How to Write a Book Outline: Fiction and Nonfiction


You learned how to write outlines in school, I suppose. You were probably required to do it a certain way:

I. Roman numerals for the main points
A. capital letters for the sub-points
1. Regular Arabic numerals for the sub-sub-points
a. lower-case letters for all the sub-points below that
We could call it the Roman-Arabic outline, though experts call it the alphanumeric outline.

But when you outline your book, you don’t have to do it that way. Not if it seems burdensome to you, or even boring. It’s your book, after all.

The main reason why you write an outline first is simple: Because you can’t keep the whole book in your head at one time. It’s your passion for your subject that drives your writing. You don’t need notes to talk about something you’re passionate about. But a book is so long that it’s hard to remember everything you’re passionate about and in what order you want to talk about it. You make notes for yourself only so you don’t forget something important.

Tools like Scrivener let you prepare your book section-by-section, similar to keeping each chapter in a separate file folder in your desk. That helps you build your case logically. You’ll also benefit when you present your ideas in front of an audience. Why? Because you can learn from their questions while you can still make changes. Imagine yourself giving a presentation or a lecture about your book: what would you say? That becomes your outline.

Easy outlines

I learned the alphanumeric outline system in elementary school, but when I had to write long research papers in college, I stopped using it. Instead, I shuffled through my notes to remind myself of the interesting things I had learned, or at least the parts that my reader would need to know in order to understand the main point. Then I would make a list of what I wanted to talk about. I would usually write a word or two for each topic:

  1. Origins
  2. Competition
  3. Alston controversy
  4. Gallatin
  5. Chemist influences
  6. Popularization

This brief outline only needed to make sense to me. It was the resulting paper that needed to make sense to my professor. At this early stage, I would add and rearrange these subtopics until I thought my list was complete and clear. Then I would rearrange my notes in order of the outline. As I wrote the paper, when I got to “Gallatin,” I would read over my Gallatin notes and then type what I had to say about that topic. Each topic was now small enough that I could hold the whole thing at once in my mind and memory.

I use the same topical outline system for my novels (check how to outline novels here). But instead of a list of sub-topics, I make a list of scenes. For each one, I write down just enough to prompt my memory.

Aw, do I have to write an outline first?

Writers, even successful writers, are divided into two fairly equal groups: outliners and non-outliners, or plotters and pantsers. When plotters write, they work out their plots in advance, in great detail. (Even non-fiction books have a flow, if not a plot.) When pantsers write, they fly by the seat of their pants, without making outlines first. Pantsers are also called “discovery writers.” In their defense, pantsers claim that novelists never know what will happen next until they write it down, so why bother outlining first? Plotters claim that’s why pantsers often need to do a lot of rewriting, which could have been saved if they had been plotters.

Both plotters and pantsers have a point. Having written an outline doesn’t mean plotters can’t change their minds later if they want to. On the other hand, pantsers like to remind their critics that having written an outline doesn’t mean you won’t change your mind later, much as you don’t want to and didn’t intend to. Most writers expect they will revise the early part of their book, adding foreshadowing or explanation to support something that popped up while they were writing the later part.

From chaos to order

Whether you do it before or after, you will have to practice the inverse of the rule called “Chekhov’s gun:” if a pistol will be fired in the second act, it should be hanging on the wall in the first act. When your alpha readers complain that no gun was hanging there in the first draft, you will need to add it in the second draft. If you’re a non-fiction writer, you should seek out that kind of demanding alpha reader too. It’s cheaper and less embarrassing to have your mistakes pointed out before you go to press.

So you should expect changes no matter how you prepare to write. On the other hand, a book is long and complex, and if you don’t organize it before you write it, you will have to organize it later. Mystery writer Agatha Christie seems to have spent most of her time planning and plotting. Even so, she said: “Nothing turns out quite in the way you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter, or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll.” On the other hand, Stephen King sniffs that he can always tell if a book was written from an outline.

One way to maintain your book’s freshness and outwit Stephen King: when you outline, stay on the outline level. Don’t start daydreaming about the details of your book when you should be outlining. Some writers say that when an idea comes out of your head once, it may not want to come out again. It may be fresher the first time, so leave it vague until you are ready to give it a proper introduction to the world. And as you get deeper into the details (or the weeds), you will reach the point where you have more thoughts than you can juggle at once – just the situation that outlining is designed to avoid.

How to outline intuitively

You can’t get around it: your book needs some order, whether you organize it before you write the first draft or after. Even a known pantser such as Jerry Jenkins, who wrote 190 books without an outline, says, “Don’t go to the keyboard with nothing to say.”

