Writing A Book Outline
I have followed the Facebook group Writers Helping Writers for a while. Often, new authors ask the same basic question: Where do I start? I always post the same answer: Start with an outline. While this concept seems like an obvious step, it was not obvious to me. Now, I begin every book project with a complete outline and go over it for weeks before formerly beginning the actual writing.
I thought it would be an interesting blog idea to describe my outline process. So… what is a book outline? Its essence is to capture the entire plot. From there, the author can review and make radical changes without consequences. The result should be a basic story that can be used as the framework for writing an entire book.
The process starts with a plot concept. How do I develop my ideas? I’m at my most creative before I go to sleep and while riding my bike. I don’t use an outline to develop a basic plot. That would be too formal and would limit my creative process.
How much basic plot is needed to start an outline? About a paragraph. Essentially a topic that has a beginning, middle, and end. There are many formal methods of creating an outline such as the flower method. Some people use: whiteboards, post-it notes, 3x5 cards and some have circles with lines connecting them. However, I do not use the formal methods. My mind just does not work that way. My outlines are rambling notes.
When I am confident enough in the basic plot, I start at the beginning and just go. I encourage myself to: explore, experiment, change, move, delete and add. At this stage, I have complete freedom to make major changes and push the envelope.
Once a basic outline exists, I go over it a bunch of times with questions like: Does the story make sense? Are the characters interacting enough? Does the action need more conflict? Would rearranging the sections lead to more drama?
In parallel with an outline is a character description. This basic tool fills in the details and interactions between characters. In my next blog, I will describe this in detail.
When I am ready, I show the outline to my beta reader to get feedback. Granted, this is a rough concept and it takes lots of explaining. My goal is to make sure that I have an understandable plot that others would like to read.
In the next paragraph is an outline section from my upcoming fourth book. I intentionally didn’t make any edits for this blog. You will see missing capital letters, big run on sentences and bad grammar. That’s just fine because this outline was just for me. However, you should see a wisp of a plot, a bit of dialog and some of the overall flow.
Go to Russia, find grace, difficulty with culture, wonder around woods for two days, find grubby apple tree, building remains, ponder life, gets the feeling that grace knows I am looking but refuses to show herself. men at apple tree, take to china on weird Russian plane, taken to Chinese palace, describe, lots of servants, meet Chinese harvester “pincushion man,” his history: land owner, horses, agriculture, gold mining, communism took much of it, no land now, still had gold, built relationship with communists, owns 3 party members, they leave him alone, has a lot of dirt on them. Ask a few questions, claims to have developed his secret process. angry at James for letting the secret out. Angry at Cleopatra, did not know Grace, angry that grace told james secret, secret reserved “only for the divine, not worthless people like you.” pincushion man pressure James to reveal total secret. pincushion man has years of experience with torture, threatens james with death. James begins to talk and they compare notes.
Wow, what a rabble. However, from that mess, I made 4 chapters. You can see a slight amount of dialog: “only for the divine, not worthless people like you.” That dialog gives intent. It shows what the character is thinking. I refer to a character as “pincushion man.” I did not have a name for this character. My idea was that this character had a bunch of needles sticking out of him as if he was constantly using acupuncture. That concept didn’t work in the book.
Overall, the plot is beginning to take shape and there is enough direction to begin writing. Here is an outline section for my upcoming fifth book:
Kim returns form daycare and finds Jason at their home eating, drinking beer “We don’t allow alcohol at our house. I clearly had a problem.” wait for Gabe to get home, ask questions. Jason upset, mad about prison/yoga. “Made a decision for you. You are going to clean up your mess.” Why mess is bad, [mess is spreading, “my boss cannot allow this.” “Who boss?” “Not telling you.”] Tells James to fix the mess, otherwise, all involved dead including Kim/Gabe. Reveals that his job was to kill Kim/Gabe but injection needle in Toyota seat, malfunction, due to anti-virus, virus should have taken 3 weeks. Did not have the manpower to complete murder, because no-talk, Jason spared them. Watched closely and kept quiet, appreciated.
This outline section probably makes little sense to anybody but me. The result of this section became one chapter that explained: “Why mess is bad.” Mentally, I knew all the details of “Why mess is bad.” Thus, I didn’t have to go into too much detail in my outline. In essence, the main part of this outline section was how and when to present “Why mess is bad.”
The next part of the process is converting the outline to a book. Let’s take the first paragraph as an example. “Go to Russia, find Grace, difficulty with culture.” I would begin writing about the character James and how he takes the trip to Russia. This would involve filling the blanks such as buying an airline ticket, getting time off work, coming up with the money for the trip. All the while, I am thinking about setting up the next section of “finding Grace.”
Now that James had landed in Russia, he encounters the typical difficulties of adapting to a foreign country. Again, I was setting up for this concept. Before James leaves his home, he “remembers” to pack a translation book. When he lands, he realizes that he forgot his book which leads to issues. This is the beauty of the outline, you know what you are about to write about and can set up the story in advance.
Let’s looks at a huge example of why an outline is so useful. Using the second outline as an example, let’s say that at the outline stage, the character Jason does not work. Let’s fix it by making him a woman. How easy is it to change the outline? One simple word replacement and Jason becomes Jackie.
Now, let’s make that change in a completed book with a word replace. Here is a simple example: “Jason entered the room and he was wearing his muscle shirt. He had an angry expression.” This gets with a word replace to: “Jackie entered the room and he was wearing his muscle shirt. He had an angry expression.” Do you see the problems? Jackie is a woman and she is referred to as “he” twice and “his” once. The other problem is that a woman probably would not be wearing a muscle shirt. Changing the main character from a man to a woman is a massive change. Even with a lot of edits, the reader would probably think that overall, Jackie is an oddly masculine character.
This example highlights the power of an outline. Massive changes can be made, huge sections can be moved, motives altered and epic ideas explored without consequences. For me, the best part is working out the finer details of how the plot should flow.
When finished, I have the entire book’s plot in about 3 pages of outline. From there, I just expand upon the basic story. The first two times I used an outline, I got to about 60% and then the plot drifted away from the outline. That’s because as I wrote, the story took on a life of its own. However, it converged to the same ending.
In conclusion, dedicated authors use an outline to develop their works. I am getting better at creating them and utilizing them. Probably a good thing.
You’re the best -Bill
December 13, 2018
BUY MY BOOK
Read my next blog