BC Brown Books

How To Write a Book Outline

Spread the love

Many writers hate outlining while others think it indispensable. Some only loosely outline while relying on spontaneously written key scenes to patch to an outline.

Which kind of writer are you? Have you tried to one of the other two types of writing?

There are those against outlining who enjoy citing their pleasure in discovering the story during the writing process. They learn all about their characters as they write, uncover secrets about the world, and possible uncover secrets about themselves as they write moment-by-moment. 

For writers who prefer to outline, they cite that having an outline makes their storytelling easier, more fluid, and stronger for the reader. They also discuss how efficiently they write with an outline compared to not having one, saying they don’t have to stop when they encounter a hiccup in the story because they’ve accounted for those hiccups, or lessened them, beforehand. 

Picking Your Outlining Process

There are many successful writers who subscribe to both camps of outlining beliefs.  But ultimately, it seems like they all have some sort of pattern they stick to that words for them

  • Henry Miller literally outlined by drawing a map for his outline for “Tropic of Capricorn.”  
  • William Faulkner wrote his outlines on his walls.
  • Stephen King, in his book On Writing, claims he never uses an outline.
  • Joyce Carol Oates revealed that every book she writes is outlined from opening sentence to closing sentence.

Literally, there no rules.

The whole point of outlining is the story, not the outline itself.  Whatever your form of organization, or creating a sort of timeline for your story, should excite and inspire you. In the end, you should want to tell the story more after outlining. 

Why You Think You Shouldn’t Outline:

Many authors think that outlining is counterintuitive; that an outline should only be created, if needed, after the story has been written.

Outlines got their stigma from high school assignments when you had to draw up boring, uninspiring outlines. Since it seemed like the least interesting and uncreative part of writing the story, the outline was often overlooked entirely or used improperly.

Outlining is not uncreative, it’s a process.  It is both a right and left brain activity.  

The goal is to find an outline that serves and is served by both your right and left brain.

Key Points to Remember:
  • Habit is key.  As you find your way, or once you have found it, make a habit to outline using the same method. Habits breeds familiarity, when you’ve made time for it.
  • Outlines change.  People change.  Plots change. Let go of the idea that creating stand familiarity breeds fluidity and ease of use. As creatives we want to do what feels right and what inspires us, and that’s okay.  But you must also have a routine. When you commit to a routine, inspiration will come in two ways: when you’re not expecting it and precisely when you need it to happen.
  • A recipe, nothing more. Like a recipe, your outline is a loose list of suggestions, an idea of where you want to go and why. Recipes give us a starting, middle and ending, but the dish is up to the creativity of the chef involved, not just the recipe.
To start building your story, and in each scene, you need to establish:
    • Setting: Where does this scene take place?
    • Character: Who are the characters participating in this scene?
    • Plot: What is this scene about?
    • Contribution: How does this scene contribute to the overarching theme of the story?
When you are writing a story, you need:
    • A crisis or change in your character’s life.
    • Tension.
    • A satisfying climax and ending.

It’s okay to deviate from your outline a little, to chase new stories within your story.  Give yourself the creative liberty to “waste some time” on a new idea you might have, even if it comes to naught, within the outline or the story itself.

5 Methods of Outlining

1.  The Old Fashion Way

Remember high school? Teachers made you outline every essay, every paper and every research project.  You learned to hate Roman numerals for what they represented: the introduction, the body, and finally the conclusion.  It looks something like this:

I. Intro will be about … Blah

II.  Blah and then Blah

III.  Finally… Blah blahbitty blah

It may bring back some high school negative nostalgia but it can still come in handy and is probably the most thorough and well-structured outline.

In your first Roman numeral, title the scene.  Then write down the setting and the characters involved.

In the following uppercase letters, write what your character is doing.  List any explanation you feel necessary to help build the story.  This is where you will establish the plot.  

In the subsequent lowercase Roman numerals include as much information as you’d like from dialogue between characters to thoughts to physical actions.  

Then skip a line and explain how this scene contributes to the overarching point of the story.  Every scene must inform the plot and bring you closer to a satisfying conclusion of your story.

Be as descriptive or as vague as desired.

2.  The General

(If you’re a person who likes to unpack and discover during the drafting process, this form of outlining will only ask you to lay out the general idea for the timeline of your story.)