One reason Jerry Jenkins gets away with not outlining is that he has a natural sense of story structure. He says he got that from being raised on TV. He doesn’t need to be reminded that a book needs a beginning, middle, and end. He doesn’t need a checklist to remind him to include conflict in the plot. In other words, the mind of Jerry Jenkins produces books that appear naturally organized, even if he doesn’t write outlines first. If anything, his outlines looks something like this one, based on suggestions by Dean Koontz:

  1. Our hero quickly gets into trouble.
  2. The harder he tries to get out of it, the worse it gets.
  3. It really starts to look hopeless.
  4. But in the nick of time, he takes what he’s learned and finds what he needs to turns all this trouble into triumph.

Two approaches to outlining

As a writer, you need two kinds of outlines: what you want to do and and what you need to do. I’ve talked about making a list for myself so that I don’t forget what I want to say. This kind of outline resembles a set of writing prompts. I’m telling myself what to do. But, dare I say, there are times where you should let other people tell you what to do. That is, wise mentors will tell you that certain essential features must appear in every readable book, such as an engaging introduction and a satisfying conclusion. Schoolchildren are taught to support each assertion they make. Storytellers know that rising conflict and final crisis will keep their readers spellbound more than a string of vaguely-related anecdotes. Books on writing often include an outline or checklist that helps you remember not to leave out these essential features.

For a nonfiction book, you should plan:

  • Thesis statement – the whole point of the book
  • Chapter thesis – the points you want to make in each chapter
  • Supporting material – to make each point more understandable or convincing
  • Illustrations – to make your points stick in the mind of your reader. Stories have a way of doing that.

For a narrative or novel, you should think about:

  • Plots and subplots – Do you have enough to keep things interesting?
  • Main character – Why should your readers care about your protagonist?
  • Status Quo – What is the world like at the beginning of your story? What is going to change?
  • Motivation – What do your characters want? Why?
  • Inciting Incident – What knocks the status quo off balance, irrecoverably? What sets the story into motion?
  • Developments – Does your story have a direction? Are your characters changing?
  • Crisis – What forces your characters to finally take irrevocable action?
  • Resolution – How does your story end? Have you tied up all the loose strings?

The Snowflake Method

One of the most popular and complete techniques to plan your book, the Snowflake Method, was developed by Dr. Randy Ingermanson. He has a background in software development, and it shows. Programmers need to be ready to change direction or fix bugs. But large software projects, on the scale of the creation of Gmail or Microsoft Office, are not written by the seat of anyone’s pants. A company doesn’t spend a year developing a national government job search application, only to find that it won’t connect to the national job database. That would be a major “plot hole.” By planning and outlining in advance, there will be fewer surprises. You can see whether the project (or book) is feasible (or enjoyable) before you invest too much into it.

With the Snowflake Method, your book starts with one sentence, which expands to a paragraph, that summarizes the whole book. Each sentence in the paragraph expands to another paragraph, giving you a one-page summary of your book. You can use that in your book proposal that you send to a publisher or potential agent. Then expand each paragraph into a page. Continue expanding until your first draft is complete.

By the way, the initial summary paragraph is not the same as the blurb that appears on the back cover. To induce readers to buy the book after they pick it up, the blurb doesn’t summarize the whole book. Dr. Ingermanson says, “I like to structure a story as ‘three disasters plus an ending.'” His summary page would include them all, while a blurb stops after a disaster or two and doesn’t give away the ending.

More types of outlines

We talked about the alphanumeric outline, the list outline, and the snowflake method. But there are other approaches to outlining.

  • For some books, you may want to create a timeline first. You may want to create several: one for each major character or simultaneous trend in your book. List your events chronologically, from earliest to latest, first to last. Make sure there’s room to fit everything in properly. If a daughter listened to early-’90s music as a teenager, her mother couldn’t have listened to late-’80s music at the same age. If your story includes feasting, it also needs to include time for digesting.
  • A mindmap comes naturally for some people. Take a blank sheet of paper, or open up a new file in your mind mapping software program. In the center, write down a topic, event, or character – start with anything that comes to your mind. When that idea prompts another idea, draw a line out from the first word to the second word. Keep adding more words and connecting lines between them. You can go in any direction. Your page will start to resemble a spider.
  • In the headlights method, you plan out just a few pages ahead, or plan a chapter at a time. Plan it, then write it. E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.” Such a method combines the pantser and plotter strategies to some extent. You have freedom but not chaos.

It’s up to you how much outlining you do. But you may find it helps you. Advance planning can make you more calm and less nervous. It helps you not to leave out important parts. An outline lets you decide what each section will be about, so you don’t have to eat it all in one gulp. Still, outlining can be taken too far. William Faulkner wrote an outline for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Fable on his office wall. Doing so did not impress his wife.

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1 thought on “How to Write a Book Outline: Fiction and Nonfiction”

  1. Best explanation of the snowflake method I’ve ever read. Thank you! Most bloggers try to say it’s half-way between the plotter and pantser methods, but I see from your description, they’re entirely wrong. The snowflake method is different altogether.

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