I heard a statistic recently that said only one percent of people who set out to write a book actually finish. I’m not sure how accurate that number is, but I’m willing to believe that the vast majority of aspiring authors give up before they’ve finished their first draft. And I'm convinced the greatest contributing factor is the failure to develop an outline.
Most authors cringe at the suggestion. Just the thought is a total inspiration killer for the writer who only wants to sit down at their keyboard and let their imagination run free. This is fine if what you enjoy most is the writing process and the outlet it provides. But if you actually want to end up with a finished product you can share with people and hopefully even publish, you’re going to have to put in the extra work.
Next to coming up with a good story idea, developing a book outline is the most important thing you can do. Trying to write a book without one is like going on a cross-country trip with only vague notions of what your destinations will be. That’s how people get lost.
Think of your book outline as your road map. If you have one in hand, you’ll never lose your way. Here are my seven steps to finishing a book outline.
1. Determine your story arc. All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Before you write a single word, you should know how and where your story starts, what happens to bring it to a climax, and how the resolution plays out.
2. Craft your characters. All stories need a protagonist, the likable central character your audience is rooting for. Likewise, you should have a main antagonist, the person who is standing in the way of that main character’s goals. Once you have these down, begin to fill the story in with other characters.
3. Flesh out your main players. Some writers swear by character bios: writing a full backstory of their main characters, including information that may not even be brought up during the course of the story. This gives you a better understanding of your characters’ motivations and desires. Having this can help you come up with more believable plot points and dialogue, too.
4. Map out the major scenes, events, and incidents that occur. Create a list of between ten and twenty bullet points, each not much more than a headline summary. These will serve as chapters in your story and will guide the way from beginning to end.
5. Next, create a subsection under each bullet point. This is where you’ll sketch out the individual scenes and get into greater detail. Don’t worry about “good writing.” All you’re doing here is putting down a quick paragraph or two to summarize the events of each chapter and how it leads into the next.
6. When you’re done, perform a final review of your outline. Ask yourself some critical questions—“Does the story make sense? Is it boring?”— but don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember, this is just the blueprint. Give yourself latitude to make improvements, and if you find your story suddenly taking on a different direction, go with it, as long as you adjust the outline to accommodate those changes.
7. Write. Use your outline as a starting place and work your way down from start to finish. Don't take too much time. Remember that this is just your first draft. Refer to the outline as you write so you’ll always know where you’re headed. If you ever find yourself losing focus or not knowing where to go next, check the outline. It’s there to keep you focused, and to prevent you from losing sight of the big picture.
Having an outline can greatly speed up the writing process. If you know where you’re going before you get there, you won’t waste time staring off into space wondering where the story’s going next. More importantly, it’ll keep you from becoming one of the 99 percent of aspiring writers who never make it to the finish line.