Book Outlines: How in Depth Do You Go?

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When you think of a book outline, does it make you cringe? For some of you it may, but for other authors it’s the only way to go. A lot of people will argue that outlining a book is too constraining. Outlines can be rigid and can restrict discovery in the novel, and that can frustrate an author. Others may say outlines are a great way to keep their ideas organized. They are a nice map from start to finish with important events along the way marked for the author to remember.

The reason many authors steer clear of outlines is probably because they feel it doesn’t give them a lot of wiggle room. The author may become so invested the book outline that regular events that would naturally unfold in the story, or characters making their own choices about what’s going to happen next, get dashed by the wayside.

Many authors are married to the idea of an outline. Some outlines are nothing more than a few prompts for important scenes with a knowledge of the plot, characters, beginning, middle, and end.

So, what’s important when it comes to outlining?

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Plot

A lot of people confuse plot with the theme of the book. They ask “what’s your book about? What’s the plot?” As if they’re interchangeable. They’re not. The plot of any book outline is simply a yes or no question. Will Jane find love with Marco? Will the brave hero kill the dark wizard that killed his family? Will Derrick get that promotion at work and finally move out of his mother’s basement? The plot is a yes or no question, that you should be able to answer. The answer makes the book.

A book can also have more than one plot, these are called subplots, and they often deal with secondary characters, but they don’t have to. Subplots aren’t the main story. The main story plot could be “will the brave hero kill the dark wizard that killed his family?” And a subplot could be “will the hero become obsessed with revenge that he lets it consume him?” Or it could be a plot completely different than the main plot. It could be “will the hero find love along the way?” “Will the hero find happiness at the end?”

Plots and themes are magical things, because even if you sit down and write a book beginning to end without an outline or knowing the plot or the theme, they’re still going to be there. You may not notice it at first, but the plot and the theme are in that book. It may take some digging, but you’ll find them.

Theme

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Underneath the surface of your book, what are you trying to say? The theme is a statement the book makes. The theme will lead the reader to some revelation about life, or at least a conclusive idea the book poses. This conclusion, the revelation, is your theme. Some sample themes? Sure, that sounds fun:

  • Living in simplicity is beautiful
  • Fear of failure holds you back from living a full life
  • A life of solitude will lead to a destructive nature
  • Patriotism taken to the extreme is terrorism
  • Questing for power leads to the destruction of love
  • Desiring to escape your life is often your inner voice crying for you to change yourself

Themes don’t have an answer because they’re not a question—they’re a statement. Themes have a conclusion through the actions of the characters and situations they find themselves in. The fun thing about themes is you could write your entire book focusing on a character who wants an extravagant life, but when they find it, they realize that’s not what they wanted at all, and what they crave is a simple and happy life. Reader A could say the book was about how using people to get where you want to go makes you unhappy. Reader B could say the book was about how looking ahead and never taking in the joys of the moment leads to an unhappy life. Meanwhile you, as the author, knows the theme is living in simplicity is beautiful.

Why’s this? Because the theme is subtle and not stated.

Beginning, Middle, and End

Plot, theme, the beginning, middle, and end of the book are probably the most important things to know about your book. A simple book outline doesn’t need more than that to help get you started. Knowing the beginning, where the story is starting; the middle, which is often a part of the story at the apex of the plot; and the end, where the plot is resolved, will give you the bare bones of an outline.

Something important to remember about each of these parts:

  • The beginning starts where the story starts. That sounds absurd, I know. I mean obviously the beginning is where a story starts. But, what that really means is the beginning of a story marks where things change from the ordinary course of action; this is what really starts the story. We don’t care about how Beth’s life was boring Monday through Thursday and suddenly Friday she sees a dead body while she’s out jogging. Don’t write about Monday through Thursday. The beginning of the story is the moment on Friday when Beth finds the body.
  • The middle isn’t actually the middle of the book. The middle marks the apex of the story, often when the plots are reaching a boiling point or the character is finding themselves in the crucible of the story. This is often a point of high action, or where everything seems to be coming to a head (or falling apart).
  • The end is making sure the plot (or plots) are wrapped up nice and neat, where you make sure the theme has been addressed in detail, and where you give the readers the warm fuzzy ending they want, or the hook for the next book.

Other Important Bits

If you’d like to take your book outline beyond that, you certainly can. Here are some ideas that can help you out more:

  • Setting – where is the story taking place? You may need to do some world building here if it’s not an Earth setting.
  • Characters – who is your main character? Who are your secondary characters? You will likely want to build character sheets for them to really get to know them, but be careful not to be too constricting with their details or your characters may not grow on their own.
  • Atmosphere – this isn’t necessary, but knowing what genre you’re writing in can help you build an ambience through the book.
  • Word banks – an idea that I love. A word bank is a list of words that feel a certain way. If you’re writing fantasy, your word bank can consist of words that evoke an older, magical feel: aegis, whimsical, effervescent. If you’re writing romance the bank could consist of words that lend a romantic feel: velveteen, breathtaking, allure. I would suggest focusing on plugging these words into your second draft, because if you focus on using them in the first draft, it could mess with your flow of words.

So, there you have the bare bones of an outline. Of course, you will likely take notes along the way, things that stick out to you as you’re researching, building characters and worlds, or just thinking about the book. These notes you can (and should) keep track of and organize them when you’re ready to start writing. The notes will help you along the way, remind you of important events, and act as guideposts through the thousands of words you’re about to write.

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Or, you could be like a lot of other authors and just wing it. The important thing to remember about rules when it comes to writing is there are no rules. If you have an idea for a book and just want to write, do it! But, if you’re looking for a more organized approach and a way that will get more words written in less time, than a book outline may be your best friend.

What do you love about outlining? Or, what do you love about NOT outlining?

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