  1. Write the scene number.
  2. Then title the scene, identifying the action that is taking place in the scene.  You can also identify whether the scene is taking place inside or outside. 
  3. Define the setting.
  4. Define who the characters are.
  5. Define the plot.
  6. Define how this scene contributes to the rest of the story.

3.  Flash Cards

One of the easiest outlines, it is also one of the most fun.  You can carry your cards around with you anywhere you’d like and you can experiment with reorganizing scenes and changing the structure o your story.

When it comes to structure of a story, think of it this way.

Each paragraph/scene is an essential building block to the story.  What does the scene/paragraph say and do to contribute to the overall picture?  Now, say someone took the scene apart, could they put it back together again, like a puzzle, easily?

To practice this method:

Put each scene on a flash card, scatter them, and have someone put them back together in the correct order. If they can, it  means your story makes sense and can be followed.  If they can’t or it doesn’t make sense, then you know which pieces need to be re-worked on, moved around or discarded.  

You can even use the method yourself and scatter your scenes by throwing them on the floor or tossing them in a large bag until they are mixed up. Then you have the fun of putting it all back together in the proper order.   This technique allows you to see how well put together your story is.                                              

5.  The Wall

Grab a crayon and get messy! Post your scenes up on your wall using note cards, inspiring pictures, drawings, magazines, newspapers and whatever else your heart desires.  Either in chronological order, or spread out in order of importance to you, there is no wrong way with writing this book outline. Rather,  the point is to define each scene with as many pictures and clippings to give you a good idea of what that scene contains.

  1. Create a section on your wall, whiteboard, or bulletin board. This spot will be dedicated to inspirational pictures, clippings, and writings that inform your over all story.  
  2. Then create a section for one scene and one scene only.  Everything gets its own space, establishing an “organized” mess.
  3. In each scene section use notecards, post-it notes, or a taped piece of paper. There are no rules with which to hinder your creativity.
  4. Start with pictures of your setting.
  5. Next, post pictures of what your characters might look like. Don’t worry about accuracy; this is to get a general feeling about their appearance, demeanor, style, etc.
  6. Then post some quotes from the story. I recommend using bits of dialogue, maybe your opening sentences, and any other inspirational messages or writings associated with your story.
  7. And, finally, write what this scene has to do with your overall story.

There is a lot of detail to add when writing this book outline, however, the wealth of detail it can reveal is invaluable.

Remember that this type of outline is a visual experience. The photos and writings inspire your story, and the permanent visual representation of your story will increase your motivation to write as well.

This book outline is very much inspired by your right brain. It is a perfect blending of a left and right brain collaboration which can only lead to making you a stronger writer.

If needed, after doing a brain map/visual outline, you could write a more formal outline where you’re left brain has the chance to fill in the gaps, analyze, and ask necessary questions. Not to mention, you would then be able to more easily transport this type of outline with you when not at your home office.

Really, it doesn’t matter what outlining method you use to write your book. Pick what works for you, or any combination you need, so long as you don’t make your work harder than it needs to be.

Remember also that, even though you have outlined your book, outlines are guidelines for writers. The plan that is your outline is not set in stone, but if prepared well, you will find that you will not deviate much what you have outlined in the first place.

IMAGE: Woman with red hair and wearing a green shirt while playing the piano.

About BC Brown

BC Brown grew up in Vincennes, Indiana, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 2013. She started blogging in 2006, approximately one year before publishing her first fantasy novel under the pen name B.B. Walter (out of print).

After committing nearly every bad deed in the proverbial book of how to be an author, BC began studying marketing and public relations. She now provides common sense marketing for authors that is simple to implement. She continues to write and publish in the urban fantasy, contemporary fiction, and transgressive fiction genres.

She set up Fantastically Weird Media in 2010 to publish her second novel when she realized she wanted to independently control her own publishing as well as offer editing and marketing services to fellow writers. You can interact with BC online, on Facebook, on Twitter and on Instagram.

In addition to her writing and marketing career, BC has been the Director of Marketing and Communications for 3 nonprofit Arizona organizations, and the Manager of Digital Marketing for the Arizona Department of Education. She is a certified in Crisis Communications as a Public Information Officer and is active in local and state political advocacy groups for human rights.

BC has more than 15 years experience in sales and marketing, including owning and running 2 businesses in Indiana and Illinois. She lives with her partner and is claimed by a German Shepherd mix and a long-haired black cat. BC loves karaoke and Star Trek and hates coffee and coconut.