Have you ever dreamed of writing a book? Maybe you have a story inside of you just waiting to be told, but you don’t quite know how to tell it. You want to create a masterpiece, but where do you begin? The answer is simple: with your book outline. An outline is the roadmap to your novel, the foundation upon which you build your story.
In this article, we’ll guide you through 10 steps to create the perfect book outline so you can bring your story to life and make your writing dreams a reality.
What Is a Book Outline?
A book outline is a well-organized plan that summarizes the key themes, characters, and plot points of a novel. It acts as the author’s road map, directing them through the writing process and assisting them in staying on course.
Outlines are important because of the clear direction that they provide. With a plan in place, you can avoid getting lost or stuck halfway through your novel. They also help you to ensure that all of the necessary elements are included.
Types of Book Outlines
Making a good outline can help to make a large writing task a lot less daunting. But which of the many types of outline should you choose to guide you? What should it look like and what should it include?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the best outline can vary depending on your unique preferences, writing style, and the specific genre of the book you are writing. In fact, you don’t even have to pick only one. If you can keep track of two maps on a hybrid outline that must obviously be consistent with each other, you can do that too.
Here are some general guidelines on the outline types that exist and the kind of people that may prefer to work with each of them.
If you are someone who prefers structure and organization and likes to have a clear plan to follow, a detailed and structured outline may be best for you. These types provide a clear roadmap to follow and can help keep you on track as you write:
- Chapter-by-Chapter Outline: As the name says, it is a detailed plan that breaks the book down into individual chapters, outlining the key events, characters, and themes that appear in each one.
- Plot Outline: This is a chronological outline that maps out the main plot points of the novel, including the inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
- Scene-by-Scene Outline: The most thorough guide of all, it divides the book into discrete scenes and outlines the major developments, characters, and ideas of each.
- Character Outline: Focused specifically on characters, this is a way to develop the key ones, including their motivations, desires, conflicts, and transformation.
If you are a person who is more visually oriented and likes to brainstorm and generate ideas in an imaginative way, a visual and creative outline may be best for you. These types allow for more creativity and can help you visualize the big picture of your book. It also enables more seat-of-your-pants writing than the previous three outlines do:
- Storyboard Outline: Using images or illustrations, a storyboard is a visual outline that maps out the key scenes and events of the novel. The best way is to use index cards that contain your main premise, conflicts, characters, settings, scenes, and themes. You then arrange and rearrange them on a storyboard until your story makes sense.
- Mind Map Outline: This outline is non-linear and charts the key elements of the book in a visual, brainstorming-style format. You write your main premise in the middle of a piece of paper, and then brainstorm for plot points, characters, settings, and other elements that you arrange around it.
For the pantsers who prefer a looser, less structured approach, a minimalist outline may be best for you. These types provide a basic framework to follow, but leave room for lots of flexibility and spontaneity as you write.
- Synopsis Outline: As the name suggests, this is no more than a brief overview of the novel that sketches the key plot points, characters, and themes. It is often used as a pitch for agents or publishers and is two to three pages long.
- Skeleton Outline: This is even shorter. It is the most basic of outlines, often in short bullet points, that includes only the most essential plot points and elements.
Authors who write nonfiction and some research-heavy fiction genres like historical novels may also want to use the following outline to keep organized:
- Research Outline: An outline that focuses on the research needed for the book, including primary and secondary sources, interviews, and other relevant material.
Pros & Cons of a Book Outline
The purpose of a book outline is to provide a structured plan for you to follow as you create your book, outlining the major plot points, characters, and messages.
Accordingly, its greatest benefit is to keep you organized and your book coherent and complete. But pantsers may complain that it leads to books that are too formulaic and characters that are straight-jacketed.
Let’s look at both the pros and cons of outlining a novel to explore its strengths and weaknesses.
Benefits of a Book Outline
John Grisham outlines all his books in a lot of detail, while J. K. Rowling writes slightly shorter outlines. Both are on record promoting many of the benefits of outlining that appear below.
- Helps to organize ideas: Ideas are more organized when they are written down in an outline, which makes the writing task less haphazard and aimless.
- Simplifies writing: It helps writers divide the bigger process of producing a book into smaller, more manageable tasks.
- Ensures consistency: An outline ensures the consistency of a story, character development, and themes. This means that writers can find and correct errors and discrepancies before they become significant issues in the finished manuscript.
- Saves time: By preventing authors from becoming stuck or disoriented throughout the writing process, outlining can save them time. It offers a straightforward road map to follow, allowing them to concentrate on writing rather than planning where their stories should go next, or backing up when they go wrong.
