How to Outline Your Novel or Nonfiction Book

In my years as a developmental editor, ghostwriter, and book reviewer, I’ve come across a few tricks to breaking down a good story, and a few tips for assembling one. 

In the discussion about different types of writers — “planners” vs. “pantsers” — I tend to come down closer on the side of “planner.” I look at it like having a road map that helps you know what direction you’re heading, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take detours or stops or double-back along the way. 

Writing is a journey, and here’s a few tips to help you get through it.

About Outline "Rules"

Many writers say to begin a plot or nonfiction book with an outline. You’ve probably done different kinds of outlines repeatedly since the seventh grade.

I wholeheartedly agree, except two things:

First: You’re not in school, so don’t think your outline will be graded. It’s for you, to organize your thoughts. So don’t use Roman numerals or complicated tiered systems if they don’t work for you. Regular ol’ bullet points work just fine.

Second: Take a step back to something even more basic than the outline. First, take three blank pages and plot out your book’s beginning, then the end, and then figure out the middle. One page for each.

Begin at the Beginning

The beginning is often the easiest to write. You have figured out where to start; you have a lot of information and world building and context to put in.

Limit yourself to only one page to summarize the most important points for the beginning of your outline. You will expand on it later. No doubt.

Answer Me These Questions Three

The beginning of your story should answer three questions, so you want to address them on the first page, and use them to build the first section of your outline.

  1. What’s the story about?
  2. What does the reader need to know to understand it?
  3. How much does the reader know already?

Your first two chapters should set up the context. Maybe a preface or introduction if you can squeeze it in. But really, you don’t have long to get the reader invested.

Assume your back cover copy has gotten the reader to open to page 1. They’re primed for you to ‘wow’ them. Use a barbed hook to pull them along through the opening pages. Show them that they made the right decision to crack the cover — because you’ve got something to say, you’ve got a story to tell, and you’re talking straight to them.

Getting them hooked is one thing. Interested is another. But really getting the reader to the point where they can say to someone “I’ve read a couple chapters, and I really like it so far” — that’s the first solid milestone.

Give readers what they need & build

You want your book’s readers to understand the context for the book right away. Weigh in the first page they should clearly know the main theme of your book. Not the thesis statement of it, but what’s at the heart. They should be able to immediately see themselves living inside it for hours.

You want readers to figure out quickly that they have some idea of what’s going on. Don’t overload the beginning, keep them walking through the introduction to the topic or the characters’ world, and give them a few pages to put together familiar pieces. Connect with things similar to what readers have heard or seen before.

The beginning of your book can namedrop or allude to references, and it should convince the reader you know what you’re talking about. Both for fiction and nonfiction.

Keep the Reader Guessing

Although it will be tempting at the beginning, don’t reveal every secret. Don’t list off everything that makes your book different. Let your readers discover why your book is different and tell you when they’ve finished it. Instead, focus on letting them see how the knowledge they bring from their experience as a reader is going to pay off for them in your book.

Then, when they think they have a handle on the topic at hand and the world you’ve created for your characters, drop the first bomb on them. Shatter something the reader took for granted, something they thought they knew and understood. Put something familiar in a new light, and you’ll get them passed the beginning of the book and into its middle.

When You Get to the End, Stop

Next in your outlining process, consider the end of your book. Your ending has to stick, if you want anyone to leave an online review or tell their friends about you. Too often I see writers really dig into the beginning and lose steam by the end. So, outline your book’s ending before its middle.

Use one of your three sheets of paper to brainstorm the answers to the three following questions. 

  1. Where does the reader end up?
  2. How do they feel?
  3. What should they do next?

If you plot the end of your book with clear intentions of the results you’re aiming for, you are more likely to hit them. Consider both issues of plot structure and resolution for character arcs, as well as the emotional ripples you’ll be sending through your readers’ souls. Do you want readers to be better prepared for something in the world? Do you want them to have an emotional reaction? 

Again, considering how your book’s outline functions like a road map, this is your general idea of the destination you want to reach and the welcome you expect on your arrival. 

The Curse of the Dragging Middle

The middle of your book will likely comprise approximately 40 to 60% of your overall content, depending on how thorough you are with your first and final sections. And, I would reckon that “somewhere in the middle” is where 40 to 60% of readership lose interest.  

This is the “meat” in burger that is your book. So your outline can’t “yada yada” past this important section. It may be tempting to rush it, but take as much time considering how to avoid making your middle “drag” as you did with brainstorming how to engage the reader in the beginning. 

Avoid a sagging middle section in your book by addressing four questions:

  1. How do I get the reader from where they are to where I want them to go?
  2. What are the 3 most important things I have to tell them (in 2 sentences each)?
  3. What order should I release this important information?
  4. How can I capture readers’ hearts and minds?

Don’t underestimate the value of having a road map to get you through this important section. If you want people to finish your book, think ahead about the course you’ll guide them along. 

Of course, this first outline isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, and the draft will change. But you’ll know where you’re starting, where you want to end up, and have a vague way how to get there.

Ready to talk about your manuscript?