5 Helpful Tips for Outlining a Book

Sometimes, outlining a book isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It can be time-consuming and difficult to come up with important tidbits of information you’ll need in your story to make it stick in a reader’s mind. These tips for outlining a book are a sure-fire way to keep your outline action-packed and focused on your characters.

Tips for Outlining a Book

Create character profiles and world-building guides

Answering basic character profiles and working through world-building guides is a great way to get to know your characters and setting before diving straight into the story.

Not only to character profiles allow you to become best friends with your characters before you even start writing the story, but you can determine a few things about their past (ghosts) and keep facts straight while writing the first draft.

This will make writing the first draft and going through the first rounds of revisions easier because you aren’t spending a good chunk of time fixing the continuity and details of your story. You can focus on larger, world-related things that might cause your story some pause.

Speaking of world-building, knowing a few world-related things about your world is also important. While you don’t need to know every tiny detail, it’s good to know the basics that will allow you to write your first draft without too many missing tidbits or world inconsistencies.

For example, creating the magic system for your fantasy world ahead of time will make magic-heavy scenes and fights much smoother.

Understand their big plot points and turns in your story

If you know the big plot points and any surprise twists in your story before you start writing, you can foreshadow those events, so they aren’t a complete surprise to your reader.

When big twists and plot points occur, there’s usually a decent amount of information the reader needs to know to understand it all. If you haven’t already introduced the information to the reader, the scene often reads like a massive infodump, effectively taking the tension and “oomph” out of the scene.

On the flip side, if you’ve sprinkled tidbits of relevant information throughout the preceding chapters, your reader can go into the scene with a basic understanding. All you need to do now is offer a little more detail sprinkled between thoughtful exposition and efficient dialogue.

By understanding the basic outline of your story, you can build toward big scenes, instead of moving from zero to sixty within a single page.

Force your characters to drive the plot

If you don’t force your characters to drive the plot, the story isn’t truly theirs to share. Nobody wants to read a story where the main characters take a backseat approach to their story. Your characters need to insist on sitting in the driver’s seat and push the plot along themselves.

Don’t confuse that with saying your characters can’t have help. Or that they can’t ask for help. Some of the greatest people in history asked for help, but they shouldn’t require assistance at every turn.

Give your characters the agency to make their own decisions and turns the tides in their favor. Without agency, stories are often hollow. Or, more clearly, readers are left with a book where a lot of great and exciting things happen, but nothing really changes.

Combat this by developing realistic characters that are driven by their own motivations and wants. Characters that are a little broken by their past—or by something that happened in their past that left them a little worse for wear. Understanding who your characters are is the first step to developing them.

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Character Profile Workbook
Character Profile Workbook

Write high-stakes scenes to drive up the tension

Writing high-tension scenes is an important aspect of storytelling, as its an effective and efficient way to elicit an emotional response from your readers. And that emotional response is what’s going to help them connect to your characters.

Tension connects the reader to the story and its characters—most importantly, to your protagonist—and that’s why most book descriptions are full of tension. But it doesn’t just do that. Story tension has many important responsibilities, such as giving readers a reason to root for your protagonist and generating questions readers crave the answers to.

I would go as far as to say that tension is a requirement of exceptional storytelling, and your story will benefit from well-crafted tension.

Tension drives up the excitement factor in your manuscript and keeps readers turning pages well after bedtime, and that’s the emotional investment you want your stories to demand.

Make sure you’re foreshadowing future twists

Big, out of left field level surprises often leaves readers feeling like they missed out on something. Like there were clues and breadcrumbs they should have picked up on, but somehow didn’t. And, yes, there are times readers don’t get our more subtle clues, but often it’s the author who missed the opportunity.

Whereas, if you foreshadow big twists and plan head, you can ease your readers into the information they’ll need to know.

Foreshadowing adds dramatic effect and tension to a story, creates suspense, and gives the readers small, digestible tidbits of information that helps them understand what comes later.

Whether or not you love or hate outlining, these tips for outlining a book will help you craft an exceptional story. Outliners can use it during the pre-writing phase and pantsers can use during their first round of self-edits.

No matter which stage of your story you’re in, remember that there’s no right way to do anything. No right way to outline. No right way to write your story. It’s all about learning what works for you at this specific point in your journey.