To plot or to pants? That is the question—one with as many different answers as there are writers. As an avid plotter, the idea of pantsing gives me the heebie-jeebies, but I understand that my over-the-top planning would probably make other writers break out in hives. That’s why I’m happy that Lesley Vos is here to share a quick outlining method that pretty much anyone could use to lay the framework for their story.
We all have a story in us, and the day comes when we feel ready to share it with the world. But writing is hard. It’s often a challenge more than a pleasant pastime. One of the reasons for this is a lack of planning.
Some fiction writers believe that creativity and imagination are enough to take them where they need to go, that if they allow the characters to live their own lives, they result will be a highly readable book. And this does work for a small number of writers. But in many cases, a few weeks or months go by, and neither the authors nor their characters know where the story’s going.
Things work a little differently with nonfiction writers, who seriously plan their books before they’re written. This planning can help fiction authors, too, saving them time and energy and preventing plot and character mishaps, along with writer’s burnout.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, for those of you who aren’t too keen on planning, I’d like to share my plan for outlining a story idea in just thirty minutes.
Understandably, you don’t want your future masterpiece to sound like an academic essay. And yet a summary, together with core facts on plot and characters, would come in handy. It will at least help you avoid hitting the writer’s-block wall and failing to finish the story.
To write an outline of your future novel, follow these steps:
1. (5 minutes) Write a one-sentence summary, or log line, of your story as you would describe it to agents. How would you make them understand that this book is worth publishing? Screenwriters call it a log line—a one-sentence synopsis that shows the potential of a movie based on its premise, characters, and conflict. Blake Snyder perfectly decribed it in his book “Save the Cat!“ For example, here’s the one-sentence log line for The Shawshank Redemption.
Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.
2) (10 minutes) Expand it to a three-act structure. The first act will introduce characters, the main conflict, and time. The second one will develop the idea and reveal more about characters. The third act includes a climax and solution to the conflict. This summary can be just a few sentences long or it can go into more details—whatever you’re comfortable with. The following shows how the Shawshank log line can be expanded into a five-sentence summary of the three-act structure:
In 1947, a young banker Andy is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife and convicted to two life sentences in Shawshank State Penitentiary. He meets Red there, a man who had been to that prison for 20 years already. Thanks to his professional background, Andy becomes useful for guards, helping them to evade taxation, but yet can’t avoid violence and sexual assaults from inmates. He asked Red, known as a “guy who knows how to get things,” for a rock hammer to pick up his hobby of rock shaping and a poster of Rita Hayworth. These are two things allowing Andy to escape: he digs a hole, covering it behind the poster, and reunites with his friend Red after 40 years.
3) (5 minutes) Specify the main characters. Write a one-sentence summary of each character: their name, goal, motivation, conflict, and storyline. Who are they? What do they want? What could prevent them from getting it? What part do they play in the plot?
4) (10 minutes) Go back to step two and expand each sentence into a paragraph, including more details. This will help you understand if your whole story works or not. Also, you’ll see whether you need all the characters represented in step three.
Now you’re ready to start writing the book. Go back to the structure; bring characters to life with more details about their appearance, history, hobbies, and the changes they will experience throughout the story. Set the scenes, and re-draft wherever necessary.
Before writing a detailed outline of your nonfiction book, make sure the market needs it. Spend some time on research. Are there any published books on similar topics? What structures do they have and how well are they selling? Do you have anything new to say?
Also, consider the audience. Do they need another book on your topic? What would they like to see in the book?
Finally, ask yourself: is your idea original, or are you just paraphrasing existing books? What unique experience(s) do you have to share with people? What skills will they get after reading your book?
Now it’s time to create your detailed outline.
1) (5 minutes) Specify the main idea of your book. This is often easy, because you’re aware of what book you want to write. It’s also important at this stage to consider your own experience with the topic since this will tell you if you have something exclusive or unique to offer on the topic.
2) (5 minutes) Come up with a title that gives a promise to readers: “This book will help you gain this skill.” Here’s an example of how these two points can work together to help an author zero in on their book’s main idea and how their experience can make it stand out:
Chris Anderson, author of TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, has worked behind the scenes with all the TED speakers for many years. In his book, he shares insights from TED’s favorites on how to speak publicly like a boss.
The book’s title tells readers exactly what skill they’ll acquire by reading the book (learn to speak publicly). And Chris’s experience offers him the unique opportunity to share insights and advice from industry professionals. This is how he can differentiate his project from other books on the same topic.
3) (10 minutes) Consider a Harvard essay structure. Write an introduction (specify a hypothesis you’ll work on in your book – a “what” component), a body (enumerate arguments you will include into the book – a “how” component), and a conclusion (specify a thesis – a “why” component).
After your outline is ready, draft the rest of the details, and your book will be born.
In the case of book writing, planning matters. No one says you need to forget about creativity, sudden strokes of inspiration, and plot twists; they’ll be your companions during the writing process. But before you start, spend just thirty minutes on outlining your future book so you won’t give up the idea of writing it once the first mishap takes place.
Lesley Vos is a seasoned web writer and blogger behind PlagiarismCheck.org. Lesley specializes on planning, researching, and creating plagiarism-free, in-depth, and comprehensive content. Feel free to see more works of hers on Twitter (@LesleyVos).
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.