Yes, You Have To: 6 Legitimate Reasons to Create a Book Outline

Yes, You Have To: 6 Legitimate Reasons to Create a Book Outline

Writing a book is beyond hard. Those of us in the thick of the book writing process know that.

Which means if there’s something that can make the entire process easier, we’d likely hop on it as fast as possible. Luckily, that very method exists and it goes by the intimidating name of outlining.

If you’re not sure what an outline is, you’re not alone.

When I first started out, I had no idea what this was and how it could help me but after failing miserably to get through even half of my first “book,” I knew I needed some help. After research I realized there are a lot of benefits to creating an outline for your book, and they’re really not difficult to understand, either.

What is a book outline?

Think of an outline as a document that lists the events of your novel by chapter. It’s instructions or blueprints for writing your book.

There are tons of different methods for making an outline that works, but as long as you end up with detailed instructions for the direction of your book from start to finish, it’ll be effective.

An outline will save you time, energy and a bunch of stress. Time is precious. Even non-writers can agree with that. However, time for writers is probably a little more important than it is for other people and that’s because writing takes a long time.

And yes, without an outline, you will have errors.

Why you should outline your book before writing it

With an outline, you’ll still run into some issues here and there but in order to avoid a majority of them, you should use one.

Outline your book faster by clicking here to download a FREE book outline template by Self-Publishing School (choose nonfiction or fiction & get the right one for you)!

Here’s how making an outline and sticking to it will save your novel.

1. It’ll get rid of plot holes

If you’re a pantser, aka, someone who writes by the seat of their pants, you’ve probably struggled with some major plot holes in your previous works.

This is because throughout the process of writing, you might forget some minor, but important, details that can have huge impacts on the rest of your book.

You might write something in chapter three that creates an issue with something you wrote in chapter 20, which then causes problems in all the chapters between, and the reason is simply because it took you months to get there. It’s completely understandable, but also preventable.

A lot can be affected by a seemingly minor error earlier on in your book.

You may end up needing to go back and fix the following throughout the rest of your book:

  • Dialogue and events related to said incident (which can add up quickly!)
  • Character personalities or motives
  • Actual events that unfold later in the book
  • Events that are to unfold in later books

All of that means some serious rewriting and some serious time. However, an outline completely prevents that because you’re basically writing the events of the book in its entirety in about a week or two.

That means you can see any plot holes from a mile away before you’ve even started writing. The time, effort and stress you can save are well worth the extra week or two to get that outline written.

2. You can better map out the flow of emotions

One of the major elements that makes a book fantastic is the ebb and flow of emotions you put your readers through. Giving them a warm, comforting moment before ripping away any hope they had left for a happy ending is what’ll hook readers and leave them with a powerful impression of your book.

The best way to do this, and do it right, is by planning it.

When you write your book without an outline, it’ll be really difficult to “chart” those emotions. You’ll have to go off what you remember and this is often what makes a book “drag” in the middle sections.

To prevent drag and captivate your readers even more, make an outline.

Depending on your method of outlining, you can literally chart these emotions and watch the rollercoaster your readers will go on. Not only will this make them more emotionally involved with the story, it’s also that special factor that makes them share your book with others.

book outline 3. You won’t have continuity errors

Unlike plot holes, continuity errors aren’t necessarily plot-related, but they do cause problems for readers. It takes them out of the moment because the realistic aspect of your story is gone when you have too many of these.

When, earlier in the book, you have your characters walking down their gravel driveway only to have them trudge up their asphalt driveway, it’s a problem.

Your book isn’t as realistic when you have these issues and the best way to get rid of them – aside from editing – is to make an outline.

You’ll be able to keep track of the environments and rules and laws within your story and this will make your book more believable and cleaner.

4. You’ll avoid writer’s block

Ah, yes. The biggest, most annoying struggle writers face. The moment when you can’t seem to continue writing because your brain is just coming up blank. While all writers will deal with crappy writing days from time to time, not having an outline is usually the biggest cause of it.

Why? Because without an outline, you have no idea where to take your story.

You might know what happens and have a vague direction for the book, but you don’t know specifically what will get your characters from point A to B. And that means you’ll sit at your computer screen with a frustrated expression trying to figure out what needs to happen next.

All of this can be avoided with an outline. Since you have directions for what to write next, all you need to do is start writing. Sure, it might not get rid of those pesky bad writing days but at least you know where to take the story next.

If you want to avoid writer’s block, take the time to put together a comprehensive outline, first.

5. It’ll make the process of writing the book faster

Writing a book tis a long process, especially if you’re someone who writes in their spare time. It can take months, a year  or even longer to complete a book from start to finish. And that’s just the writing part.

But since writing does take the longest amount of time, finding ways to make the process quicker means you’ll have a finished book in a lot shorter of a time frame.

Making an outline will definitely expedite the writing process.

