How To Write An Outline For A Book

How to write an outline for a book - featured image

Now that you’ve cracked the foundation of an idea, let’s talk about how to bring it to life in an outline. There is a confusing array of outline methods out there – snowflake, visual maps, flashlight outlining, and once again the surprising thing is that most of the people who are creating these methods have never been published.

I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to outline with these different approaches as well but then it struck me that most of these outline methods were actually trying to help me come up with an idea. I already had an idea, so my task was actually much easier, since all I needed was to express my idea in the simplest way possible.

Now I’ll show you the simple formula to create a story framework from the idea. The formula is l-o-c-k, or lock. This was actually created by James Scott Pelley and I find it very, very useful. So what is lock?

  • L stands for lead
  • O for objective
  • C for conflict
  • K for knockout

Every great story follows the same construct. There is a lead, the protagonist, who has a burning objective and faces an increasing crescendo of conflict in his or her attempt to accomplish the objective.

Eventually there’s a final knockout in the end. Either the lead gets his objective or not, but perhaps the outcome is mixed. He gets something different than he thought. That’s it LOCK -lead,objective, conflict, knockout.

How To Outline Your Novel – A Practical Guide

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Video Transcript (cont’d)

Let’s take the Hunger Games for instance. At a very physical level the core of the story is about the protagonist wanting to survive. In The Hunger Games that’s our objective, everything that happens in the Hunger Games is a conflict, with the eventual knockout being she survives, but with a little twist.

Now take a more classic story. Captain Ahab wants to get Moby Dick the whale. The core of the story is about the conflict in the path to reach the whale. In the eventual knockout, he loses. This is at a very functional level.

At a more metaphorical level his true objective is to fight the man, the inhumane system and Captain Ahab’s knockout is a reminder for man to let nature be, which leads us to an important conclusion.

As you create your Lock for your story, think of both the physical and the metaphorical version of it. So what’s the Lead’s objective physically and what is that objective a symbol of?In my case, for instance for the Yoga of Max’s Discontent, this is what I had written.

The lead is Max, a Wall Street banker from the Bronx, who’s exposed to violence and suffering all his life. His objective at a physical level is to go on a solitary quest to the Indian Himalayas to find a teacher who can help me make sense of his past.

How to outline a book tipsHis metaphorical objective is man’s classic quest for the meaning of mortality. The conflict he faces along the journey is extreme hardship in nature, both in the Himalayan mountains and the burning South Indian Plains.

His metaphorical conflict is the struggle to relinquish his attachment to physical and emotional discomfort, to realize his soul. The knockout – obviously I won’t reveal yet – but the point here is that for the right depth in the story, it should have both a physical and a metaphorical element.

This will come automatically to you once you know your character in greater depth. Everything flows from the character’s motivation, but we’ll touch on that in the next section. For now just use this basic Lock structure to create a macro framework for your novel.

One question you may have is ‘what if my character’s objective changes as he or she goes through the novel?’ This will definitely happen, because the great character transforms through the course of the story. At this change, when you define the Lock, think of the core of your story, the central objective and the central conflict in it.

Then you can deconstruct the pieces around it. When the character starts off he may have a different objective. Then as he goes through the story his objective change is to be aligned to the core objective you’ve defined.

In the end it may change again but the protagonists core objective is the central construct of your whole story. Now let’s understand how a detailed outline emerges from the frame. First off remember there are only two stories in all literature – ‘one man goes on a quest’ or ‘a stranger comes to town’.

Take any story it’s one of those categories. Harry Potter goes on a quest. In To Kill a Mockingbird, a man comes into a town becaue of a court trial. In some form of the other your story is going to be one of these.

How to outline a chapter in a novel guideFor our purpose let’s use man on a quest and break it down a little. Any story has a three-act structure, the beginning, the middle and the end. Overlaying the Lock frame, this essentially means in the beginning your task is to set up the lead.

The objective, the middle, is all about the conflict that’s stopping him or her from getting the objective. The ending is the knockout, where he or she either gets his objective or doesn’t. We’ve talked about the principles about how to craft excellent beginning, middle and ending in the next module but these are the broad sections under which I want you to construct an outline.

I’m going to use the arc ‘the typical hero’s journey’ to break the outline into smaller pieces. In the beginning, the lead is in his or her ordinary world and an inciting incident occurs. The lead understands his or her objective, and he or she is then set out into the extraordinary world.

That’s kind of the role of the beginning. The middle, the lead faces one conflict after another, physical and metaphorical in this extraordinary world. He or she wins some, loses some, but with each conflict his or her understanding about himself or herself deepens.

The conflict reaches a crescendo. The lead faces a ‘dark night of the soul’, his or her darkest deepest moment, the blackest night before the dawn. Now that the middle has ended you move to the ending.

How to outline a chapter tipsIn the ending the lead uses everything he or she has learned in the story to face the final conflict. Eventually the lead wins or loses, but in every case he or she is a changed person, deeper and wiser because of the journey.

Every ‘man goes on a quest story’ follows a similar outline. Take Harry Potter – he is in an ordinary world. The inciting incident occurs in the form of Hagrid delivering the letter. Harry leaves for Hogwarts where all the action happens and it keeps building.

