Our guide for outlining a book is perfect for all those current or aspiring writers out there! We’ve been writing for decades, from four indie publications, short stories for a popular online game, and award-winning fanfictions. Knowing where you are going from the start helps craft a beautiful story. There are some writers that prefer to “wing it” in their first draft and rely heavily on multiple rounds of re-writing and revisions to pull the story together. That is perfectly fine! But if you are like us and prefer a strong first draft based around a comprehensive outline, then this one is for you!
We’ve talked about brainstorming and getting ideas in older posts, so we are not going to rehash that here. We recommend drawing inspiration from music, games, books, nature, art, etc to generate multiple pages of ideas before whittling it down to the skeleton of a story. Then, you are ready for the outline!
Create Your “Acts”
So, you’ve got a loose series of notes and ideas for your book. How do you go about outlining a book from these? The first step is to organize your ideas into “acts”. We personally prefer the three-act structure, but others may prefer more complex structures. We like to have a beginning section to get the ball rolling, a middle section with rising drama and intense moments, and then a final act that is very emotionally-driven and large-scale. We also like to end each act on a “cliffhanger” or an emotional climax. When going through your notes, divide them into three parts (or more if you prefer) to set up your act structure. At this point, only focus on your major “scenes” such as characters leaving home, fights, deaths, developing romance, or entering new locations.
Character Arcs & Plot Points
At the start of each of these acts, write down some notes on what characters arcs you would like to be present. For example, does a character start out greedy in act one, having things taken from them in act two leading to self-reflection, and then in act three change their ways and behave honestly? It doesn’t matter if your outline doesn’t fully support it at this point, just write down how this arc is divided across the acts.
Do the same thing with your major plot points. The point of this while outlining a book is to ensure your plot is complete and makes sense. Let’s have an example from Phantom Five. In act one, we establish not all is as it seems in Brother Zok’s town. In act two, we have him discover treachery and set out into an unknown land to set it right. In act three, we follow him attempting to return home through challenges which change him into a stronger, more world-wise person.
Refine Your Scenes
Now you have your act structure and character and plot arcs written down. Go over these arcs and add in minor scenes into your outline to ensure these arcs are achieved. You can also take away scenes that you feel compromise these arcs. This might include something simple like “character has a conversation with her mentor on why she used to steal, but her life is changed now”, or “characters stop at a tavern and overhear conversation about the enemy army”.
Chapters & POV’s
What helps us the most when outlining a book is dividing it into chapters. That gives us clear breaking points for the story, shows us the pacing, and helps identify where scenes are needed, or not needed. Take the outline and break it down by chapters in a way that feels right to you. Some writers like short chapters, some like long. Ours tend to be an average of 4K words, but that depends on the content of the chapter and where a chapter “break” feels natural. Ending chapters on cliffhangers, emotional moments, or transition scenes works well.
If you are varying point-of-views like we do in Thread of Souls, then you’ll also want to choose a POV for each chapter. This may involve moving some scenes around to make sense based on whose POV is most impactful.
Read Over & Finalize
Now it is time to read over the outline of your book from start to finish! Here you are looking for good pacing, clear arcs, strong characters, and a solid plot. Make sure you have plenty of high points, as well as some “quiet scenes” to balance them out. If you are writing part of series, it also is good to keep in mind how this book works in the grand scheme of the series plot.
Make adjustments as needed until you are satisfied with how your book is at this stage of the process.
Enjoy the Writing Journey!
The most important thing is to enjoy this journey as a writer! When outlining a book, you give yourself a solid base from which to start. But that doesn’t mean you won’t change and revise plenty until your book is in its final form. Enjoy the process of telling a story, and tell it from the heart!