Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

closeup of outline or mind map diagram

CC image “mind map” courtesy of madstreetz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Little divides writers as much as whether they should write a book outline or not. These two big categories are the pantsers, and the planners.

The planners, as you might expect, begin with a plan. They decide what they are going to write about, in what order the story should unfold, the main points they want to hit, and they typically create a detailed outline. Then, they write according to this plan.

Pantsers discover the story and the book as they go. Though they typically start out with an idea of what they want—the beginning and ending are common anchors—they don’t know, as they begin, how they’re going to get to the end. They “fly by the seat of their pants.”

Planners think of pantsers as disorganized and chaotic, and pantsers think of planners as rigid and unimaginative. Both these assessments are true and false in equal measure. Planners benefit from structure and are less likely to digress, and pantsers benefit from flexibility and are less likely to get stuck if one of their ideas doesn’t work out. How can you harness the strengths of both? The answer is by making a book outline work for you, rather than you for it.

Your book outline is a living document

Both pantsers and planners make an error when they treat a book outline like the Holy Grail, a document that must be handled with exquisite care and never broken.

Your book outline lives. It’s a tool. It’s not an artifact in a museum, never to be touched again. If it can’t bend and change, it’ll break.

Think of your outline as a road map. This is how you most wish to get from point A to point B. However, you might find yourself stuck in a traffic jam, rerouted by road construction, or foiled by the weather. In the world of GPS, the system begins recalculating. This is also what you need to be able to do as you write.

Below, I’ll talk about two different ways to build the outline, the draft table of contents and the mind map. Once you’ve started writing, refer back to the tool of your choice. Ask:

  • Am I moving away from the outline?
  • Is this good or bad? Am I losing the plot, or is this new direction beneficial to my book?

If you’re moving away from the plot, you can use the outline to course-correct. If you notice that the new direction is in fact better, more useful, more interesting, etc. than the original idea, adjust your outline to reflect your new understanding. This is what I mean by a living document.

You can also refer to your outline when you get stuck. Not sure what you want to write about, or you just don’t feel like writing today? Can’t remember what you wanted to cover next? Take a look at your outline.

How to set up your book outline

There are four pieces of information you need for any book:

  • What am I talking about?
  • Who am I talking to?
  • What do they want/need/expect?
  • What do I get out of it?

Once you have this information, you can use it in different ways.

Draft Table of Contents

This is exactly what it sounds like. Using what you know about your topic and your audience, build a table of contents that walks them through the idea. This should be very high-level.

Give each chapter a working title, and a top-line bullet point to encapsulate the big Idea or Plot or Character point that it needs to hit. Then, add up to three sub-bullets for specific details, such as an anecdote/example or a specific scene you need to map out, background information you need to include, and/or the names of the major characters.

Do this for each chapter, but keep yourself to phrases only. The moment you start writing full sentences, you’re no longer writing the outline, you’re writing the content.

Mind Map

The mind map is a visual and associative tool well-suited to pantsers. You begin with your bigger ideas and plot points, and radiate outward to supporting and related ideas. Mind maps use lines, symbols, words, color, and images. You can personalize them many ways. Essentially, you create a diagram for your book.

Write your main theme in the center of the page, for example, “Pets.” Add sub-themes and draw branches to them from the center (Dogs, Cats, Parakeets). Use short phrases or even single words. If you like, you may add images. Think of at least two main points for each sub-theme you created, and branch outwards to those as well. In this example, we could say, “Size,” “Color,” and “Care.”

There is software available to draw mind maps on the computer, although you can engage your whole body in the writing process by doing them by hand. A great resource for mind mapping can be found here.

The bottom line

No matter from which angle you prefer to tackle your writing process, a flexible outline will benefit your book. As you get deep in the weeds of writing, you may be surprised how well this tool helps you pull through. With no outline whatsoever, you might take a beautiful, though aimless, trip. If you treat your outline like the Holy Grail, you might run up against a wall of writer’s block or a black hole that sucks up all your creative juices.

Your book outline works best if you check in with it regularly, and if you’re able to tweak the manuscript and the outline as needed. The more you handle it like a precious object, the less good it’ll do you—whether you’re a pantser or planner. You want both structure and flexibility. Your outline can give you both. Remember which of you is in charge.

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