How to Outline a Book

If the process of outlining your book leaves you feeling more overwhelmed than excited, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Although the initial idea may have left you feeling inspired and eager to get to work when it comes time to actually sit down and figure out a structure – it is common for the task to feel too big to tackle. A few simple strategies can go a long way to remedying this sensation and helping you stay on track. Here is how to get started.

Establish the premise and setting

Assuming you’ve already got a sense of what these are, it is time to commit them to paper and flesh out your ideas. While working through the premise, you should ask questions regarding the protagonist’s objective and what opposing forces stand in their way. The central conflict and themes should also be brought into focus and you should be able to explain the primary idea in several sentences or one short paragraph. The setting may or may not be obvious based on your premise, so you also need to figure out the role it will play and provide justifications for why.

Ask yourself some key questions

Beyond several lists of characters, settings, and plot points, in crafting an effective outline you want to start considering more abstract and motivational questions that will help inform the general direction of your story and ensure you’re able to maintain the sense of tension that will keep readers intrigued and engaged. Depending on the type of book you’re writing, these will generally include questions like:

  • What promise do I want to make to my readers off the bat?
  • What will I have shown them over the course of the work?
  • What type of pressure are my characters under?
  • At what points will it build or dissipate?
    What is the protagonist working towards or fighting for?
  • What is at stake for the book’s other characters?


By having a strong sense of the conflicts and tensions that will propel your story forward, you’ll naturally write in a way that reflects the character’s journey. Answering these questions is an important step in every outline.

Construct your timeline

Once you’ve gotten to know your characters a bit, you’ll be in a better position to build a timeline of events. You should start out by just writing down everything that needs to happen in order to get you from the beginning to the end of your story. Keep in mind that you’ll be able to move things around later, so it is not worth agonizing too much about what goes where at this point. Just get all the main events down and you’ll then have the freedom to play around with them.

Start writing scenes!

At this point, you can elaborate on the pieces of the puzzle you’ve created in your timeline and start crafting them into more developed scenes. Again, don’t worry too much about exactly how you’ll transition from one scene to another, but just allow the key actions to develop through words, going into as much detail as feels appropriate to you at the time.

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1 thought on “How to Outline a Book”

  1. Thank you! Just what I needed as I was trying to decide on whether to write a few more scenes/chapters to develop them further or to complete the Outline from Prologue to The End. I agree that writing a first draft of some of the scenes helps to fill in the blanks in the outline and to introduce new plot lines and character development ideas. The story starts to write itself!

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