Now that the motivational stuff is out of the way – and you know you want to write a book, you know the steps to writing a book for the first time and you’re familiar with the ingredients of the writer’s tool kit -, it’s time to get on with the practical aspects of writing a book: writing a book outline. This is where things become intense, but don’t worry – I’ll guide you through it step-by-step.
Writing a Book Outline: Story vs. Plot
Many authors have a story, but not a plot. A story is nice, but a plot is evocative and it keeps readers turning the pages. The difference?
Story: Boy meets girl, falls in love and they live happily ever after.
Plot: Boy meets girl, but she’s unattainable. He wins her heart just to lose her again. Will they ever have true love?
As you can see, a plot is much more intriguing and atypical. It leaves you hanging – questioning. You WANT TO KNOW why events occurred and how they will unfold. That’s what will ensure that your readers keep turning pages. It’s important to understand this when writing a book outline.
It takes talent and creativity to come up with a good plot, but with a bit of thought, you can create an awesome plot from a run-of-the-mill story idea. In fact, many authors recreate an old story to deliver a fresh twist. Here are some tips –
- Look for book ideas generator software online to help you come up with ideas.
- Challenge convention.
- Create rich characters.
- Live on the edge.
When you have a great idea, pitch it to a few people and see how they react.
You should be able to simply explain your plot in no more than five simple sentences. Work at the plot until it is clear and concise, and then share it on Facebook or call a few friends to ask for their opinion before writing your book outline. If most of them want to learn more, you know you have a winner.
Writing a Book Outline: The Nuts and Bolts
This is the biggest job, apart from the actual writing process, but it is crucial if you want to make the writing process quicker, easier and create a more cohesive book at the same time.
When it comes to writing a book outline, I recommend you create a file in Excel or in Google Sheets. Depending on the type of book you’re writing, you will need to write a minimum of 10 chapters (for a how-to) or in excess of 100 chapters (for a novel) in your outline.
It may not be easy to know where to start (and where to stop!) during this process, but I recommend you keep it short and sweet. Just write one sentence about what this chapter covers, or what happens to the main character in the chapter. Leave at least 10-12 rows open between each chapter for your scenes, unless, like James Patterson, you write one scene per chapter. That does lend itself to an easy-read, so you may want to consider it.
Now, on your manuscript document, write a few lines of the action that happens in each chapter (chapter summary).
Take your time to put together chapter summaries for your entire book before you start writing. This way, you will save your time and editing costs in the long term, because it will flow better. As you go along, you will get ideas and questions will pop up. Make notes of those so that you can follow up on it later on.
Writing a Book Outline: Create vibrant characters (for fiction)
I don’t know about you, but I like to know what characters in books look like and who they are. There have been a few books I’ve read, where I’ve pictured a character a certain way, and then, when I saw the movie, I didn’t enjoy it as much because he or she looked completely different.
Please bear with me as I share (another!) James Patterson example… His Women’s Murder Club series is my favorite of all series. I basically live from one release to the next and don’t enjoy any novels in between, because nothing can compare. I always pictured Detective Boxer to look like Angie Harmon, but then, one day, I read a description about her having blonde hair. That threw me!
But low and behold, the series came to TV, and guess who was cast as Lindsay Boxer? None other than Angie Harmon. I could not be happier – she’s PERFECT for the role, and the other characters looked exactly as I pictured them, too. That’s James for you – he creates the most believable characters with whom you can truly connect. Most often, he makes you feel for the characters, even the antagonists.
So, what is a believable character?
- Someone with feelings
- Someone with a rich personality
- Someone with at least one quirk
- Someone with both good and bad traits
- Someone with flaws and deep convictions
Expert Tip: When writing about a “bad” character, it is important to remember the concept of Yin and Yang. All good has a little bit of bad, and even all bad still has a little bit of good. No one person is completely good or completely bad. Infuse your altruistic protagonist with a selfish streak, and inject a bit of conscience into your antagonist at just the right time.
Create your own worksheet for each character, or create a mind map in which you answer the following questions:
Who is this character? Describe both his or her personality, what they do for a living and where they fit into the story, i.e.
- Daughter of oil billionaire
- Writes crime fiction under a pseudonym at night
- Acts out plot lines on her Facebook friends out of boredom
What does s/he look like? Boring characters can be average looking and of average height, but try make you main characters distinct. If you’re writing a third-person biography and you rate yourself as average looking, add something special. Mention a crooked tooth in your average straight smile, or spectacular eyes in an otherwise dull face, or a distinctive tattoo, or something – it’s not that hard!
What makes your character tick? Find something that fuels the character’s adrenaline to keep the story going. In my example – and in reality – coffee works best. It could also be anger, the smell of blood, rock music, ocean air, fame, fortune, drugs, sex – whatever suits your story line. Including this when you’re writing a book outline is a great way to remember to include it when you write the book.
Describe your character’s personality traits. I admire the writers of The Good Wife for their skill in creating quirks. No matter how angry Peter and Alicia are at one another, they always say the right thing about each other. After Peter fired Eli in the beginning of Season 6, they do an interview right after a fight, and the reporter asks Alicia why people should vote for Peter. Alicia holds Peter’s hand in a death grip, and talks about how he stands by his promises and always does the right thing. And I love how Alicia always dodges engagements that force her to do things that go against her core beliefs.
What’s your character’s main quirk? Consider Louis Canning (played by Michael J. Fox in The Good Wife) who uses his tardive dyskinesia to gain the sympathies of the judges, and Elsbeth Tascioni with her severe ADHD distractibility to accentuate her unconventional – yet brilliant – legal mind.
When building your character, be consistent. Most people have a mostly consistent personality, with one or two quirks, or they are completely quirky. If you’re writing about a recluse, you would not write that he goes to parties every weekend. You’d write about how he is alone at home, preparing a meal for one, spending his time reading, and when he has to leave home, he would not wear a flamboyant outfit – he would not want to be seen. However, you can throw in how he connects in a special way to one person. Or his quirk could be that he is an avid online MMO (massive multiplayer online) gamer.
A quirk is something that brings contrast and depth to your character’s personality, but the rule goes out the door when you’re writing about a quirky individual who has multiple contrasting traits that are crucial to the story – consider Sheldon with his Asperger’s in The Big Bang Theory. He doesn’t drive, is a germophobe, has his ‘spot’, eats specific foods on specific days, and comes across as rude to everyone other than his group of friends (most autistic people are not that social). Yet, Amy loves him to bits (acceptance), and his mom is a true Southern gal who obviously raised him differently (contrast).
In writing a book outline for fiction, the rules of correctness and generalization go out of the door, which brings us to the importance of research – more on that in next week’s post.