When you don’t have to sit and think about what to write next or where your story is even going, you’ll just be able to write. You can open your laptop, sit down and pump out the words at a much faster rate when you have the directions right there in front of you.

6. The quality of writing will be much better

Let’s be real for a minute. What’s your main focus when writing a book if you don’t have an outline? Where the story goes. It’s not on the prose or the character development or the dialogue.

When you’re thinking about what to do next as you write, your main focus is on that, which means you’re not giving the actual writing all you’ve got. When you know exactly what’s going to happen, you can instead focus on the way you tell it.

This means you’ll have much stronger character development, more in-depth prose, and a higher quality book overall.

Forgoing an outline for writing a book is like trying to put a bookshelf together without the directions. Sure, you may be able to make something that you can use to hold books, but it won’t be nearly as stable and it won’t look half as good as it should.

When you take the time to follow the instructions, you’ll be able to focus on the quality of work you’re doing instead of just getting it put together.

Why do you use an outline when writing your book and what has it helped you overcome most as a writer?

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via baranq / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft


  • Tom Gould says:

    I always try to think five to ten chapters ahead. If I know that there is a point that I am trying to get to then the best way to get to it is to know what the end result you’re aiming for is. At the moment what I am struggling with is checking that my continuity is completely correct despite working my way around the plot. However when you know what the end result and intended imminent result is going to be it can help even if you don’t have a completely clear idea of how your story will end. I am starting to get some ideas but at the moment I am trying to think how to reach the objective in the meantime.

    Writing a parallel story which I am doing is also a complex task as it requires the need to place equal emphasis on both stories. In the previous book that I am trying to get published as well I, by accident, ended up with two main characters and although I enjoyed writing the story, I still had to write one ending for one character and another for the other.

    The best advice I could give anyone is write it first and then make sure that it makes sense when you’re editing and get a second opinion. Plot holes often become more apparent in the editing process.

  • Wendy says:

    Look, if outlines work for you, fine. And I agree some kind of pre-writing can save you an agony of re-writing later. But a lot of your arguments for outlining don’t really hold:
    1) To use your own example, what outline is detailed enough to note whether a driveway is asphalt or gravel? Is that something you might want to take care of in a pre-writing phase? Yes. Is it something that only an outline-based pre-writing will address? No. In fact, I doubt a typical outline would even go into that much detail. None of the guides for creating outlines I’ve ever seen have addressed (to put it in theatrical terms) “set dressing.” Many authors suggest crating biographies of major characters that they can refer to as needed. Likewise, create a “biography” for the house.

    I’ve got this entire imaginary society that I grew up with and want to tell their stories (someday). Do I have any outlines? No. But I am creating my own encyclopedia of exactly what they are and what their history is, which I’ll be able to pull from and maintain consistency no matter how many books I may eventually write.

    2) Writer’s block. Actually, I suffer from a sub-variety I like to call “writer’s logjam.” It happens when I have several different paths all trying to be “next.” What finally resolves it usually ends up being the way I phrase what’s leading up to the proverbial fork in the road, or jump to a later section and see what flows into it. In other words, I CAN’T resolve the logjam UNTIL I’m in the actual writing phase, and trying to resolve it in the pre-writing phase just wastes time and energy.

    There’s also the “uncooperative character,” another thing several authors have experience with. You plan for a certain character to do A, then B, then C, but when you sit down and write, your character gets to B and then ends up going off to Q. So much for the outline.

    3) I’m a “mushroom farmer.” When I sit down to write, I have a scene in mind, and I’m focused on creating that scene, that “mushroom.” Then I write another “mushroom,” probably a later scene, though it might spring up between two already-written mushrooms. I had a point in my novel where I had 3-4 different mushrooms, and I looked at them, and said, “You can go there, and you can go over there, and if I change you to this, and write a bridge here, I can string you guys together and make a chapter of you.” And all the little mushrooms settled into the story chronology, and I wasn’t focusing, as you say, on “Where the story goes,” I was focused on writing each of those little mushrooms. But if I’d been working from and outline, I WOULD have been focused on “where the story goes,” because I would have been constrained by definite beginning and ending points.

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you Wendy for offering such a descriptive picture of the alternative we “pantsers” go though. There is no one way to write, though this article implies that there is. Many of the most popular authors are “pantsers” and do not plot in advance. Some of us write the way Wendy does; others have their own unique technique of writing a book without an outline in advance. Whatever gets the job done. We’re all different, and it’s amazing that writers can create characters who are different but cannot conceive of another writer doing the same job in a different way. Please, if the thought of writing an outline before you write your book sends you to the pharmacist for a refill on your tranquilizers, realize that this is NOT the only way to write. It’s one way, that works for SOME authors.

