and why might they at first refuse)? What problem will he or she be up against? How will they solve or prevent that problem, and what does their world look like once that’s done?

Once you’ve done this, your timeline will still probably look quite sparse and vague. That’s okay. Now you need to break everything down further – not just into ‘parts’ or ‘acts’, but individual chapters and scenes.

The most obvious point to consider here is: how do you characters get from one event to the next, and why? If one scene is to be set in a disused car factory in Slough and the next scene sees your characters visiting Atlantis, you might need to think about adding a few little scenes in between.

Eventually you’ll have something that looks like an overview of your finished story – albeit a somewhat simplistic and unemotional one. You could start work on your first draft now, but wait. You can go deeper.

Take a hard look at each of your scenes and ask yourself, how does that scene fit into your story, and how does it bring that story forward? Make a note of what emotion your reader should be feeling whilst reading that chapter – hope? sadness? fear? – and what the chapter actually achieves. If it isn’t essential, you may find yourself getting rid of it or rethinking your chapter’s approach – it’s better to do it now than once you’ve already written all seven thousand words of it.

And Away We Go

Once you’ve done this, you might have a pretty weighty manuscript in its own right. You’ll know each step of your story, each twist and every turn, from the beginning to its end. But don’t get too attached to it.

You’ll probably still come across problems as you write. The little threads will start to unravel and the plot holes you’ve patched over will rise to the surface. And even if your story is absolutely air-tight, your story will change. It’s almost inevitable. In the process of writing your novel, your characters will make choices you didn’t expect and send the story in new directions. That’s okay. If that happens, you just might want to take a step back and rework your outline.

Or… you could just go for it. Write a whole novel without any idea how it might turn out. If it sounds as if I’m being sarcastic, please know that I’m not – sometimes the best novels end up telling themselves to the writer (that’s what happened with my best story, I think). If a writer ends up surprised by how the story turns out, that’s a pretty good sign the reader will be surprised too.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you write your book (to anyone other than you, at least). All that counts is you end up with a finished book.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.