How to Outline a Book in 7 Easy Steps

To Outline or Not to Outline Your Novel?

A large part of writing a fiction book is not so much the writing, but about learning how to take an idea and turn it into a full-fledged book.

This process is one that stumps most new authors. They have an idea, they think, “I should turn that into a book,” and then they sit down and start writing.

While this works for some successful authors, most authors never make it to “The End” through this method. Why? Because they get overwhelmed. They don’t know where their story is going. They get stuck, so they assume the idea isn’t good enough.

But it’s probably more likely that they just need a better plan.

Planning is an important part of doing most projects. You probably wouldn’t build a house, go on a vacation, or perform on stage without some semblance of a strategy beforehand. It helps to know what you’re getting yourself into.  

Outlining a book is the same principle; you want to know as much as you can before you start so you can go in with confidence…and make fewer mistakes as you go.

That being said, outlining isn’t for everyone. It may not be right for you. But you won’t know until you try.

There are so many different types, methods, and variations of outlining and one of them may be the perfect fit for you. If you're writing a memoir or nonfiction book, check out our article on outlining for nonfiction books.


Types of Outlining

Now that you’re on board with the importance of organizing your story, let’s take a closer look at how to organize it. For the purposes of this post, we’re breaking it down into four popular forms of outlining.

Certain types of outlines work best for different people. Whether you’re more visual or need more flexibility will make some methods work better for you than others. Like most areas of writing, it’s all about finding what’s best for you and your style.  

Summary outlining

The summary method is the simplest and most straightforward way of creating an outline.

This is where you’ll break down your book into chronological chapters or plot points with a short summary for each.

In these summaries, you’ll briefly detail what happens in the chapter, which characters are presents, where the scene takes place, etc. Go into as much or as little detail as you like.

If you like to start from the beginning of your story and think linearly, this method will be a good one for you. Just make sure you’re following your chosen narrative arc as you go.

Index card outlining

Index card outlining is popular and useful for its flexibility. This outlining method allows you to write short scene synopses on index cards and switch them around to find the best organization for your story.

This method is great for visual writers who don’t think linearly, but rather need to visualize and move scenes around in order to get a better understanding of their overall plot.

Index card outlining is also very helpful for books with multiple characters, subplots, and point of views, which can be difficult to keep track of without a strong visual representation.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping, or the “Snowflake Method,” is well-loved because it is very flexible and visual.

When creating this outline, you’ll write your main idea or premise in the center of a piece of paper and let your mind wander to various related sub-topics such as plot points, characters, settings, ideas, themes, etc.

As you think of new ideas, you can connect them to previous ideas and see how they can all work together.

Mind mapping is a great method to use if you want a lot of freedom to brainstorm every possible idea to see what works for your story. Once you get all your ideas down, it’s easy to go back and clean it up.

Which outlining method is right for you?

Ultimately, the method you choose and the detail into which you go will depend on how much freedom you want to have as you write.

While some writers just want the bare bones of a plot, others want to have all of their research, setting, characters, and scenes mapped out beforehand.

As you go through the steps of outlining, keep in mind that you don’t have to go into extreme detail with your outline. If you want to skip a step, or two, or six, that’s fine.

What’s important is that you develop a process that makes the writing stage much more productive for you! 

Steps to Outline a Book

1. Clarify Your Premise

Before you begin fleshing out your characters or mapping out your chapters, you first need to clarify your book’s premise.

Knowing what your story is about is the most important part of outlining a book because if your premise isn’t clear, all your other work could be a waste.

To develop your book’s central idea, you should ask yourself:

  • Who is my main character?
  • What is my main character’s goal?
  • Why does my main character have that goal?
  • Why should the reader care?

Once you have those things figured out, you can start creating your premise or topic statement that will guide you as you further develop your story.

For example: A young boy named Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard and learns how to perform magic while he comes face to face with his archenemy, Lord Voldemort, who threatens to take over the wizarding world.

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

2. Build Your Main Character(s)

Now that you have a premise, you can start figuring out the main characters that will bring your story to life.