- Helps with pacing: Outlining can help to ensure that a story has a good pace and rhythm, with the right balance of action, dialogue, and description so that it doesn’t all have to be done during the editing stage.
- Provides motivation: The sense of direction and purpose that comes from an outline can help authors stay motivated and upbeat while they are working.
- Reduces writer’s block: By giving the writer a specific beginning point and a feeling of direction, it can help to lessen writer’s block.
Drawbacks of a Book Outline
Stephen King describes outlining as something done by “bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses”, while Ray Bradbury complained that it bored him. Let’s consider some of the drawbacks to which they allude.
- Limits creativity: Some writers have discovered that outlining limits their spontaneity and creative freedom. Having a detailed plan may feel constricting and prevent them from experimenting with fresh concepts or making changes on the fly.
- Can be time-consuming: The process of outlining can take a lot of time, especially for writers who favor a more flexible approach. The actual writing of the book may be delayed if the outline is given too much time.
- May lead to formulaic stories: A thorough outline may be overly rigid and discourage the author from considering fresh angles or deviating from the initial plan. A predictable or formulaic plot may result.
- May cause uncharacteristic behavior: Because outlines tend to focus on the plot and story, the characters’ actions may serve the plot, rather than match their own personalities.
How to Outline a Book
It is now time to explore some tips and techniques to help you create a successful book outline, from choosing the right type of outline to adding the essential elements that make up a compelling story. These strategies will help you create a solid foundation for your book and guide you toward a finished product that is engaging, coherent, and well-written.
1. Choose a Genre
Decide on the genre of your novel, such as romance, mystery, or fantasy. Most books contain elements of several different types, and that is fine. But readers of all genres have specific expectations that are essential for your book to satisfy. Accordingly, this step will help you to develop the plot, characters, and themes that you will later place on your outline.
Thriller junkies want lots of action, mystery fans enjoy twists and red herrings, literary fiction readers enjoy an exploration of human or social conditions, horror enthusiasts expect a focus on suspense and gore, and romance aficionados want a focus on relationships and emotions.
The genre you pick will determine what goes on your outline. For example, if you’re writing a thriller, there will have to be lots of conflict and action. If it’s a work of literary fiction, you may need societal conditions, and not just your characters’ personal issues.
2. Develop Your Basic Premise
Create the fundamental, one-sentence premise for your book. This is the sentence that provides the foundation for your entire story. It helps to establish the central conflict, themes, and characters that appear in your outline. By having a clear idea of the basic premise, you can ensure that your outline is focused and coherent, and that all of the elements of your story work together.
Having a basic premise also helps to guide the rest of the outlining process. It can help you to avoid getting sidetracked or losing focus.
A premise looks like this:
- A group of strangers are trapped together in a snowed-in cabin and must navigate their differences and find a way to survive.
- A man discovers he has a rare medical condition that gives him extraordinary abilities and must learn to control his powers while keeping them hidden from the world.
- A woman wakes up with amnesia and must piece together her past while navigating a dangerous conspiracy.
3. Identify Your Main Character
Create a profile of your primary character that details their backstory, personality traits, and motivations. This person will be the driving force behind the story. By having a clear understanding of who the main protagonist is and what drives them, you can ensure that the plot, themes, and conflicts are all developed in a way that is authentic to the character.
Examples of deep, complex main characters are Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series, Harry Potter from the Harry Potter series, and Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.
4. Create a Basic Plot
Create a basic plot for your novel, including the beginning, middle, and end. A plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. It typically involves a character that faces obstacles and resolves a conflict. The plot provides a roadmap for the story and helps to ensure that the narrative is coherent.
There is no need to write a full page here, but a plot contains much more detail than a premise statement does. There must be a sequence of events that are causally linked from beginning to end.
To illustrate, the plot for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary might look something like this:
Having relocated to a small town, Dr. Louis Creed enjoys a happy life with his family. When their cat is killed by a vehicle, a neighbor takes Louis to a hidden burial ground that has the power to bring dead things back to life. The cat that returns to life isn’t the same as before and has a few unpleasant and even creepy new habits, but is not too disagreeable.
Then one of his kids is killed, and Louis is consumed by grief and desperation. He decides to use the burial ground again. The child returns as a demonic and murderous presence that destroys the family.
5. Develop Your Setting
Create the setting for your book, including the historical era, geographic region, cultural context, and any other pertinent information. A well-developed setting can help to establish the tone and atmosphere of the story, and can also provide important context for the actions and motivations of the characters.
This step can help you to avoid inconsistencies and plot holes in your novel. By establishing the rules and limitations of your world early on, you can ensure that the actions of your characters are consistent and believable. Be quite detailed; you can always revise it later.
Look at this fictional setting as an example of the atmosphere and conflicts that a setting can create:
The town of Salem’s Curse is a picture-perfect New England community, with its quaint white clapboard houses, neat lawns, and towering elms lining the quiet streets. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s name and life moves at a leisurely pace.
But Salem’s Curse played a role in the witch hunts of the 17th century, and you can still feel the weight of that history bearing down on you. Twisted gravestones and gnarled trees at the town’s cemetery cast unsettling shadows across the innocent victims’ graves, and the bell tower of the abandoned and crumbling hilltop church is groaning in the wind.
For the residents of Salem’s Curse, the past is ever-present, lurking just beneath the surface of their everyday lives. And as strange occurrences began to plague the town once again, they can’t help but wonder if the spirits of the accused witches had returned to seek their revenge.
6. Expand your Plot and Characters
Now that you know your plot and your main character, you can begin expanding the plot and its cast of characters into something that looks a bit like a story. This is the point of the outlining process where most pantsers will drop out, since they want to work on these details while writing.
Start by asking questions, and you will see your story magically expand:
- What is the main conflict?
- What are the main character’s goals?
- Why do the characters have the goals and motivations they do?
- What events or experiences have shaped them and influenced their desires?
- What are the obstacles the characters must face on their way to their goals?
- Are there other characters who have compatible or incompatible goals?
- Are there villains and what explains their motivations and actions?
- What are the stakes for the characters, and what are the consequences of failure?
- How do they overcome the obstacles in their way?
- What are the underlying desires, fears, and motivations of the characters, and how do these shape their actions and decisions?
- Who are the supporting characters, and how do they contribute to the story?
- How do the characters interact with each other?
- How do the important characters evolve over the course of the story?
- What are all the places that are relevant to the story, beyond just the main setting?
- How do the locations affect the plot and characters?
- When does the story take place, and what historical or cultural events might be relevant to the plot and characters?
- What is the theme or message of the story, and how does it relate to the characters and the plot?
This is essentially a brainstorming stage with questions that may yield inconsistent responses. If they do, simply pick the responses that lead to the best story and delete the old ones.
7. Structure Your Story
With all these details worked out, you can now choose a structure for your story. There are countless structures from which you can choose, and your choice will depend on the nature of your story. The structure involves the way that the plot components are arranged, or the order in which the story is told.
You will find a detailed breakdown of all the structures in our Story Structure guide, so let’s look at only the three most common ones here:
- Five-act structure: Start the story with an exposition of the status quo, followed by rising action, climax, falling action, and then the resolution. This works best in genres like drama and historical fiction where readers don’t expect non-stop action.
- The hero’s journey: Begin with the disruption of the protagonist’s ordinary life by a call to adventure. Then describe the challenges and adversaries they must face during their quest. They then return home victorious and transformed. This works great in fantasy, science fiction, superhero, coming-of-age, and any genre that includes action, self-discovery, and transformation.
- Fichtean curve: Dive straight into the rising action and drive the stakes higher and higher until you reach the climax. Then briefly resolve the conflict. This is the perfect structure for thrillers, action, adventure, and mystery where readers enjoy lots of fast-paced movement.
8. Create Chapter Summaries
Now that you crafted your plot and the sequence in which the events will occur, you can split your book into chapters. This is especially important for people who need a detailed outline to guide their writing. Minimal outliners will probably want to skip this and all the remaining steps.
Create a summary of each chapter that includes its main events and the characters involved. This can help you to ensure that the story flows smoothly and that all of the necessary plot points and elements are in place.
Since you will add some subplots later, you must revise this chapter outline as you proceed through the next few steps.
9. Identify the Themes
Identify the themes of your novel that carry deeper messages and make readers remember the story. Themes are underlying messages or ideas that are woven throughout the narrative and help to give the story meaning. Some common themes in literature include the power of love, betrayal, loss, redemption, and self-discovery, among others.
You can then revisit your chapter outline to weave the themes into the story, you can change the way in which the conflict is resolved to include them, or you can add subplots that incorporate them.
10. Add Subplots
Add subplots to your outline to build some depth and complexity into your story. These are secondary storylines that run parallel to the main plot and involve other characters or events. They can add tension and conflict by introducing new obstacles and challenges for the characters to overcome.
To help with formulating subplots, try some of the following:
- Ask yourself the same questions that you asked in step 6 above, but with your existing plot, characters, conflicts, and themes in mind.
- Understand your plot well enough so you can identify areas where you can add additional layers of conflict or complexity.
