I’ve written five books with over 80,000 readers delving into them. The common theme among all these books? I started with a book outline.
Now many people detest book outlines because they believe it hinders creativity and doesn’t help them become a better writer. They have similar feelings toward book writing software. Because they rather rely purely on their imagination when connecting all the dots as they type along.
For full-time authors, this strategy is easier as they only have to think about their book. For the rest of us juggling a full-time job with writing a book, it’s important we have more structure so we don’t we forget these dots when we come back later to connect them. That’s how we become better writers.
It’s painful to skip over a book outline. For example, I wrote a 50,000-word rough draft for the first half of my fantasy book. I didn’t outline any of it. Because I was working a full-time job, I had to let go of completing the rough draft for a couple of months to focus on work-related tasks. The problem is when I came back to the rough draft, I’d forgotten why I had structured the book the way I did.
I didn’t remember the importance of many of the characters. The plot didn’t make sense anymore. Neither did the settings. Moreover, I had to re-read all 50,000 words to get a strong understanding of the book before I started writing again.
To date, I have yet to finish writing that book. However, I’ve written five other books ranging from one hundred pages to five hundred pages. All those completed books had an outline.
To understand the importance of creating the right book outline and how to implement it, let’s dive in.
Outline Your Book To Become a Better Writer
There are many reasons to outline your book:
- Write your book faster
- You can come back to your book later with ease
- You can create a better ecosystem for your book’s story without losing track of all the pieces
- If using a writing software to outline such as Squibler, you’ll have a place to store all your notes and documents to access them faster
- It helps an editor understand your story faster, which helps them edit faster (this may save you a lot of money)
- It gives you the confidence that your book is structured in a way that readers will enjoy it
Even with all these benefits to using an outline, it doesn’t guarantee your book will be a success. However, it will help you get there. Before you dive into defining the characters and settings of your book, you need to start with the most important and often overlooked factor of an outline.
A Book Outline Starts with Purpose
If you don’t have a strong purpose behind writing your book, the chances are you won’t complete it. The reason is writing a book takes a tremendous amount of effort. This includes hundreds of hours sitting at a desk and typing, many hours collaborating with your editor and book designer, and then hundreds of hours – maybe thousands – marketing your book.
Most people draw a blank face at the question of purpose. Little do they know, there’s a scientific way to find your purpose behind writing a book. It begins with testing and experimenting around what you love to do and what you love to write. This is the first critical step if you want to become a better writer.
The reason for experimenting around what you love to do is when we write, we draw from experiences. Ideally, these are experiences that have a strong meaning to us. What you love to write may be different than what you love to do. For example, I love running but I don’t write books about running.
It takes experimenting to know what you should write about. By experimenting, you’re creating MVPs of your book. For example, a good way to know whether you truly want to write a fantasy novel is by answer fantasy writing prompts.
To give you a head start, I recommend applying the Hedgehog Concept to decide what to write about. This concept is based on an ancient Greek parable by poet Archilochus that states,
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
See, the fox tries many ways to catch the hedgehog as its food. It runs around, jumps, sneaks up and even plays dead. However, it loses because it can’t get through the hedgehog’s spines. The fox never understands that the hedgehog survives because it does one thing exceptionally well: defends itself.
This idea hit mainstream popularity when famous author and researcher, Jim Collins, expanded upon it in his classic 2001 book, Good to Great. Collins argued that companies succeed if they can identify what they can do best and grab onto it by devoting all energy and resources to pursue it.
These are the companies that survive in the long run. But there’s a lot that goes into pursuing what you can be the best at. Jim Collins noted that you need passion and understanding of the economic engine that will drive it.
If you replace the word “companies” with “writers,” you’ll understand exactly how this applies to you.
So how does this idea play into being an exceptional book writer?
You need to find the middle ground in your writing among passion, your ability to become the best, and making money. I’ve been writing almost every day for seven years. The only way to make that possible is to first believe that there’s a balance, then find it.
The belief came when I founded an online publication and realized I enjoyed the process of writing. Finding the balance came when I started working for a software company and discovered my passion for writing about technology tools.
Now, it’s up to you to find that balance. It starts with MVPing your writing subject whether with writing prompts or blog posts. Start small, then work your way up.
