How to Outline Your Book and Avoid Writer’s Block

When I write a book, I find that a solid outline works wonders for keeping me focused and productive. For me, it’s all about seeing the dots and then making the connections. So, how do I go about making those connections to write a story?

Of course, everyone is different when it comes to what methods of writing work best. But for many authors, outlining is a viable way to write a novel.

It can be done in several ways, but most have a universal backbone to hold it together.

Pros and Cons of Outlining a Book

Before we get started, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of outlining. Then, if you still feel it’s the way to go, we’ll dive right into the process I use.

Pros of Outlining a Book

  • Provides an overview of the story
    Being able to see the skeleton of the story can give you an idea of what it’ll look like in the end.
  • Keeps you on track for writing
    You spend less time contemplating how to progress the story if you know what comes next.
  • Easier to remember the specifics you want to add
    Thought of some nice dialogue? Have a new plot device? Outlining can help you remember those elements.
  • Easier to manage character and story arcs overall
    Setting up the changes for the character and story beforehand can help you fine-tune and write it out.

Cons of Outlining a Book

  • Can feel inorganic for storytelling
    Being too rigid with the outline can make the story feel forced or robotic.
  • Slight changes could affect the entire outline
  • The simplest change of a character’s actions or behavior can create a ripple effect throughout the outline.
  • A bit more effort to plot out before writing
    I can spend several hours polishing up a great outline before I even start writing a single word of the book.

How to Outline the Book You Want to Write

Now, there are a number of ways you can outline your book. Some people will use storyboarding, while others will simply make notes to themselves.

In reality, there is no best method overall. Remember, it’s all about what works best for you.

For instance, I know a lot of authors who will use images on a board to get a feel for a book’s flow. I use bracketed sentences within the manuscript of my outline.

I’ll show you what I mean about outlining with brackets in a moment.

Regardless of how you actually create the outline, there are several key factors that you’ll need beforehand.

What is the Book About?

The first step is about knowing what you want to write. However, it takes a bit more than just saying you want to write about “XYZ.” There is some planning needed for a proper outline.

For instance, a good beginning outline for a book includes:

  • The overall plot of the story
  • The setting of which the story takes place
  • The main protagonist/antagonist
  • An idea of an arc for the protagonist/antagonist
  • Primary and secondary (if any) objectives of characters
  • An idea of character’s wants and needs
  • The main conflict of the story

For a basic outline, you don’t need to go into too deep of detail for any one of these elements. In fact, most can be set up in a single sentence.

For example, we could create a plot about a man who is looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It takes place in New York. The main protagonist is a shoe salesman looking to get rich. The antagonist is an evil leprechaun.

The main conflict is the leprechaun keeps moving the pot of gold. The character arc is that the shoe salesman thinks he wants the gold, but discovers he simply needs to be liked by his peers to be happy.

You get the idea.

Once you get the basic lines out of the way, you can add as much detail to them as you’d like. Just make sure you’re adding points that are relevant to the story.

Visualizing the Main Characters

I find having a visual of your characters can make a world of difference when describing them in the book. As I think cinematically, I often find real actors who I feel would play certain parts if someone turned the book into a Netflix Original.

This is why I’ll look for pictures to use for inspiration when I create a character bio in Reedsy. Then, I’ll try to describe to my readers what I’m seeing both in my head and in the pic.

Garrett Patton
Yep, that’s Kurt Russell from Tombstone.

Now, you don’t necessarily need to dig through Google images or IMDB to find actors to play the roles in your book. Nonetheless, being able to visualize your characters can help you flesh them out in the outline.

See your character in your mind and create a bio based on your imagination.

Setting Up the Plot

Essentially, there are three primary parts of creating a plot. You have the beginning, middle, and the end. In the outline for your book, you’ll add elements that correspond with these sections to create a logical timeline.

This includes adding the outcome of certain events, scenes and when they take place, and points you want to add that will impact the story’s plot.

Beginning

The beginning of your novel is an exceptionally important part. You need to grab your reader’s attention, introduce characters, and start building the world around the story.

Setting up a good beginning lays the groundwork for getting your audience to care about what happens to the characters.

Middle

The middle is perhaps one of the more difficult parts to write. That’s because you can easily lose steam after the beginning, which can make the middle sag a bit in terms of development.

Outlining can help you keep good pacing as you figure out how to get the characters to the end.

In a nutshell, the middle is when character and story arcs begin to shift. Not everything needs to immediately start changing, but the middle is usually when things start to move in other directions.

Having a plan for these changes can help it feel more organic instead of trying to force something to work.

