7 Ways to Outline Your Book & What To Do When You Get Stuck

To outline or not to outline? Is there something horribly wrong with you for not using them? Are you stuffing your beautiful creativity into a sausage casing with that outline?

New York Book Editors say throw them out. Outlines quash you. While Derek Murphy writes on the National Novel Writing Month blog that he not only uses outlines, he believes they remove 95% of the hesitation and writer’s block that causes most people to give up.

There are turning points and scenes that need to be included in your story — if they are missing it won’t connect with readers in an emotionally powerful way. And it’s a thousand times easier to map them out before you write your book.

Let’s unravel this quandary by starting with the basics.

What is this outline of which you speak?

Simply put, it’s a list of the scenes or chapters that make up the plot of your book from beginning to end. Think of it as you would a drawing. You create the shapes and structure of what you want to write. You have a basic sense of where each piece of the final picture will go, but you don’t yet have shading and depth. Those you fill in later.

Then when you write, you color in the lines, so to speak. Easy-peasy, right?

How do you outline?

Now things get a bit murky because there are as many ways to outline a book as there are books calling to be written. Whether you’re writing a novel, book of short stories, a non-fiction history, a how-to or guidebook or something else, outlines take different forms.

I once spent an hour working with a client on a book about her experiences as a comedian. In that hour, we did the following. First, I had her spend ten minutes writing down her write down a one-sentence description of her book. Second, I asked her to spend ten minutes jotting down all the ideas she had for her book in one list. Finally, she spent a last ten minutes organizing the bits she’d jotted down in the previous ten minutes into the order she thought they should be written. In only half an hour, she had a clear idea of what her book was about and how she was going to write it.

So yes, I do believe in the power of outlines, but I came to it the hard way.

I pansted my way through my first novel, just wrote with the hope that I’d find my way to the end the way I do with short stories. I wrote the scenes I knew had to be there then tried to tie them all together.

This did not work for me at all.

I ended up with about five-hundred (yes!) pages of poignant well-crafted scenes that didn’t tell a full story. There was no arc. Some major characters weren’t properly developed, so it was almost impossible to know what they’d do in any given situation. I had too many scenes and no idea what to do with them. Of course, it didn’t help that I was home at the time with a new baby, trying to adjust to motherhood and maybe get some sleep. Eventually, I dubbed the whole thing The Messy 500 and moved on with my life.

Years later, I went back and outlined my story, then took the various scenes bit by bit and puzzle pieced them into my outline. Only then was I able to create a real story from the mess of pages I’d written, but it was a frustrating process that would have been much easier had known sooner the story I wanted to tell.

Ann Patchett in The Getaway Car: A Practical Method About Writing and Life says she never starts with outlines.

During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines. I’m figuring things, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversize butterfly…. This book, of which I have not yet written one word, is a thing of indescribable beauty.”

The problem arises when you then go to write it down. What you put on paper rarely matches the gorgeous thing you’ve developed in your head.

Writing a book, she goes on to say, requires knowing how. By her fourth novel Bel Canto — which is in my top five favorite books of all time, it is so gorgeous — she finally figured out how to do it. Until then, you practice. Write often. You also take classes, workshops, read books on craft, join retreats and receive feedback from experienced readers who know how to help you structure your novel and develop your characters and plot.

This doesn’t mean you’ll need to write four novels before hitting your stride, it just means we all need practice.

My later books were non-fiction that naturally fell into categories, and therefore using an outline made sense. That outline became my table of contents (with some spruced up names for the chapters.)

Now, I’m writing a YA sci-fi novel, and I’ve decided to try Ann Patchett’s method of assembling the entire story in my head. I know my plot, my characters, and I even know the main character Parvaneh, a fifteen-year-old girl born in Argentina, dies at the end. This time, I will write an outline before starting to write.

Ways you can outline your book

While most of the resources in this post are free, a few are affiliate links. That means I’ll make a bit of money or will get a month of service for those products when you purchase. It won’t add a cent to what you buy.

Mind map that thing

You start with a central idea and then write the various scenes and ideas that stem from your main ideas.You don’t need to be too formal when writing a mind map. Instead, the opposite. Let your ideas flow without any restrictions or self-criticisms. There are no solid rules to mind mapping. Turn on music. Sit outside. Use crayons or colored pens. Write in your secret journal with your favorite pen. Whatever makes you feel comfortable and not worry about structure or grammar or any of the musts we too often associate with writing. Write them down quickly and without worrying about where things go or how they’ll fit together.

The point of a mind map is to tap into those thoughts that pop into your brain that moment right before you fall asleep, the ones you think you’ll never see again. Mind mapping allows you to dip back into that part of your brain. Then, you simply write whatever surfaces and let it slide down onto the paper. As you write, you’ll notice patterns forming.

When you’re done, take a gander at the map you’ve created and start to make connections between the various characters, ideas, and scenes. Literally, draw lines between the pieces that go together.

Some free apps to map your mind.

You can work from this mind map to begin writing or you can transfer them to a more formal outline structure.

Then you sit and start writing.

The Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method, created by Randy Ingermanson, offer a more formal and detailed approach.While an outline can be written quickly and is often best done without too much pondering, the Snowflake method takes more time to develop but really helps you expand each of the parts of your outline to a much greater degree before you start writing the first draft.