Eventually he has to find something deep within himself to defeat Waldemode, So the same construct works every time. To note – this is a broad guideline not a chapter by chapter breakdown. Your chapters will vary based on your story.


Also then the multiple characters along the way in the ordinary and the extraordinary world that will propel the lead story forward. We’ll talk about character development in the next section.

Finally, I’m going to share a secret with you to maximize your publishing success. The purists would say it’s too formal, but I’ve experimented with this and know it works. Your beginning should be no more than 20% of your story. That’s no more than 60 pages for 300 page novel, ideally lesser, say 10% which is 30 pages.

The middle should be the majority, that is 80% of your story. The ending once again should be ideally 10% of your story, the last 30 pages but no greater than 15% or 45 pages. Trust me, I’ve experimented extensively with this.

For example, as soon as I cut my beginning from 60 pages to 30 pages my third novel acceptance rate doubled. If you reflect more the reason for this is very logical. As we talked on the onset, a story experience becomes immersive only once the readers enters a new world, so the earlier you get into it (credibly of course) the better.

Now your second writing exercise is to create your detailed outline. Write down your LOCK, then use the beginning, middle and end outline to break your story into small pieces. That’s it, you are done with the skeleton of a best-selling novel. Next we learn how to infuse it with flesh and blood.

How To Write An Outline For A Book PDF

How To Outline A Novel Using Trello

Kayla’s Youtube Channel

Video Transcript:

I really quickly wanted to show you how I outline my books in Trello. Sometimes I use this method, sometimes I don’t, but I really wanted to show it because I don’t see a lot of people really using this.

I actually do it more to business stuff and how to kind of manage your team, but I do think it’s a really cool way to organize your work in progress. If you have more than one book you’re working on, it’s actually a really cool idea.

I thought I would put it out there, because I do totally believe that writer’s block happens less when you have an outline. The reason that there are Pantsers in the world, is because you don’t have an outline.

My name is Kayla Walker. I post travel writing and motivational videos. so if that sounds good to you go ahead and click ‘Subscribe’. If you are on Facebook, go ahead and like this Facebook page and let’s get started.

How to outline a novel infoOkay, so this is Trello and we are going to go to my outlining board. This is just like a sample one that I made. I just made up random names for you guys. I have a character profiles cards, I have a settings profiles card, and I have a chapter one.

I’m just gonna show you a couple ways to do this, that’s why I didn’t really fill it out. These character profiles are self explanatory, so you would have these and then you can click on them and Trello actually lets you have due dates and attachments.

Ideally, what you would do with these files is, you would have the file of your character profile and attach it, or you can even do type of checklist. Now what I was going to suggest is, first of all you know, obviously you want character profiles and setting profiles.

I don’t know if you want to do a chapter one, with kind of scenes and chapter 2, and chapter 3. What’s really nice is, you can really just move cards around. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to do that with setting profiles, but if you wanted to do that with chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, that’s OK.

If your mind works where you want to do just act 1, act 2, act 3 – that would be great as well. Something I was going to suggest is, if you use Trello, a great way to track your progress and we’re gonna move this ‘track your progress’ card.

It’s the first thing you do and it’s almost going to be like your checklist, and it’s gonna tell you how far along you are in writing your novel. Here I’m going to show you what actually we’re going to do. We’re going to hit ‘checklist’ and we’re going to title a checklist.

So we’re going to hit different items – we’re gonna hit all the things you need for your novel. We’re gonna hit ‘book cover design’, we’re gonna hit your actual formatting file. For the sake of time I’m going to say that you have five chapters and if you have an epilogue. If you don’t, I don’t know, we can even hit ‘find beta readers’ and edit your novel.

I don’t even know if that’s everything. This is me and going off the top of my head but I wanted to show you the kind of checklist feature. You can even hit a due date for each thing so that’s really cool to kind of keep you accountable for your goals, whether it be a few months down the line or whatever.

How to outline a story guidelinesHowever far you are but what you can do is say, you wrote chapter one, you know or you got that copyright page done. Maybe you wrote chapter four and you skip around and you got your book synopsis. You are able to say ‘okay, I really really make in progress’ and being able to add attachments into this.

Even if you do get that book cover design down the line or that formatting file, obviously it wouldn’t be early in the game, but you are able to attach those design files into Trello. I wouldn’t suggest only having it in Trello but it’s nice that everything be in one place.

As you can see, you have four out of thirteen done of your checklist items. so I would keep that over here. This is a way to outline with Trello. This is a simple way I just wanted to show you guys in quick video. I don’t do act 1, act 2, act 3 – I’m much more of a chapter 1, chapter 2,chapter 3 kind of person.

I just love how you are able to take the scenes and just say, you know, Harry Met Sally. Switch them see how you like one after the other. If you are a planner, you could have more cards in the beginning besides settings, besides characters. Maybe you can have some kind of magic and sciences cards, anything like that.

I just wanted to give you more of an idea of a different way to outline. Also, when you fill out the chapters, however many you think you’ll do, I know in the work-in-progress I’m doing – it has like 16 chapters. It actually prints out really really nicely, so once I’m done writing the scenes, I actually just highlight them

Because I’m more of a pen and paper type person, this is just a different way and I wanted to show it to you because I know not a lot of people like outlining. I truly really believe it helps when you have a better way to plan. Let me know what you think in the comments below and I will see you guys later.