End

The end is obviously the climax of the book. Having an idea of where the story will end can make outlining that much easier. You don’t necessarily have to stick with the idea if it doesn’t fit how the story develops.

Take my book, Kingmaker, for example. The ending that was published is a far cry from the first draft. That’s mostly because events in the middle shaped how it ended.

Although the first draft ending was technically the first thing written, it changed quite a bit.

Don’t Be Too Rigid of the Outline

When creating your outline of the book, don’t be too rigid in how it progresses. One of the drawbacks to outlining is how the story can feel inorganic, forced, or rushed if things don’t logically mesh together.

A way to avoid those pitfalls is to view outlining as more of a fluid practice.

For instance, I had to re-evaluate the outline for Shadows of Atlantic City several times while writing the book. That’s because things would happen between characters or a better idea would present itself that changed how the story unfolded.

The outline is merely a guide for what you want to write. It’s not set in stone and should be flexible depending on the actions and behaviors of your characters.

Example of How I Outline a Book

So, what does an outline of one of my books look like? Well, I’m going to use an example as I don’t want to show off spoilers of my current novel.

First, I decide on what I want to write about. In this case, let’s say I want to write a dark sci-fi novel based on an actual unsolved mystery – the Antikythera mechanism.

Actually, I’m debating on doing this one in real life anyway.

Then, I would research as much information about the topic as needed for the story. In this case, it would be how and when the mechanism was created.

Once that is established, the imagination kicks into overdrive. I would start plotting out the story with the three main sections first and then periodically fill in the gaps.

That means I start with the beginning, middle, and end scenes. Then, as ideas start coming, I put them into the outline.

I use bracketed content within the story as I write as a way to separate the outline from the plot. It would look something like this:

Example Outline of Book

Keep in mind that this was created in less than five minutes. Normally, I spend a couple of hours really diving into the research and how I want everything to play out.

In this example image, I started with the space battle. The middle is of the human character building a mechanized clock. And the ending was the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism 2000 years later.

And yes, I would flesh out a lot more of the story in brackets over the next few hours. When I wrote Fury, the outline was massive by the time I started with the first chapter.

As I write each section of the book, I delete its corresponding bracket text and move on. I also spend a bit of time filling in the outline as I come up with new ideas, dialogue, or pertinent scenes I want in the book.

For example, I often go for 15 to 20-minute walks while listening to music. During that time, I think of scenes for the book at different points in the story. Then, I’ll come in and add those bracketed sections that make sense.

How a Book Outline Avoids Blockage

In a lot of ways, outlining a book is similar to that of outlining a blog. It’s all about accentuating elements you want to see or convey in the content. It also helps you remember the things you want to include in the finished product.

When I have a plan of how I want a story to progress, it helps me stay focused on how I want it to unfold. Then, all I have to do is connect point A to point B. And depending on how the story progresses, changes in the outline have to be made in the book.

My outlines often include bits of conversations, scenes I want to include, and references that are made in the tale.

For instance, as I wrote Shadows of Atlantic City, I made sure every clue in the mystery was reflected later in the tale. I did this by adding single outline sentences at the end as they happened in various chapters.

Then again, I do that for all of my books as a way to balance continuity. You don’t want to mention a plot or subplot device and then completely forget about it later.

Yes, this has happened on several occasions, which is why I started adding more to the outline when writing the book. The memory just isn’t as good as it once was.

The bottom line is that having a clear plan helps me avoid writer’s block because I know where the story is supposed to go.

Sometimes there are massive changes to the outline so that the book makes sense due to the actions of the characters. But I always have a sense of where the story is going.

In a couple of instances, I’ve written the ending before starting chapter one. However, I did make a few changes to the ending as events throughout the book unfolded.

Pantser vs Plotter

When it comes to writing books, there is no right or wrong answer. It’s all about finding the method that works best for you. Some authors can write by the seat of their pants, while others excel at plotting it out.

So, really, the arguments behind pantser vs plotter are moot. It depends solely on how you’re most comfortable writing.

Ignore the twits that say you’re not a real author if you don’t do one or the other. As long as you’re able to write the book, that’s all that really matters.

In the grand scheme of things, there have been all kinds of successful and popular authors who have plotted and pantsed their books. As long as it’s a good story, readers don’t care how you put it together.

What Methods Work Best for You?

As I said earlier, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to writing a book. Some people are prominent plotters while others can whip out a story by the seat of their pants.

What matters is that you write a good story that engages the reader and keeps them flipping the pages. It doesn’t matter how you got them there, only that you did.

Well, that is unless you want to use AI-generated garbage, but that is a blog post for another day.

What kind of writer are you, and what routines do you have to keep yourself writing?

Michael Brockbank
Follow Me...

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments