How To Make An Outline For A Book – Planning & Structure

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Hi everyone, I’m Stephanie London. Welcome back to my channel. Today’s video is going to be a look at the process that I use when planning to write a book.

Now I feel like there’s going to be a lot of information, so I’m probably going to switch this up into two videos. One is going to be looking at the difference between plotting and pantsing, or writing by the seat of your pants, and kind of where I fall between those two things.

Also, how that has changed as I’ve written more and more books, and also how plotting and pantsing kind of fits in with me working with a publisher, and what I actually have to kind of give them upfront in order to contract a book.

Then in the second video I’m actually gonna go through the document that I use to plan out a story and to tell you what I do plan, what I don’t plan and what level of detail I kind of go into through that process, and how I use that document.

I think that’s how this is gonna go. When I wrote my first book, I wrote it or started writing it during NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that on this channel before but I didn’t decide that I was going to write that book until like day one of NaNoWriMo.

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Creating An Outline For A Book – The Right Choice

Video Transcript (cont’d)

It was at my office on the 1st of November and I was having work eating, my lunch at my desk, answering emails, which I used to do a lot and I decided. I had this idea for awhile. I already joined a writers group but kind of scribbled a few things here and there.

But I was like, ‘no, this is like the perfect opportunity. I just need to to go for it’ and I had an idea which was kind of a paragraph long. Just a bit of a concept, and literally, I went home that night, I sat down, I typed chapter one and I started writing.

There was no planning, there was no kind of figuring anything out. I just sat down and I wrote that book until it was finished and there are a lot of writers who write like that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. Sometimes that’s just how the creativity comes.

I definitely don’t think that writing a book like that is a bad thing to do. However, I did have to rewrite a lot of elements within that book because I was a very new. It was my first story and so I found myself the feeling like I was getting a bit frustrated with writing books like that, after I had done the next couple of books in much the same manner.

Creating an outline for a book guidelinesThat’s when I started to do a little bit of planning beforehand. So I like to think of plotting and pantsing as kind of a spectrum. Like you don’t necessarily just have to be one or the other. People kind of, you know, might be extreme at one end or extreme at the other end or you might fall somewhere in the middle like I do.

I definitely wouldn’t put myself staunchly in either plotting or pantsing camps because I really do a bit of both. I sit down to write a story and I plan a little bit but then often when I write, sometimes I deviate from the plan. Sometimes I don’t and that’s fine.

I take a very relaxed approach to the whole planning pace. One of the things that made me plan my books out more was working with a publisher. With the publishers that I’m already involved with, so that will be Entangled and Harlequin, when I go to give them a new book I have to submit what’s called a proposal.

That is generally speaking a synopsis and three chapters. Now it’s very hard to write a synopsis if you don’t have any idea of what the story is about, so just by having to do that I was kind of forced to bring more planning into my life.

I found that in some elements of that I really enjoyed it and it definitely helped me from avoiding that kind of getting stuck in the middle feeling with the book. It has definitely been a good thing for me to incorporate a little bit more planning into my process.

How to do an outline for a book tipsNow having said, that my planning is quite a high level. I don’t go down into the details and you know have every single little thing worked out in the book like some authors do. It’s definite that planning is not the same thing for every writer.

Now when you’re writing a synopsis, you’re writing a summary of the book. That means you have to know what happens at the end, so the difference between the synopsis and a blurb is that a blurb is kind of a teaser. You wanting to pique the readers interest.

Often in a query you’ll be using a blurb type thing, to kind of get all of your hooks in there, to get all of your themes and to really make it sound as interesting and enticing as possible. However, when you’re writing a synopsis, you have to write the whole story.

You can’t just say ‘and then you have to read on to find out what happens’. No, there’s none of that. You have to have the ending planned out and I’m very lucky in that my editors will know that sometimes things change when I write the book.

I’m writing and the plan doesn’t feel right anymore, that something happens in the story and I kind of deviate and I go with it. That definitely does happen and it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad writer, or it doesn’t mean that the editors are gonna get angry with me, if what I’m writing deviates significantly from what I’d planned initially.

Then often I will just go to my editor and and let them know and say ‘hey, this has happened. The story’s going in a bit of a different direction now’ and so we can we can talk about that. At that point say I’m wanting to start a new series, or I’m wanting to picture-book to one of my publishers, I start with the crux of the idea.

I think about what it is that has sparked my interest to start writing this particular book. Now as I’ve mentioned in one of my previous videos that could be anything. It could be an idea about a character. It could be about how two characters meet.

How to create an outline for a book adviceIt could be a sort of set up of the conflict. It could be a location, it could be anything. So often when I’m starting out, particularly if it’s for a new series and I don’t kind of have anything sort of tucked away in mind for that story, I will start with that initial idea.

Then I will kind of scribble down a bit of a blurb for myself, just to think about what are the key elements of the story. How am I going to go about like fleshing that tiny idea out into enough that it’s a story, and I just kind of free write at that point to get everything out of my mind.

Sometimes that process can go on for a while, of just me thinking about the idea I’ve got, something for a project that I want to pitch to a publisher at the moment. The idea is not fully formed yet and so I’m like laying in bed at night ready to go to sleep, that will be churning and I’ll be thinking about how I can flush that idea out.

That’s kind of at the very, very first level how I go about starting the process. Then the next thing that I do is I start work on the document, which I’m going to show you in the next part of this video series. I go through to really kind of flesh out the characters first and then to start looking at the plot and the story.

At that point, that’s when I start thinking about the synopsis, so generally speaking it comes with the idea first. I do a bit of a blurb, I have a bit of a think about it, I then go through my document to help me try and flesh out the idea. Then I start writing the three chapters and do the synopsis at the same time.

How to make an outline for a book - post That might be different for other people but sometimes I find that I can’t. I feel very blocked and I can’t even think about writing a synopsis until I’ve written a chapter, or the opening scene or whatever that might be.

For me, that’s what helps the characters to come alive and so as I’m writing I’m doing the synopsis and refining my planning document kind of all in the same period.

What generally happens next is once I have my three chapters and my synopsis, I will send it to my agent and she’ll have a read and come back to me and give me her feedback. That could be, you know, that she likes the story or there’s ‘but’, there’s an element of the conflict that she thinks needs to be kind of fleshed out a little bit more.

Or the story’s great but she thinks the synopsis isn’t kind of capturing the romance enough, which tends to happen with me a lot. I think because I know as a romance writer that the romance is going to be in the book, this is kind of ‘why do I need to put it in the synopsis’ because I know it’s gonna be there.

Obviously she’s right, I need to put that innocent OPS’s, particularly if you are approaching a publisher for the first time. That’s the kind of stuff that needs to be fleshed out, so really that step is about getting some secondary feedback.

Sometimes I go to a critique partners at this point as well and get them to read the proposal, or I might sort of share a little bit of the opening scene with some people that I feel comfortable with to get some feedback there. That’s just kind of the initial stage of getting other people to look at it.

How to write an outline for a book chapter templateThen I consolidate that feedback. I will kind of rework over the proposal and then send it to my editor at that point. Now even with books that are going to be self-published, a lot of these steps will still happen. In my case not the synopsis because, I’ll be honest, I really hate writing those.

They’re not fun to read, they’re not fun to write and I only do them because that’s part of the process when working with a publisher. When it comes to doing books for self-publishing, I will do the document that I’m going to show you in the next video.

I will get other people to have a look at the first couple of chapters and to maybe have a look at a blurb or some initial planning that I’ve done, which can be a lot rougher than what a synopsis has to be.

That just makes it easier for me to get on with the story and just kind of get into the world but I still like to have some of that initial feedback. I still do my planning document, even for books that I’m planning to self publish because I need to know all of that information in order to really kind of immerse myself in the story when I’m starting to write.

Now if the book that I’m going to be planning out happens to be part of a series, some of this activity may have already happened at this point. So generally speaking, when I’m writing a series I might be writing the first or the second book and I already kind of have my thoughts on the other secondary characters that I’m planning to write stories for.

How to write an outline for a book infoSome of that thinking is kind of bubbling away in the background while I’m working on a different book and so I may already have some notes or I may already have some blurbs written. Just some ideas jotted down, things like that.

When I put a proposal forward to my publisher for multiple books, generally speaking, I’ll have to give them blurbs for the subsequent books in the series and so I already have that and some initial feedback ready to go when I sit down to start planning the book that I’m up to in that series.

Other than having some of that initial planning and thinking done, the process is pretty much the same. I go through the document, I go through having a bit of a brainstorming period, go through getting some feedback and then ultimately, when I’m ready to really get into working on that book I will still do the synopsis and the first three chapters.

I’ll send that to the publisher even if the book has already been contracted. That’s the first video in this series. In the second video I’m gonna actually take you through the document that I use and show you exactly what sort of stuff I’m not out to do with planning a particular story. Then how I keep track of details when I’m looking at the series.

I hope you found this initial video helpful. It was kind of glossing over the whole process a little bit, just because I wanted to give you guys a bit of a background on how I’ve kind of changed as a writer, and what influenced working with a publisher has actually had on that process.

If you do have any questions that you’d like me to cover in future videos, by all means please leave them below. Let me know if you enjoyed this video by giving it a thumbs up and thank you so much for spending time with me today. I’ll see you guys in my next video. Bye.

How to make an outline for a book PDF

How To Write An Outline For A Book

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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

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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.