How to Outline a Book (& Novel) in 7 Super Simple Steps

by Sam Driver


Ever stared at a blank page, wondering how to outline a book without spiraling into chaos? 

You’re not alone. 

Creating a detailed outline can feel like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with infinite pieces. 

But don’t fret — there’s a simpler way. 

Whether you’re drafting your first novel, an academic paper, or a self-help guide, we will share specific examples and actionable techniques to outline your work like a pro.

So what’s the hold-up? 

Let’s jump in!

What is a Book Outline (& Why Do You Need One)?

So, you’re chomping at the bit to dive into the logistics of how to outline a book? Hold your horses! 

First, let’s clear up any misconceptions about what a book outline actually is. 

Picture it as your trusty GPS on the often winding, sometimes turbulent, yet always rewarding journey of writing a book. 

Whether you’re plotting a mystery novel filled with twists or assembling a nonfiction book packed with facts and data, an outline serves as your navigational tool.

Sound humdrum?

Far from it!

Consider George R.R. Martin’s intricate storylines in “Game of Thrones” or Malcolm Gladwell’s well-researched arguments in “Outliers.” Both could have dissolved into chaos without a well-structured story outline.

Now that we’ve established what an outline is and its critical role, let’s delve into the specific benefits it offers…

Time-Saving Wonders & the Demise of Writers Block

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A book outline is your secret weapon against the menacing gaze of a blank page. There’s nothing worse than firing up your laptop, brewing a pot of coffee, and then… nothing. Writers block.

The words just won’t come. 

But when you have a detailed outline, you’ve got a playbook to run with. 

That blinking cursor won’t taunt you as much, and the words will start flowing, sparing you countless hours of staring at an empty screen, willing the words to appear.

Dodging Those Dreaded Plot Holes or Logical Fallacies

Let’s face it — no one wants to fall into a storytelling abyss filled with glaring plot holes or get lost in a maze of convoluted arguments. 

How do you circumvent these traps? Cue the outline. 

In a novel, you’re constructing a world governed by its own rules. A novel outline lets you keep track of all your story’s elements: from your characters’ motivations to the timeline of events. 

In nonfiction, your line of argument needs to be airtight. Your outline will help you spot weak links or contradictory statements before they become glaring issues. 

Maintaining a Crystal-Clear Story or Argument Structure

While you may have a mind-blowing story or a groundbreaking thesis, without a clear structure, you’ll struggle to convey your vision. 

Think of your outline as a well-organized closet. 

It helps you see where every twist and turn fits, ensuring that elements like pacing and tension evolve naturally. Gone are the days of sudden, jarring shifts that throw the reader off balance.

Or it guides you in layering your points logically, making sure each step in your argument serves as a solid foundation for the next.

Character or Subject Matter Development

An outline lets you delve deep. 

If your writing a novel, it’s like assembling a scrapbook for each main character, complete with their backstories, quirks, and arcs. 

In the realm of nonfiction, the outline helps you become an authority on your subject matter. 

Let’s say you’re writing a book about the gig economy. 

An outline will help you compartmentalize each aspect — from its history and growth to its societal impact — ensuring you present a 360-degree view.

Keeping the Focus Laser-Sharp

With the buffet of ideas and information before you, it’s easy to go off on tangents. 

A book outline acts as your guardrail, ensuring you stay the course. 

If you’re writing a thriller, for instance, meandering can deflate the tension quicker than a pin in a balloon.

Or, if you’re writing about renewable energy solutions, it might be tempting to delve into a historical survey of past energy resources. 

But unless it serves your core message, this could dilute your focus and confuse your reader. 

How to Outline Your Book in 7 Easy Steps

Now you understand the what and why, let’s roll up your sleeves and dive into the nitty-gritty of how to outline a book…

Step 1: Start With the Main Idea

Starting with the main book idea is akin to setting the cornerstone of a skyscraper. This idea should be so inspiring, so gripping that it consumes your thoughts and fuels your writing sessions. 

Think about J.K. Rowling’s concept of a young wizard attending a magical school. This singular story idea expanded into an entire universe of characters, plots, and themes. 

But it didn’t just stop there; it inspired an entire generation of readers to believe in the magic of storytelling.

Your main idea serves as your ultimate muse. 

Whenever you feel lost in the labyrinth of your manuscript or find yourself questioning your storytelling capabilities, remember that this fundamental notion is the heartbeat of your book. 

It should be so robust that you can summarize it in a single sentence. 

If your main idea can’t be distilled into a single, potent line, it might be worth revisiting and refining it. 

