QUESTION: I have written and published 4 books and I'm working on fifth. I have no idea on how to write a book outline.



Spoiler alert - Not all writers use outlines. Some prefer to swing from the hip. This method of winging it or "pantsing", is absolutely acceptable and can be very effective. Yet, there are also those that benefit from a blueprint.  Outlining can help you organize your thoughts, visualize potential structure, and further flesh out and develop your story.

So, let’s take a look at popular forms of outlining and how to get started.

Classical Outlining

For many, this method may seem the most familiar. A classical outline is highly organized and built on sequential thinking, making use of Roman numerals, letters, and numbers for headings and subheadings.  It brings order to work by differentiating main ideas from supporting ideas while allowing for cohesion.  This can be a great authors as it allows you to pick out your most important ideas, group those ideas, and coordinate them appropriately.

Mind Mapping

For those that prefer a more organic approach to outlining, mind mapping or clustering may be just the ticket. Focused on creating a network of ideas, mind mapping often begins with a primary idea bubble. That bubble is then surrounded by related and supporting ideas bubbles connected by a series of lines that effectively knit the whole concept together. The end result is a “web” of ideas that can be used to weave your story.

Summary Outlining

Summary outlines are linear in nature and often the most straightforward. In a summary outline, writers often start out with a sequentially ordered list of plot events or beat sheet.  Then a short summary of each chapter is written. Characters, settings, and chapter timelines are all included, and a clear goal is defined for each chapter.

Index Card Outlining

If you have a non-linear writing style this outline format is right up your alley. Index card outlining involves creating short scene synopses that can be easily rearranged. Rather than traditional note cards, many writers now use Post-It notes because they can be easily arranged on a wall, offering a more visual way to follow the story’s plot. For the tech savvy, there are also a number of computer programs boasting user-friendly outlining features, these include Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Scrivener.

Mind mapping is just one type of outline that writers can use to plan their story or book.

Getting Started

Just as there is no one way of outlining, there is no one way to get started. However, for those that would like a little more direction, here are a few general guidelines:

Decide What Your Book is About

Knowing what your story or narrative is about is the most important part of outlining. If you don’t have a clear idea of what your book is about, you could end up wasting time in the writing. So before you dive into your characters or chapters, be sure of your concept.

As you think about your central ideas, ask yourself:


• Who is my main character?
What is my main character’s goal and what is keep him/her from reaching it?
Why does my main character have that goal?
Why should the reader care?


• What problem will my book address?
• What information or solutions will it provide?

• What makes my book on this topic different from what’s already out there?

• What expertise can I offer and what additional research is required?

Your premise doesn’t have to be extremely specific or detailed, but it should establish whether your idea is hearty enough to sustain an entire book (or five).

Fiction - Consider Your Narrative Structure, Plot and Scenes

Narrative structure is one of the most important parts of developing a plot - don’t skip it! There are many different types of narrative structures, including plot-focused, character-driven, linear and circular. Take some time to decide what is best suited to your story. Choosing a narrative framework can help you flesh out your scenes as you progress.

Every scene needs to have a goal. As author and screenwriter Art Holcomb explains, every scene should be thought of as a “small movie with a beginning, middle and end, and there should always be a mission associated with each scene.” These goals can include moving the plot forward, revealing characters, adding humor, exploring the theme etc. This is often among the more challenging aspects of outlining since every scene needs to be interesting on its own AND contribute to the larger plot.

It's important to understand how to properly structure your story so that it keeps readers engaged.

Nonfiction – Create an Initial Table of Contents and Consider Your Structure

A table of contents or ordered number of chapters, is a critical component of a nonfiction work and often serves as a natural starting point. While it may be subject to change as your work evolves, devising an initial TOC can be very helpful in giving direction to the writing and research process. When it comes to constructing a TOC, transparency and clarity is the name of the game. The goal is to set expectations for the reader and make it easy for them to immediately discern what the book is about and where they can find specific information. Ideally, a well written table of contents should tell the story of the book. To take your organization a step further, you can also consider using headings and sub-headings. These distinctions split the material into easily digestible chunks.  These delineations are not only helpful to you as the author, but are also particularly useful to nonfiction readers who frequently skim through, looking for the most pertinent and useful sections.

There are a variety of structures for nonfiction books. Some of the more popular include: chronological, instructional, biographical, thematic and topical. Consider what option makes the most sense for your work. Think about how you defined your premise – what solution or information does your book provide? What about your story is important to your audience? These questions can help you zero in on a structural sweet spot.

Get Writing!

Don’t get lost in the weeds of your outline. It can be easy for writers to get stuck on a particular section and wind up obsessing about making it perfect (yep, been there).

Relax. Accept that there may be some things you have to figure out in the writing process. Remember, writing a book is a form of artistic expression so leave room to let your imagination do its thing.

Above all, think of your outline as a guide - not a rulebook. Give yourself permission to adapt and explore as you go!