book outline

How to Write a Book Outline

Ann O'Brien

October 17, 2022

Whether you hope to pen a personal memoir, craft a winning mystery novel, or write a nonfiction book about a compelling topic, likely some pre-work before sitting down to write the book is needed. And the organizing of content into a book outline is a common pre-writing strategy that many authors use. But what is an outline? And do I need to use one? Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about making an outline and how to use this strategy to make your next book project look great.

What Is a Book Outline?

An outline is a pre-writing strategy that helps writers organize their thoughts, ideas, and ultimately the content they are considering before authoring a book or other project. While they can take many forms, all kinds of outlines typically share common traits. They can be written in a structured, formal pattern using numbers, Roman numerals, or another listing method. The organization of the outline matches how the book or project will be ordered, and some sections will be fleshed out with additional details, descriptions, or other information.

Synopsis vs. Outline

Authors may use both a synopsis and an outline to describe their book project contents. And while an outline is structured and developed to assist the author in the writing process, a synopsis is a brief overview of the book’s contents meant to provide a snapshot of the theme or general plot of a completed book. But a synopsis is very different from an outline and both are used for different reasons by authors.

  • An outline is written before the book and the synopsis may be written after the book is completed.
  • An outline includes details of the story while a synopsis contains no “spoilers.”
  • A book outline is used to help the author plan the story, while a synopsis is written to help readers understand what the book is about.
  • An outline is not published while a synopsis may be published as a book description that could be used on a book’s jacket or as an online book marketing tool.

Types of Outlines

A book outline can be crafted in a few ways depending on the type of content the author is planning to write.

1 Thematic Outlines – commonly used in nonfiction books, authors can structure their outline to focus on portions of their content that explore or present the chosen theme(s)

2 Plot Outlines – the most common type of outline used by fiction writers that helps writers plan the beginning, middle, and end of each plot arc; writers may create multiple plot outlines for one book

3 Story Outlines – more detailed than a plot outline, a story outline may include character, setting, and theme information in addition to plot arcs

Developing a Book Outline

Since an outline’s purpose is to help a writer formulate the structure of their book, authors will think through some ideas prior to creating the outline. But some authors will also find that the steps to create an outline are actually part of the book writing process as well.

 Plot

Determine the main plot line of your book and any themes you want to present. You may already have a general idea of your story (a young girl finds an ancient object that opens the portal to a new world), but the plot of the book may include multiple characters as well as subplots (the main character’s friends or family members and their experiences along the way). Think through what you want to happen in the book as well as when it occurs relative to the rest of the story.

 Characters and Setting

Define the key characters and clarify the book’s setting. Some authors go into great detail about characters and the book’s settings in the book outline, while some authors choose to vaguely describe each, leaving the detail work to the writing phase.

Purpose

Write an introduction paragraph or two that defines the purpose or reason behind the story. Authors usually have a goal or focus for their work. When this purpose is clearly defined before the book is written, it can be easier to work on supporting details throughout the book during the writing process. For example, if you are writing a nonfiction book to inform readers about a scientific discovery, the purpose would include why you see the discovery as relevant to the reader so you can focus on showing that importance throughout the book.

 Plot Summaries

Write a summary paragraph or two to explain how the plot lines and character conflicts occur within the story. These summaries are the starting point for your outline. Once they are written out in barebones form, the order in which they occur in the story (and the outline) can be swapped around until the order feels right.

 Scenes

Once you have the plot and storylines expressed and placed into the order you want, it’s time to be more specific in your book outline if you choose to. Keeping the order of the plot in mind, many authors now create an outline section for each scene that will show readers how the action will take place. To do this, think about creating a cinematic expression of how the plot will play out:

  • What characters are present
  • Where they are located
  • What is said and either create the dialog now or summarize what the characters say or think about
  • What actions happen in the scene

By creating these detailed scenes that show the plot(s) unfolding, your outline will develop the shape of your book’s story. Some authors may write these detailed scenes in an outline for their entire book or only write them for critical or key scenes they plan to include. Since an outline is a planning tool and not a required part of writing, authors can create outlines that will help them write their book while omitting portions of the outline process that may not be helpful.

Conclusion

The final portion of an outline involves writing a wrap-up sentence or paragraph for each plot line. Authors can use this portion of the book outline to ensure that each storyline is concluded appropriately and completely and provide a place to plan for future book sequels.

Why Should I Use a Book Outline?

You may be asking yourself if using an outline will help you or if it will be a waste of your time. But using an outline as part of the writing process can help you in a few ways. First, it can give you a roadmap to follow when writing, keeping you focused during the sometimes-long writing phase. Focusing on the pre-writing step of outlining can help some authors minimize writer’s block later on, since some of the creative focus happens during outlining. Another reason why you might want to consider using an outline is that it can help authors discover plot “holes” during the planning process rather than during the writing phase.

When Outlines May Not Help

Not all authors like using outlines. Sometimes writers say they are demotivating because they make authors feel like they have already written their book once the outline is finished and so the writer loses motivation to keep working. Outlines are also fairly structured, contrary to the creative act of writing. So some authors dislike outlines because they don’t feel as creative as writing. And finally, some authors just get bored with non-writing activities and lose interest while outlining their book.

Tips for Creating a Novel Outline

If you are writing a novel, your outline process might include a freewriting or brainstorming stage.

Character brainstorming can help you flesh out the characters, their descriptions, and to “hear” what they will be saying.

Plot freewriting can assist authors in developing multiple plot options to choose from while planning out their stories.

 Tips for Creating a Memoir Outline

When you are the subject of the book, the outline process should include each of these sections for planning your memoir:

  • The “life lesson” or purpose for telling your story and how it may relate to the cover of your book so potential readers will be intrigued and want to pick up your memoir
  • Informational sections that are injected with personal, funny, or meaningful stories
  • Childhood events that contributed to your story
  • Key personality traits or characteristics that define you
  • Important relationships that shaped who you are
  • Key life events in adulthood

Moving from Book Outline to Published Book

Planning, outlining, and writing your book is the most creative stage of becoming an author. But once your book is ready to be published, make sure you work with a trusted printing company like Publishing Xpress so your book will look great and will show off your many hours of hard work bringing your concept to life.

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