- Consider your characters, their backstories, and their motivations and think about how you can use these elements to create new plot threads.
- Consider the themes that you want to explore in your novel and how you can use subplots to support or expand upon them.
Once you have formulated your subplots, revise the chapters that you outlined in step 8 above to include them.
11. Include Character Arcs
Include character arcs in your outline to show how your characters develop and change throughout the story. This will help you to create more dynamic and relatable characters and to add emotional depth and meaning to your story.
Further, they can help you build subplots and trigger new ideas for the direction of your main plot. When characters undergo a transformation, it can create new conflicts and challenges for them to overcome.
Equally welcome is their ability to assist you to resolve your story in a meaningful and impactful way.
12. Outline Major Scenes
Because you know your plot and even subplots so well by now, you can outline the major scenes in your novel, including any action, dialogue, or important details that are necessary for the story to be told.
This is the most detailed that your outline will become, but you don’t have to write entire scenes, just brief two- or three-sentence summaries of them.
13. Consider Pacing
Read through the chapters and scenes you have outlined and make sure your story will include a balance of action, dialogue, and description. To do this well, you must keep in mind the preferences of the readers in your genre.
Action can help to create tension and conflict and can drive the plot forward. Thriller, action, adventure, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and crime/mystery readers appreciate that.
Dialogue is an effective tool for revealing characters and their relationships. Genres that focus on relationships and interpersonal conflict can contain a lot of that. These include romance, coming-of-age, historical fiction, drama, literary fiction, and comedy.
Description is good for creating a sense of atmosphere and setting, which can help to immerse the reader in the story if you use sensory details and vivid language. Readers of historical fiction, fantasy, horror, gothic, romance, and literary fiction are used to that.
14. Revise and Refine
Now that you have your outline, revise and refine it by adding more detail, removing anything that doesn’t fit, and making sure that it flows logically.
This will involve a huge amount of cleaning up of the results of your brainstorming and creativity from the previous steps. But once you start writing, you will thank yourself for a clean, coherent outline.
15. Use Your Outline as a Guide
Finally, use your outline as a guide as you write your book, but allow room for flexibility and creativity as needed.
When you write, you are completely inside the heads of your characters, you share their experiences, and you feel their emotions. This immersion may trigger new ideas for character behaviors and the events that might lead from those.
While this might be annoying if you want to work from your neat outline, rather see it as an opportunity to improve your story. But you may have to update your outline every time this happens so that it still guides you to where you want to go.
Book Outlining Software
Book outlining software can be a valuable tool for writers who want to streamline their outlining process and stay organized as they work on their projects. It is quicker than to do it by hand, and it is easier to delete and move around story elements.
Below, we’ll explore some of the most popular book outlining software options and describe their features.
Plottr is a software tool designed to help writers create visual outlines of their book projects while also maintaining a comprehensive story bible that keeps track of character and place names and other details. It is available on Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and as a web app.
By using Plottr, you can create a visual representation of your plot points using story cards, color-code your plotlines and scene cards, and build detailed character bios complete with images. With over 30 pre-made templates based on common story structures, as well as the ability to create your own, Plottr provides writers with the flexibility they need to tailor their outline to their specific needs.
Once you have completed your outline, you can export it to MS Word or Scrivener to begin writing your book.
Pricing: The price is $39, $49, or $99 per year, depending on the number of devices on which you want to run it. Otherwise, you can pay $139, $149, or $299 for lifelong use and upgrades. Only the most expensive plan can synchronize between devices.
Scrivener is a comprehensive program that writers can use to guide them from the first inkling of a book idea all the way through to a final manuscript. With outlining, writing, editing, referencing, and publishing features, it is the most complete writing software on the market, but it is only available on Windows and macOS.
For outlining, it has a cork board on which you can keep movable notes and images. The outliner connects the summaries of your chapters or scenes to your manuscript in a word processor, so if you rearrange elements in your outline, your manuscript is automatically adjusted to reflect that. Because it is not a specialist outlining app, however, it lacks the story templates that appear in Plottr.
Pricing: The macOS and Windows apps cost $49, while you will pay $23.99 for an iOS app with fewer features.
Plot Factory doesn’t only help writers to outline books, it also helps them to create the elements that go into them. With prompts and question lists, it is a great aid to create characters, settings, entire universes, and plots. It can even generate character names for you.
While it contains fewer than 10 templates, it does include the simple three-act structure and the comprehensive snowflake method. As in any self-respecting outlining software, it allows you to summarize chapters and scenes and rearrange them through easy dragging and dropping.