    • Al Musitano says:

      You go, girl. I’ve been in every one of those situations, many times. Some things just cannot be fore-solved. Many times we have to “work” through a problem (or as the muse would say, let the characters work through them).
      When I bother to outline, which is extremely rare, it is a VERY loose description of a path. Not THE path. Most time, it’s just not worth the aggravation and time wasted to form a guide that will only hinder my writing.
      You said it best, Wendy. Thanks for showing the other side. 🙂

  • Al Musitano says:

    I appreciate the value of an outline and I think (sometimes) they are just about the most important thing you can do–otherwise an author might never finish because of all the obstacles they created for themselves that they cannot write their way out of.
    Now I’m not a “negative” person, but I must say I (mostly) have problems using outlines. I, and many of my writing friends, have discovered that a novel “takes off” on its own. Some say the MUSE does the writing. When trying to force the muse to follow YOUR outline, you can create wonderful things like headaches and writer’s block.
    I think a well-rounded writer can use both and will know when to do which one.
    Thanks for your article.

  • Thank you. I’m not an outliner but I’m considering trying it for next book.

  • Rachel says:

    This is definitely making me consider an outline for my next project. My only question is how in-depth/detailed would people recommend going with the outline? I’ve only done really lazy 1 page outlines in the past, and while I recognize that you need a longer one to get the benefits described here, I’m worried that I could get carried away and write a 100 page outline.

    • Bella says:

      Hey there Rachel!

      This is actually a GREAT question! The length of your outline kind of depends on the story. If you have a simple story with a single POV, it might be a little shorter than if you have an epic fantasy with 5 POVs (my situation..I’m not panicking! *sweats*).

      Ultimately, it’ll be up to you, but this is my process for outlining:

      Initially, I just write down a bullet point list of the major events. “They went here, they did this, then this happened, then they traveled there.” This is sufficient for some but doesn’t offer enough detail/clarity for me. So then, I write down bullet point chapters with the briefest information that’ll happen in that specific chapter. Once I have the whole book outlined in rough bullet points, I type it up. This is where my process gets a little extensive because I personally like very detailed outlines. The first “tier” is the location the characters are at, then I create bullets describing what happens there, then sub bullet points if there are finer details that happen within that plot point that I need to remember, and so on.

      Basically, with my outlines, someone else could pick it up and write the story (obviously, it wouldn’t be exactly the same but it would have the main story told). I usually end up with a page per chapter, though some don’t always take up the entire page.

      I know this was long but I hope that helps give you some ideas! Outlining really just depends on finding a system that works for you. I know many can get carried away and write super long outlines but I stick to location, what happens there, and any other vital information I don’t want to forget in that chapter.

      • Rachel says:

        Thank you so much! This was very helpful–especially the part about location! Too often I have the idea for an interaction between characters and don’t know where to put them/how to get them there.

        • Bella says:

          Oh I’m so glad! Yes, having the location has helped me immensely in the sense that it also keeps things moving along and you can avoid “dragging”. I find that when too much of a chapter takes place in a single location it can feel a little boring – unless there’s some action/tension. This also helps with world building if you have a unique world because you get to show more of the different buildings/structures/landscape, etc. So I like to keep the characters moving!

  • Bryan Fagan says:

    Bella – love the name – Thank you.

    I wrote two first drafts full of ideas that I thought were great and I still do think they’re great but I wrote them without a plan. I guess I was what they called a pantser. The one that I got right, where I hope we will submit for publication next year, was full of characters mimicking old friends. But the ones I messed up were about people I didn’t know. If I had outlined, took my time and so on the mess I created would not have happened. I am now outlining my current project and it’s the best thing for the book and the characters. Thanks for your insight. Good Stuff!!!!!

  • Elissa says:

    Bella, I completely agree with every point you’ve made.

    I am a “pantser” who fervently wishes I had tried outlining my current WiP (and yes, it’s a big-ass fantasy). The revisions are taking forever! My next book (and all future books) will have at least some sort of outline to keep me on track.

    • Bella says:

      Hi Elissa! We’ve all been there…TRUST me! Lol The good thing is that you learned and now have an appreciation for the outlining process! Yes, outlining helps fantasy books IMMENSELY (especially when you have multiple POVs lol).

  • Bella, thank you for sharing this! I’m an outliner, because it helps me write better and faster. I’m a busy direct response copywriter by day, so anything that makes my meager book writing time more productive is invaluable to me.

    Ironically, outlining my current book took WEEKS, because I struggled with where I wanted to go with the plot and changed it several times. However, just think of how long those plot changes would have taken if I made them AFTER writing the book! It makes me shudder to think about it!

    I hope people take your advice and give outlining a try. It truly does make life easier.

    • Bella says:

      Hi Deanna!

      Yes, sometimes outlining can take SO LONG. I’m going on a month+ with my current outline. To be fair, it’s a split POV with 5 MCs…so it takes a bit of planning to make sure they all match up correctly. lol

      I finally just printed it last night and still have to go through and make changes because I decided on a different path for one of the character’s POVs. *le sigh*

      I’m glad you found my advice helpful! I have no idea WHAT I’d do without an outline!

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