You’ll need to write chapter outlines or chapter summaries if you’re pitching your book to a traditional publisher. Chapter outlines are necessary for a book proposal, and even more necessary if you’ve not written the full manuscript before you pitch this idea to an agent, editor or book publisher.
If you’re pitching a memoir before you’ve written the full manuscript, you’ll need to write sample chapters. But one of the key ingredients of book proposals that sell when the author hasn’t yet drafted the full manuscript is your chapter outlines. Chapter outlines are also really important if you’re entering a writing competition or applying for any kind of fellowship or mentorship for your manuscript. They show publishers, agents, readers – a full overview of the concept and help readers to grasp what you will be achieving when the manuscript is complete.
But don’t be overwhelmed! Here you’ll learn all that goes into writing your chapter outlines.
In a book proposal, your chapter outlines are also called chapter summaries.
When to write your chapter outlines
Even if you’re not yet pitching your book to a publisher, I recommend writing short chapter outlines before you start writing the first draft.
Why? It’s one of the best ways to nip any writer’s block in the bud and make sure you don’t go off-track with your first draft. When you know the key turning points of the narrative arc, and the structure of the story, it’s much easier to sit down and write each day. Just like having a focus sentence (a technique I teach inside the Art of Memoir), having chapter outlines gives you a clear end-point, container, and ‘goal’ for your writing.
Writing your chapter outlines means the next steps in your manuscript are clearly defined. And you always have a place to ‘go’ when you sit down to write!
TIP: You can also use your chapter summaries when you’re reshuffling the action of the story after you’ve completed the first draft. Just cut and paste around on a big board, add lines, see where the major action rises and falls.
“But I don’t know the ending of the story, yet!” I hear you protesting. Or “…what if that ruins the creative process?”
Chapter outlines don’t need to be completely prescriptive, and you don’t need to feel overwhelmed about writing them either.
Read on for more reasons why you should write your chapter outlines and how to do it.
Why you need to write your chapter outlines:
- The purpose of having chapter outlines in your proposal is to show your potential agent / publisher / editor that you’re capable of fulfilling the ‘promise’ of the story. i.e. you can envisage the arc of it further than the initial 5000 words (which is what you’ll also include in your book proposal).
- Chapter outlines are also really useful to help you conquer writer’s block and get to the finish line of the first draft, much quicker than you would if you didn’t have a blueprint or plan for how you’re going to complete the manuscript. You won’t stick to them in detail, and that’s OK.
By having a ‘map’ of your book before you start writing the first draft, you can work on each chapter and have a clear idea of the next direction from where each chapter will lead.
- The purpose of the first draft, is to get everything down so you can finally ‘see’ the shape of the story. Having chapter outlines will help you finish your first draft quicker.
What to include in your chapter outlines:
Ask yourself the following questions if you’re stuck defining what could go into one chapter or the next.
- How does the protagonist change in each chapter?
- What purpose does this chapter serve to move the story forward (ie. What is its key action)?
- What (if any) new characters are introduced?
- What new information comes to light?
- Where does the main character ‘go’ if there is a physical journey?
- What is the biggest turning point/revelation of the main character?
- What big decisions are made?
- What questions are answered in this chapter that were set up in the beginning of the story?
TIP: If you’re getting bored with the story when you write your chapter outlines (!), think back to your memoir’s driving desire when you’re writing your summaries.
Drive the narrative forward through tension (antagonism) and moral dilemmas.
This is where your memoir focus sentence matters
If you’re going off track in your chapter outlines, bring everything back to your memoir focus sentence: ie. what action in this chapter, advances the central theme / argument / premise of my story? You can have ‘quiet’ chapters where not a lot changes, but every chapter must somehow advance the character or the plot or action of the story.
TIP 1: Each chapter outline only needs to be a couple of sentences to a paragraph. Don’t overcomplicate things, pare the story back to the bones in your chapter outlines.
TIP 2: If you’re writing your chapter summaries / outlines for a book proposal (to go to an agent or publisher), include the working title of your memoir, your proposed book length, and estimated completion date at the top of your chapter outline document. You may also write longer chapter outlines – say, a paragraph or three per chapter. This will help, particularly, if you’re only including one sample chapter for the proposal. Why? Because the agent or editor will see clearly how the story will flow from start-to-finish. If you haven’t published a book before, and haven’t written the whole manuscript yet, go for longer chapter outlines.
Q1: What if I don’t know what will change in each chapter until I start writing…?
If, like me, your preferred style of attacking a book is more creative and less planning, chapter outlines might make you feel a bit ‘locked in’. But I can’t stress enough, how important they are to help you ‘see’ the book as a whole, and come to the finish of your first draft, quicker!
Don’t worry if they change, as you craft the story! This is why you should keep them relatively short – things will change. I had to write chapter outlines for my agent to secure my book deal (as it was on proposal only), and I was so glad that I did. Having an outline for the whole book gave me the confidence when i was feeling stuck and overwhelmed by the massive task of the book, to take a look back and see that actually, yes, I had planned it out, and there was enough material for a whole book in my outline.
- It’s important to have your chapter outlines to know you have enough ‘beats’ to fill in 15 or 20 chapters, or a whole book.
Q2 What if I don’t even know the ending to the story, yet?
I wrote my chapter outlines for A Letter From Paris without even knowing the ending to the story. I hadn’t been to France, and the biggest turning points in my story hadn’t been revealed.
But I knew the driving desire (ie. the purpose of the story), and I used this to plan my chapter summaries.
In order to successfully pitch the book to a publisher, I had to show that I had considered the manuscript in detail and how I would write it from start to finish.
THE PURPOSE OF CHAPTER SUMMARIES
This is the purpose of your chapter outlines: To show you have thought out your work of non-fiction from start to finish. To show that you have considered the narrative arc of your story from beginning, through the middle, through the major crisis points of the story, to a transformational end.
There must be a major shift in your narrator (you) in terms of character growth, from the beginning to the end of the story. This is the most common problem seen in book outlines: there is no clear or dramatic change in the main character from beginning to end. Without change, there is no story!
Keep it simple.
If you don’t know the ending to the story, or you haven’t written the complete draft yet, you will need to dig deep. While three or four sentences (a paragraph or two even better) is better for a proposal, just get a sentence or two down about the main action of each chapter if you can. You’ll learn and see possibilities as you start to really map out your story.
In my early chapter outlines (which I’d sent to my agent with just a 10 000 word sample of the manuscript), I only had one or two sentences. Because I didn’t know the end of the story – but, I had to show that I could follow it wherever it would lead. One chapter was simply one sentence: Louisa goes to the library and finds her father’s manuscript material.
The chapter itself ended up being 7000 words (in the first draft). Because I didn’t know the extent of the manuscript material I was to discover, when I wrote the chapter outlines, I kept it to one sentence. This is all fine – things will change with your manuscript, but you need some kind of blueprint or map to make a good start!
It might help to end with a sewing analogy: when you’re first learning to make clothes, you follow a ‘pattern’ even though the material and the sizing will vary. The chapter outlines are like the pattern you need, to make a dress. A blueprint, if you will, to get starting in crafting your beautiful story. Necessary borders and definitions exist for you to fill with oceans of creativity. Like a colouring in book, once you have the outlines, you can then freely go off with pens and let it flow, filling in the squares.
The secret to editing your work is simple: You need to become its reader instead of its writer