You may be inclined to start building out your plot before this step, but here’s why you shouldn’t: all of your main characters need to have a strong goal that drives every decision in your story.

If you jump into the plot first, you can easily fall into the trap of writing passive characters; that is, characters who don’t play an active role in your story.   

Passive characters = a boring story.

Getting to know who your characters are, what motivates them, and what they want throughout your story will make outlining and developing your plot much easier—and much more interesting for the reader.

Learn more about creating captivating characters in this recorded webinar.

3. Choose Your Narrative Framework

Now that you have your central idea and your cast of characters, you can start building your plot.

This is often where authors become overwhelmed with outlining and choose to just dive into the story. But narrative structure is one of the most important parts of developing a plot, so don’t skip it!

There are many different types of narrative structures, from plot-focused to character-driven to linear to circular—so take some time here to decide what’s best for the story you’re trying to tell.

Once you decide on a narrative framework, it will be much easier to flesh out your scenes in the next step.

If you need help with narrative structure, check out this helpful guide on structuring a story.

4. Break Your Story into Scenes

Once you know where your story begins, ends, and the major plot points in the middle, it’s time to fill in the spaces with scenes.

This is one of the most difficult and tedious steps of outlining, because every scene needs to be interesting on its own while also feeding into the larger plot.

Just remember: every scene needs to have a goal, whether it’s to move the plot forward, expand or reveal characters, add humor, change the pace, or explore the theme.

Once you have a goal for every scene, you can work on making it interesting and engaging to hold the reader’s interest.

Author Sara Anne Fox’s advice for creating great scenes is to “start late and leave as soon as you can.” This ensures that readers are getting the necessary information for the plot, but don’t get bored or lost in unnecessary details.

5. Fill in the Details

Depending on how much detail you want in your outline, you may want to take some time in this step to think through any research, settings, secondary plot points, and other details that may be helpful to you when writing.

As we said earlier, the amount of detail in your outline is completely up to you and your writing style.

If you know your book requires a lot of research that may hold you back when writing, go ahead and do as much as you can now. It may help you in the long run.

If you’re writing a fantasy novel, for example, this would be a great time to do some world building and get a better sense of the landscape, customs, and other specifics of the world in which your characters will exist.

Or you can take this step to flesh out some minor characters and get to know them better. While these details may not all appear in the actual book, they will help you create more realistic characters.

6. Take a Closer Look

Now that you have a pretty good idea of what your book is going to look like from start to finish, it’s time to dive a little deeper into the mechanics before you begin writing.

Take this time to think about everything you’ve compiled. Does the pacing seem right? Have you added in necessary elements of foreshadowing?

Is every scene that you’ve outlined important to the story as a whole?

Again, this step is not necessary to creating an outline. Some writers prefer to work through the more tedious details in future drafts.

But if you’re not much of an editor—that is, you want your first draft to be as solid as possible—you should take some time now to get into the weeds a bit with your outline.

Now would also be a great time to get some feedback if you think you need it before you begin writing.

Keep in mind: it may be tough for others to visualize the story as well as you can. This is just an outline, after all, and won’t be nearly as engaging or interesting as a fully-written story.

However, if you have people you trust to give you good feedback on your plot, now may be a good time to ask for advice.

7. Step Back and Start Writing!

Now for the last—and possibly most important—step of outlining: stopping.

It’s extremely easy for writers to get lost in the weeds with their outline. It’s possible to get stuck at any step in the process and stay there, never feeling like it’s quite good enough.

But here’s the thing: your outline is never going to be perfect. There are some things you have to figure out while writing, and that’s OK!

Give yourself some freedom to discover your story as you go. Writing a book is a creative endeavor; don’t force yourself to stick to a rigid outline to the point where you forget to let your imagination do it’s thing.

So no matter how “perfect” you want your outline to be, there will always be opportunities to fix it later. Your outline is meant to be a guideline, not a set of rules. It’s your story, after all. You have the freedom to chance and adapt it as you go.

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