A Book Outline Needs Mindmapping
Many people brainstorm ideas, yet they get stuck or distracted in the process. The reason is they don’t use scientifically proven ways to brainstorm. Instead, they try different strategies like staring at the ceiling, browsing the web, or typing on a blank document whatever comes to their head. If only they knew that there’s a ten times faster process for coming with book outline ideas.
Rather than explain the process, I’ll let serial entrepreneur, Pat Flynn show you how to do it in this YouTube video:
Another way is to take the method Pat Flynn showed you, then combine it with software meant for brainstorming. One such software is called Scapple. It allows you to create notes simply by double-clicking, then connect them by dragging and dropping each note onto each other.
Scapple takes only a minute to learn and you’re ready to begin brainstorming. I use this software almost every day whether that’s for creating a book outline or writing a blog post.
A Book Outline Needs Book Writing Software
In the past, people would outline their books on notecards and sticky notes. This is an effective way to connect your ideas but far from the best. Today, there’s software with features dedicated to helping write your ideal outline. These software enable you to create notes and summaries for each book, chapter, and scene. Moreover, they provide you a way to easily search through these notes as well.
In Scrivener’s case, they take it one step forward by providing you book templates you can insert directly into their editor.
Scrivener is one of the top tools for outlining your book, but if you’re looking for software that’s more accessible and online, then you want to use Squibler.
This book writing software has a number of features to outline your book better including notes and summaries for each chapter. The learning curve is seconds so you can feel like an expert fast at creating a book outline.
We just covered finding purpose when creating your book outline, how to brainstorm ideas for it and the software that can help you tie it together. Now let’s jump into what ideas you should brainstorm around such as characters, settings, and more.
Outline Your Book Characters
Outlining your book characters is by far one of the most favorite parts for aspiring authors and current authors. Because the stories around and characteristics of your characters are what provide the most emotional attachment to your book.
You can have the best setting and world-building skills, but without well-written characters, you’ll lose your reader. In this section, I’ll walk you through how you can outline your characters.
To help you brainstorm the name of your characters for your book outline, you should take into consideration these factors:
- The historical period of the story (e.g. Victorian English vs ancient Egypt)
- The subgenre niche of this story (e.g. Paranormal Romance vs Chick Literature)
- The gender of this character
- The social status of the character (e.g. upper class, middle class, working class)
- Be regional specific (e.g. Scandinavian vs Indian vs Italian)
- The ethnic background of this character
- It should be memorable if you want the character to be memorable
- It should fit the context of the story
To help you brainstorm the other details around your characters for your book outline, you should account for these factors:
- Dark tanned skin
- Pale skin
Mannerisms and other characteristics
- Obsessive cleaning
- Constantly twirling a ring or bracelet
- Obvious health problems
- Chatty and extroverted
- Are their parents still living?
- What is their relationship with them?
- Do they live close by?
- Do their parents need care or nursing?
- Twin brother or sister
- Half-brother or sister
- Straight hair
- Curled hair
- Body scars
- Body piercing
- Facial hair
- Elaborate make-up
- Small village
- Busy city
- International traveler
- Foster care
- Do they collect things?
- Have stuffed toys in the bedroom?
- Visit art galleries and museums?
- Loves vintage cars
- Sings jazz every weekend
- Do they have pets at home?
- What are their academic accomplishments?
- Are they using those qualifications?
- What’s their dream profession or lifestyle?
- What is stopping them from getting it?
Emotional Barriers and Limiting Beliefs
- Past traumatic event
- Personal experience
- Loss of a family member
- Betrayal by a lover
- Betrayal by a trusted friend
- Rented property
- Owns the property
- Shared accommodation
- Lives alone
Skills and Abilities
- Computer geek
- Business and money
Outline Your Book Settings
When outlining your book, here are details to keep in mind when describing or brainstorming your setting(s) to make them more real to the reader:
- Creating a sense of place
- Should instantly take a reader inside that story world.
- Specific relevant detail (e.g. blood on snow. Cherry blossom in the wind)
- Use the interior description to give an insight into the personality of the person who lives in that setting
- Include details that readers will recognize and associate with
- Use meticulous research to add telling details if you don’t know the location or visit the area in person
One of the other factors that can affect settings includes the timing around the setting. Here are timing factors to keep in mind for your book outline:
- What is the climate like?
