How to Write a Book Outline

Girl writing in notebook

Some writers cringe at the thought of crafting an outline before starting their book. No less an authority than Stephen King writes in his book "On Writing" that his creative process is organic. He doesn't have a plan; when he starts a story he doesn't know where he'll end up. But many writing instructors recommend crafting an outline as an important first step to keep an author focused and on track.

Objectives of Outlining

The outline is there to serve as a road map for writing. It is not meant to stifle the narrative flow but to keep the writer on track. When the writer is creating chapters, the outline can help her save time by sticking to the important subjects, people and narratives and not going off on a tangent. In "Writer's Digest," Sarah Domet recommends thinking of the outline as a recipe. It lists all the key ingredients but still allows room for improvisation.

What to Include

It's up to the writer ultimately to decide what to include in the outline, but some elements are standard. Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, the outline should include the title of the book and a list of chapters, along with a brief description of what material will be covered in each chapter. If the book is nonfiction, the outline should include a description of each character, including his personality traits and his relationship to the other characters. A fiction or creative nonfiction outline should have a fairly comprehensive description of setting. Certain core events in the narrative should be sketched out in the outline.

Types of Outlines

The outline doesn't have to adhere to one specific formula -- a writer can choose from a variety of formats as long as certain main points are included, such as the title and a list of chapters. "Mind mapping" is an outlining technique applicable to fiction or nonfiction. The author writes the title of the work in the center of a piece of paper, then draws several main ideas branching off from the title. Those main ideas have branches of their own: chapters that flesh out the ideas. By contrast, the "snowflake method" is a technique for outlining fiction invented by author Randy Ingermanson. This type of outline involves beginning with one-sentence descriptions of plot, chapters and characters, which are then expanded upon, so that when the writer begins the actual work of writing, the key details are already in place.


After the first draft of the book is written, the author might find that the story is diverging from the original outline and that plot points have changed. The writer of a nonfiction work might discover that new research makes it necessary to update his outline. This is the time to revise the outline, which will be easier for the writer than changing future drafts of the book.