Pricing: It is available only as a web app, but there is a free version on which you can write one novel. The hobbyist, enthusiast, and novelist plans cost $90, $140, and $190 per year and differ with regards to the features they offer.
Novel Factory is almost more of a novel writer than an outliner, as it can both create story elements and outline your book. It is available as a web app, but it does work off-line too.
It facilitates the easy creation of plots, characters, and locations with the help of prompts, questions, and detailed guidance for each. The plot manager has templates for popular genres, and it even has a subplot manager to keep track of multiple plot threads. You can move any of the story elements around as you wish, and the detailed guidance on storytelling methods and realistic character creation is unparalleled.
Pricing: For $75 per year, you can have the basic plan that allows the writing of only one novel. The standard and premium plans cost an annual amount of $198 and $600, with both allowing the creation of unlimited stories, but differing with regards to the amount of online storage they offer.
Dynalist is more of a project and task manager than a book outliner, but since a book is a project, you can create its outline here too. It is available as a web app and on iOS, Android, and Windows.
It works with a list of files and folders in which you can summarize your chapters and scenes and detail your characters. You can move them around and change their colors and sizes to give you a good visual overview of your outline. You can also create links between different items in the list, such as placing a character at a specific location.
Pricing: Since the free version allows for the creation and rearranging of unlimited list items, you may not need the Pro version if outlining is your aim. The Pro version costs $56 per year and adds advanced functions like Google calendar integration, custom CSS, and the like.
Notion is also a general project planner rather than a specialist book outliner, but it can easily be used to outline your novel. It works with blocks of text, images, or tables that you can add to a page, very much like you would add chapter summaries and characters to a book outline. You can link them to each other and write notes for each.
The tool has a roadmap template into which a book outline can fit, and it includes a board database on which you can arrange cards with chapters or scenes. To top off the package, there is a pretty good text editor that can add elements such as lists and quotes for the storage of information.
Pricing: The free plan is more than sufficient for writers, but if you want to collaborate with more than one other author, you will need the plus plan at $10 per month or $96 per year.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s explore some of the most frequently asked questions about book outlining, from its length, format, and importance.
Why is a Book Outline Important?
A book outline is important because it provides writers with a roadmap for their book project. By creating a detailed outline, you can plan out the structure of your story, develop your characters and plot points, and ensure that your book is cohesive and well-organized. An outline can also help you to stay focused and motivated as you work on your book, providing a clear sense of direction and helping to prevent writer’s block.
What is a Book Outline Template?
A book outline template is a pre-made document that provides a structure for writers to use as they create an outline for their book. These templates typically include sections for different aspects, such as character development, plot points, and chapter summaries. They may also include prompts or questions to help you brainstorm and develop your ideas.
Can I Write a Book Without an Outline?
Yes, it is possible to write a book without an outline. Some writers prefer to write “by the seat of their pants,” allowing the story to unfold organically as they write.
However, writing a book without an outline can also have drawbacks, such as a lack of structure, consistency, or direction. Without an outline, you may find yourself struggling to keep track of plot points, character development, or pacing. This can result in a story that is disjointed or meandering, and may require extensive revisions or rewrites later on.
Outline vs. Summary: What is the Difference?
The main difference between an outline and a summary is that an outline is a detailed plan or structure for a book or other written work, while a summary is a condensed version of the work itself.
An outline typically includes information about the book’s overall structure, including chapter titles, major plot points, and character development. In contrast, a summary provides a brief overview of the book’s key events and themes, often with the goal of giving readers a sense of the story without spoiling the details.
Outline vs. Manuscript: What is the Difference?
The main difference between an outline and a manuscript is that an outline is a plan or structure for a book, while a manuscript is the written work itself.
An outline is typically a series of notes or summaries that map out the overall structure of the book. It is usually created before the writing process begins, and serves as a roadmap for the writer to follow as they work on the manuscript. In contrast, a manuscript is the actual written work, typically consisting of multiple chapters or sections.
How Long Should a Book Outline Be?
The length of a book outline can vary widely depending on the needs of the writer and the complexity and length of the book project. Some writers prefer to create a very basic outline with just a few pages of notes, while others may create a more detailed outline that runs to dozens of pages.
How is a Book Outline Formatted?
The formatting of a book outline varies depending on the preferences of the writer. Some authors write a text summary for each chapter and character, while others use a lot more drawings and images. Some use a linear format, while others scatter theirs all over a map.
Outlining is an important step in the book-writing process that can help writers to organize their ideas, develop their characters and plot points, create a coherent and engaging story, and remain motivated. By following the steps in this guide, you can create a well-structured and detailed outline that serves as a roadmap for your book project.