You start with general details. The main idea. Your scenes. Your characters. Then with each successive step, you develop further until you have a solid plot and outline for your novel.

Then you begin writing.

The Simple Outline

Start at the beginning, then write in the scenes you know you want in the order you think you want them to go.

You can do this with one of the many outline generators online. Or you can do it with paper and pen. You can also write each piece of your outline on a notecard and then reorder them as you wish. I’ve been known to hang a wire across my office and attach the notecards with clothes pins. Scrivener, which you can purchase for Mac or for your PC,has a corkboard option that allows you to do the same reorganization but digitally. Or you can go super analog and use Post-Its on your wall.

Then sit and write.

The Reverse Engineered Outline

It’s like planning a trip, really. You know you want to go to Amsterdam and you have can be away for three weeks. So you reverse engineer your trip. You plan when you have to be back, then fill in the points from your end date and plan to the beginning.

So it is with writing this book. Start by writing your ending. Then work your way backward until you reach the beginning.

When you’re done… yes, you know what’s next. Pen in hand. Or hands on the keyboard. Write.

The Nine Point Plot Hero’s Journey Method

This is the method I mentioned earlier by Derek Murphy. You first define the ordinary life of the hero or heroine. Then there’s an incident that changes everything. Your heroine makes a choice, creating a point in the plot of no return which leads to the first pinch point. A pinch is a plot twist that forces your heroine to act. Perhaps her parents die. Or a giant meteor crashes down on her small town and she has to leave. Or perhaps she learns of the person who has created all her problems and sets out to find and inflict her revenge.

You can read the rest of the plot points and specifics for creating them on Derek’s NaNoWriMo blog post.

Then when you’re done, you plonk your butt in your chair and write.

The Three Act Structure

This includes the 1. opening scene to set the characters and mood followed by 2. an inciting incident that spurs on the action of the novel all leading to the 3. point of no return. These three points of reference allow you to create a specific arc and structure of the book while leaving space for you to change and move around the details of the plot as you go.

The Six Part Outline

An expanded version of the three acts, the six-part outline helps you plot more points on your arc while still leaving more room for your story than the more strict nine plot points of the hero’s journey.

The six points are

  1. Exposition. Where everything begins. You introduce setting, some characters, the time and place.
  2. Inciting incident. What happens to spur your characters to action?
  3. Rising Action. The pertinent characters take the action made necessary by the inciting incident
  4. Climax. The crux of the story. When all elements come together to answer questions, You’ll see the initial incident and action all play out in a dramatic event.
  5. Falling Action. The result of the climax.
  6. Resolution. Where everything is resolved. Happily or sadly is your choice, bringing us to the end of the story.

Free apps to help you outline your novel

Trello. Evernote. Google Docs or Sheets are also fantastic when writing alone and if you’re collaborating with someone else or getting input from others. You can also use theNaNoWrimo site to outline and write your novel.

What if you don’t know what comes next?

Outlines are great when you know all the parts of your book, and you can flesh them out further with mind maps and free writing. But what happens when you get stuck? If you don’t know the inciting incident? Or what will pinch your character enough to set her on her journey?

As with anything in writing, there are no hard and fast rules. That’s why writing a book can be so frustrating. You have to follow your instinct as you follow your own writing process.

If you’re writing a travel guide, you’ll create sections that make sense for the place you’re visiting. If you’re writing a cookbook, you’ll include chapters that focus on the type of food you’re highlighting as well as techniques to help home cooks prepare the recipes you include. If you’re writing a how-to book, you’ll break whatever you’re teaching — from how-to start a business to how-to organize your writing into a career to how-to turn your old wood into vibrant new furniture — into steps that allow your readers to follow along.

When you’re writing something that doesn’t have as obvious a structure — novels, creative non-fiction, non-fiction — you may find you want to start writing at the beginning and just work your way through, and use outlines to help you keep track of what you’ve written. But always keep your timeline and book structure in mind as you write, so you don’t end up with the Messy 500.

When you know your characters, you know what they’ll do

In addition to the tools I’ve mentioned here, character development will help move your story forward. Isabel Allende in Conversations with Isabel Allende says to follow your characters if you want to know the story.

What I have learned in all these years is that you have to let things go in life and in the writing. And if you just follow your characters around you will get a story in a more natural way. They are not flat comic-book characters that you can order around. You have to let them live.

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume she’s talking about Veronica and Archie and not the brilliant graphic novels that have developed such beautiful characterization. So when you get stuck on a plot point, develop your characters and see where they lead you.

Really, your outline is another part of your writing process. If it helps you, do it. Invariably, you’ll find yourself stuck at some part in the writing, and then it is always useful to have some new trick or tool up to shake things up and unstick you. Or if you have too much of your idea floating in your head, writing it down in an informal outline can create a shape and make connections between your chapters suddenly clear.

Choose a method, and if it works for you, fantastic. If not, try something else.(This is also my mantra for parenting, by the way.)

Then, once you have the shape, direction, and main idea, you have to sit your ass in your seat and get to the writing, knowing that what you write will not be perfect or pretty. That it won’t match that brilliant idea you have in your head. But you keep going and keep writing until you have your Shitty First Draft done.

And then the editing begins.

Have you used an outline for your writing? I’d love it if you’d leave a comment letting me know how it worked for you.

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Ready to write your book? Send me an e-mail at leigh@thefutureisred.com and get started.