The Chapter Outline: Part I

You’ve got a great book idea and 300 pages sprawling before you to fill. Now what?

Getting started on a book project can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned author. You can take a key first step to giving structure, form and organization to your book by creating a chapter outline. The outline will eventually serve as a roadmap to guide your writing, keeping you on track over months of work and ensuring your story retains its arc (in memoir or fiction) or your premise reaches its logical conclusion (in nonfiction).

If you dedicate time and energy to a detailed outline, the book will practically write itself. The thoughtful organization that is often the outcome of a well-developed outline is likely to make the book that much more engaging to the reader.

Take Dave Eggers’ What Is the What. This book is a novel – borderline nonfiction, actually, rooted in history – about a Sudanese boy’s 25-year journey through years of war and famine, refugee camps and refuge in the U.S. The saga covers much personal, political and historical ground, much of it unfamiliar to the American reader. While I don’t know if Eggers created an outline, it’s abundantly clear that he gave the book’s organization serious thought before he sat down to write. The story opens with a robbery in the present: the narrator is held hostage in his own home. As the narrator lives through this one terrible day, he recounts his harrowing journey from Africa to America to his captors and everyone he meets as the day progresses. This organization lets Eggers jump around in history without confusing the reader, who is always rooted in the events of a single day in the narrator’s life. And because the narrator is always speaking to some character he encounters on that one day in his life, the storytelling feels natural, even brilliant.

In Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert organizes her memoir first according to country – Italy, India, and Indonesia – then divides the three sections into 36 parts. This is not at all random; the sections add up to 108, the number of beads on a traditional yogi “rosary.” The number is a three digit multiple of three, which is a symbol of supreme balance – exactly what Gilbert was after when she set out on her journey.

So what is the thread that ties your story together? What type of structure best reflects the story you want to tell, or the message you want to convey? Writing stream of consciousness might have worked for Jack Kerouac in On the Road, but for most writers, a firm outline is the best first step.

One Comment on "The Chapter Outline: Part I"

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