- Holiday (e.g. Christmas, New Year)
- Spring symbolizes new beginnings and growth
- Summer symbolizes sunshine and long days
- Autumn symbolizes rich colors and reflections
Your Book Outline’s Story Structure
There are many ways to outline your book’s story structure. Below is an example that will give you an excellent starting point. This is only one way – and a common way – you can do it out of the many possibilities:
Act One (the first 25% of your novel)
- Set-up the story in the normal world. This establishes a baseline.
- Present the reader with an opening image and hook
- Create a bond between the reader and the character by making them feel sympathy or empathy towards this likable character and their situation.
- Reveal the character’s desire to the reader. What do they want?
- Some dramatic inciting incident disrupts the normal world of the main character
- This causes them to leave that normal world in response to this new situation
- At the end of Act One is a turning point with a major plot twist, revelation or clue that makes them change their plans and initiates the next phase of the story
Act Two (25% to the Midpoint)
- The characters leave the ordinary world behind and start work on their new goal
- Complications arise, stakes grow higher and challenges increase
- Allies and enemies are introduced.
- Act Two ends at the critical midpoint of no return with a major plot twist
- The character cannot go back – they have to proceed
Act Three (50% to 75% of your novel)
- More complications, challenges, and barriers
- A time factor may be introduced
- The challenges and enemies seem unbeatable
- Apparent failure, dejection, and reversal
- Leading to a crisis decision
Act Four (last 25% to 50% of your novel)
- The final showdown
- The main character must come back from this reversal and come up with a new plan of action
- The story builds to a final dramatic climax where the main character resolves their issues, faces the past and triumphs against adversity
- The final confrontation is even harder than they had imagined
- The final scenes show the character return to his normal life, transformed
Your Book Outline’s Character Arc
A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when outlining your character arc:
- At the end of the story, does the reader see how the main characters have changed from the characters they were at the start of the book because of their romantic relationship?
- Character change = interest and engagement
- Use symbolism to demonstrate the change from the first pages to the last
- What is their short-term goal when the story starts – a simple external goal with a clear endpoint and preferably linked to a chance to achieve their longing or need –they must do this to make a big change in their life?
- What are the stakes? What happens if they do not achieve this goal? Why now?
- What is their long-term goal or longing- that deeply held desire which they have not found the courage to go after yet?
- What is their need? The thing that is missing in their life which will make it complete?
- What is their wound – the unhealing source of continuing pain? This has led to the identity mask that they show to the world – which will be chipped away during the story journey.
- What is the one overpowering dilemma in this story? And who does it belong to? The dilemma is the choice between staying in the past or moving forward and taking the risk – and it belongs to the person who changes most.
Book Outline Templates
These book writing templates will give you a head start when writing your book. Please keep in mind that these are only templates and won’t replace your creativity, but enable it.
For Scrivener book templates, note that you’ll need to download them in a .zip file. From here, you must copy and paste the extracted template file into the folder on your system where Scrivener templates are stored, or import the template through Scrivener. Please visit this post about Scrivener templates to get a more in-depth explanation on how to use them.
Scrivener Novel Templates:
Story Structured Scrivener Fiction Novel Templates:
If you’re looking to use a template that’s not based on a book writing software, then I highly recommend using Airtable to create it. Plus, this organization software already has a novel template you can copy and paste below.
I use Airtable to track all my writing whether blogs posts or books. It’s a hundred times better than Excel or Google Sheets when it comes to organizing your thoughts. The reason is it offers flexibility with cells such as enabling you to include images, assign tasks, and more.
Implement Your Book Outline Today
Getting started with a book outline is as easy as brainstorming. Sure, there are many structured ways to go about the process, but the most important part is starting.
When starting, there’s no reason to rush into trying every book writing software that helps you outline. Nor should you read through every outline template. Instead, get clear on why you want to write a book, then jot a few ideas down around it. Next, practice writing around those ideas. If they stick, then you’re ready to write your book.
Now that you have clarity, it’s time to pick up the helpful resources that will give you structure. By dipping your toes into brainstorming and setting a strong foundation for your book with purpose, you’ll be more likely to finish it. Your book outline? It’s just one more helping hand to ensure you cross that finish line. Good luck.