Have you ever seen a crooked building? I don’t mean the dishonest kind of crooked—I’m talking about a cockeyed building that looks like one strong gust of wind will blow it right over. One of the key reasons a building gets to this point is the underlying structure is bad.
You mostly can’t see the bones of a building because they’re invisible, hidden beneath the floor or inside the walls. But they’re crucial. Without a quality framework of steel or wood, the building won’t stand straight when the inevitable storms or earthquakes come along and test the strength of the structure.
It’s the same with a book. A well thought out and planned for structure makes for a beautiful and effective book. Something that is slapped together without thought or a plan—not so much. In my How To Write a Book series, you’ve already learned how to deconstruct a good book to see how the author did it. Now it’s time to start to create a structure of your own.
If you’ve been around the writing world for very long, attended a writers’ conference, or read any writing books, you know that when it comes to structure, writers fall into one of two camps: 1) Pantsers, meaning writers who don’t plan in advance and write “by the seat of their pants,” or 2) Plotters, writers who create a plan in advance and follow that plan.
Pantsers do exist and some of them are very good writers, creating a powerful writing plan as they go. But from my experience, they tend to be in the minority.
Most writers (including me) are plotters. Whether you’re writing made-up novels or true stories, self-help books or memoirs, you need a solid plan to write a good book. Otherwise, you lose your way or contract a fatal case of writer’s block that shuts down the book writing process. So when the going gets tough, a plan will help you get going again because you always have a next step.
Building Up Bones
One way of building up the bones of your book is by creating an outline. If you remember back to English class in high school or college, the easiest way to tackle a difficult essay or research paper is by creating an outline in advance. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline with Roman numerals—but you do need to think about it, write it down, and revise it until it feels right. Here are a few of my secrets to creating a great outline for your book before you start writing.
- Start with a piece of paper and write down the main events of your book (if it’s a novel or memoir), or the main ideas and elements of your book (if it’s nonfiction). This might be short, or it might go on for several pages. Get it all out and keep writing until you’re done!
- After you’re done, put your brainstormed list aside and leave it for a few days. Get some distance.
- After a few days (or even weeks) have elapsed, it’s time to take a second pass at your list. Grab a colored pen or pencil and circle or star the ideas and events that are the most important. Those can become your main points. Use another color and add in elements or ideas that seem to be missing. Cross out anything that doesn’t fit the book you want to write. But KEEP this piece of paper—you might want to refer back to it later.
- Now that you’ve made some decisions on what is important, it’s time to organize your thoughts and ideas into an outline. Start with a title and a subtitle, centered at the top of the page. Don’t forget your byline! There’s something so powerful about seeing the title, and by (insert your name) in black and white on a piece of paper!
- Take 3-5 of the most important elements from your brainstorming document and make those your main informational points (if nonfiction) or key scenes or plot points (if fiction or memoir).
- Under each main point, fill in supporting points or story elements. Try for 8-10 subpoints under each main point.
- Voilà, you have an outline for your book! The 3-5 main points in your outline are sections (if nonfiction) or the main plot points in your story arc (if fiction or memoir). The 24-50 subpoints are your chapters.
There is no right or wrong way to do an outline for your book. The idea is to create a plan, then work your plan. Building up the bones of a book by crafting an outline is an important step to creating a strong, beautiful book that just may change someone’s life for the better.
Other posts in the How To Write a Book series
Susy Flory is a New York Times bestselling writer. She directs a writers’ conference near San Francisco. Her newest book is The Sky Below with Scott Parazynski, the only man ever to fly in space and summit Mount Everest.