Outlining Your Book: Essential Tips for Authors
Not everyone likes to outline before they start writing, and if you prefer to let the story reveal itself as you write, don’t worry—we’re not trying to convert you. Every writer has their own process, and we believe you should do what works best for you. Still, we are here to encourage outlining because, in our experience, outlines help avoid plot holes and keep the story on track without restricting the writer’s imagination.
It’s a common misconception that outlining hinders imagination; in fact, applying restrictions fosters creativity as you must find ways to overcome the obstacles you’ve put in place. If you’re already in the process of writing your draft and are struggling with your structure, check out our big-picture editing for expert feedback.
Let’s start with the basics and see why you might want to consider outlining your novel before writing it.
How are outlines helpful?
Outlines allow authors to get all of their ideas out of their heads and onto a single document (whether digital or analog) where they can see the entirety of the story in one place. This is helpful because looking at the story as a whole makes it easier to spot plot holes, inconsistencies, and contradictions, as well as to adjust for flow and sequence.
In a sense, it’s like a quick test run for your plot—by taking this rough, big-picture view of the story, you can more easily judge whether it works and get a chance to tweak in advance the parts that don’t work well. You can rearrange, add, or delete sections and events with ease, saving yourself much time, effort, and frustration. If you don’t outline the book, you’d have to do all of that after writing the manuscript.
It’s impossible to keep every single detail and idea organized in your head, and those bits of paper, Post-Its, and napkins you keep in one of your numerous notebooks or at the bottom of a desk drawer aren’t exactly easy to refer back to, are they? An outline is basically the most orderly way to keep your story straight and build a type of guide, like a roadmap, so you don’t stray too far from your original idea once you start writing.
An outline should be loose enough to let the story breathe and adapt as you write it while reminding you where it is you want to go. Without this flexible guide, your manuscript could easily veer into irrelevant side plots that detract from the main story and that your eventual editor will almost certainly recommend cutting. Thus, it’s best to just save yourself time and effort with an outline.
Formatting your outline
There are plenty of ways you can choose to format your outline, and that choice ultimately comes down to what works best for you. Maybe it’s on a large piece of paper using colored pens and markers, a cluster of Post-Its on your wall, or a spreadsheet on your computer. A spreadsheet might sound completely out of place for a creative endeavor like writing a book, but it’s a great way to keep track of arcs, characters, subplots, and more; plus, it’s easy to modify.
Whatever you choose, you’ll see the best results from a format that’s well organized and allows you to easily follow the flow of your story as well as look up specific elements.
The main elements of an outline
An outline can be as broad or as detailed as you want it to be, but it should focus on the main plot points and major characters. To make it more detailed, you can create room for your subplots and minor characters and add notes to each of these elements, for example, what your characters want, their goals and desires, their qualities (both good and bad), and any relevant information about their past.
Basically, you want to keep in mind what they’re striving for and what their quest (external or internal) is so you can build their character arc in relation to each scene. When you’re deep into writing your draft, you should be able to consult your outline to answer questions about how your character would react to certain situations, how they feel about specific topics, and how they’re perceived by others (both other characters and readers). You may also note details about the world—maybe you’re writing about a magical fantasy realm, a sci-fi universe, or a historical setting, and notes about the way your world works may come in handy.
However, the main objective of an outline is to plot the story. Breaking it down into chapters, sections, or acts is a great way to track your pacing, major plot points, and the sequence of events in the order they appear in the story, which also makes it more manageable. At the very least, you want to plot out the key events and turning points to drive the plot forward and maintain the flow. Don’t just write down what happens in each scene but also what it means for the story. For example, your main character doesn’t just get betrayed by their best friend—their entire outlook on life changes as they now feel they can no longer trust anyone. Look for that deeper meaning of what a plot point represents for the story and the characters and how it will affect their choices and the outcome.
Once you’ve created an outline, writing your actual book will be far easier. Now that you know where you’re going, it’s like filling in the blanks for how each scene will develop. Don’t be too rigid as your outline shouldn’t hinder your story—sometimes the characters take you someplace unexpected, and you should follow them there. Don’t be afraid to modify it as you go along; instead, let your outline guide you and keep you on track. It is like a map, but ultimately, you’re the one choosing which path to take.
If you’d like to work with a professional on your structure, character arcs, and plot hole issues, check out our developmental services for authors.