Once honed, this idea will act as your magnetic north, forever pulling your compass needle in the right direction whenever you lose your way.

Step 2: Create a Thesis Statement or Core Message

If your main idea is the cornerstone, then your thesis statement or core message is the architectural blueprint of your literary skyscraper. 

It’s the why behind the what, the message you want to imprint on the souls of your readers. 

Think about the unforgettable message of racial injustice in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It isn’t merely a story about a young girl named Scout; it’s a social commentary that still echoes in classrooms and discussions today.

Your core message is the invisible thread that ties every chapter, every paragraph, and even every sentence together. 

It will help you decide what to include and what to trim during your editing process. If a chapter or a scene doesn’t contribute to this message, it’s merely taking up valuable real estate. 

Step 3: Develop Your Characters or Key Concepts

Characters and concepts are the lifeblood of any book. 

Consider Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice.” She’s not just another romantic heroine; she’s an emblem of feminism, wit, and defiance against social norms. 

Her character depth allows for intricate plot developments and gives the core message of love and prejudice a medium through which to shine.

On the flip side, if you’re venturing into a nonfiction book, your key concepts serve a similar purpose. 

Imagine writing a book about climate change without discussing the Greenhouse Effect, fossil fuels, or the role of industrialization. These key concepts are the pillars that uphold your core message and contribute to your book’s authority on the subject matter. 

They should be as vividly developed as a novel’s characters, serving as custodians for your main idea and thesis statement.

Step 4: Plot Out the Main Events or Key Arguments

The main events — the pivotal moments that turn the wheels of your narrative or argument. 

Don’t think of this step as daunting; it’s more like treasure hunting. 

You’ve got a map (your main book idea), and you’re marking down where the gold is hidden (your key events or arguments).

If you’re crafting a novel outline, these are the moments your main character makes decisions that change their destinies. 

Consider the fateful choice of Frodo Baggins to leave the Shire in “The Lord of the Rings.” That decision is a pivotal moment, setting the tone and direction for all the epic adventures that follow.

Likewise, if you’re working on a book about climate change, identify those key moments where you’ll present irrefutable data or compelling stories that dramatically underscore the urgency of the issue.

Step 5: Decide on the Story or Argument Structure

Story structure is the skeleton of your narrative or argument. Choose wisely, and your work will stand tall and make an impact; choose poorly, and it may crumble to pieces. 

In novels, a three-act story structure is often a tried-and-true approach. But don’t rule out the nonlinear storytelling used in novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, which defy time and space to create a unique reader experience. 

For nonfiction works, chronological structures may lend a sense of building momentum, but thematic or problem-solution formats can highlight your arguments in ways that captivate the reader’s intellect and emotions.

The structure is not just a scaffolding; it’s the stage upon which all your characters or key concepts will perform their roles. 

Step 6: Break it Down into Chapters or Sections

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If writing a book is akin to running a marathon, then chapters are your water stations. They offer readers — or you, the writer — a moment to catch your breath and process what’s happened before charging ahead. 

Imagine reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” without chapters to give you room to assemble clues and ponder the suspects. It’d be like sprinting through a labyrinth, disoriented and exhausted.

Chapters or sections serve as sub-outlines within your main outline. 

Each should have its specific purpose or goal — whether it’s developing a character, making a pivotal argument, or delivering a shock that keeps your audience engaged. 

Step 7: Review & Revise

Even when you think you’ve laid down the final piece of your story outline, the work isn’t over. 

Go back and dig deep. Ask yourself if every plot point drives the story or if each argument sharpens your thesis.

If you’re writing a mystery novel, for instance, comb through every clue, ensuring they add up to the big reveal. 

Or, if you’re crafting an academic paper, scrutinize your line of reasoning, ensuring each point logically feeds into the next without contradictions. 

This step is where you refine your pacing, plug those plot holes, and align all your points to resonate in harmonic synergy.

So put on your editor’s hat and be your own toughest critic. 

How to Outline a Book, Solved!

You’ve made it! 

With the strategies you’ve just learned, outlining is no longer a monster hiding under your writer’s desk. 

Think about the clarity you’ll gain and how your ideas will flow like never before. 

So go ahead, seize those creative reigns! You’ve got the tools; now, build your literary empire

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Sam Driver

Sam is an Associate Editor for Smart Blogger and family man who loves to write. When he’s not goofing around with his kids, he’s honing his craft to provide lasting value to anyone who cares to listen.


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Photo of author

Written by Sam Driver

Sam is an Associate Editor for Smart Blogger and family man who loves to write. When he’s not goofing around with his kids, he’s honing his craft to provide lasting value to anyone who cares to listen.

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