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Arts & Entertainment

Outlines: Part 1

James Patterson

Lesson time 9:38 min

James' secret weapon is a comprehensive outline. Learn how he sets himself up for a fast and successful first draft. No matter what, don't skip this lesson!

James Patterson
Teaches Writing
James teaches you how to create characters, write dialogue, and keep readers turning the page.


The most common mistake that writers make, especially young writers, is they don't do an outline. They just wing it, and they just start. And that takes a certain amount of discipline. But I guarantee you, that it's a discipline that will pay off. You're going to do a better book. It's going to take less time. I will write anywhere from three to six drafts of every outline. And that's the most important piece for me, literally writing that outline. [MUSIC PLAYING] Everything should be in the outline-- the arcs of the characters, the main characters anyway, the villains, if there are villains-- got to be in there. And the villains need to be complex. They cannot be simple-minded villains. I really want to build it around that the nugget of the idea. I want to put in as much really juicy stuff as I can. And then if I read that outline, or anybody read that outline, they would say, what a terrific story, and how well you've figured out these scenes. The outline should have tons of promise. You should be going, I can't wait to read this scene, or I can't wait to write this scene, because it's such a rich idea for a scene. The drama between these characters is just so delicious to sink my pencil into, sink my teeth into, sink my typewriter into, sink my computer into, whenever you're sinking. So that's one of the beauties of it. I mean, some days I can't wait to write these next two or three chapters, just because the potential is so great. [MUSIC PLAYING] The only time I ever face the blank page is when I start the outline. And I don't find that that daunting, because when you write an outline, you're not even thinking about sentences. You're thinking about laying the story. And that, by the way, is another tip. When you're writing a story, don't think about the sentences. Think about the story. write the story down. We all know how to tell stories. We tell stories all the time. You already know how to do it. Write the story. Don't write sentences, write the story. [MUSIC PLAYING] What I do in terms of turning, once I get that idea that I love, or you get that idea that you love, I'll then just start writing scenes down, just one line, two lines. Alex Cross starts in his house. He's playing the piano. He's playing Gershwin. He gets a phone call from Sampson-- something fresh and exciting that grabs you so you want to go with Cross into the next scene. But I'll just keep writing out scene after scene, almost as though it's a movie. And at a certain point, I will organize those scenes. Now the thing about scenes is, when you're writing a story, I'm going to say there are an infinite number of possibilities for scenes. There aren't an infinite number, but there are an awful lot of potential scenes. And you have to be aware of that. And ultimately, you have to choose the best scenes. But it st...

Set out to write a best-selling book

James Patterson, the author of 19 consecutive No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, reveals his tricks of the trade. In his first online writing class, he guides you from the start to the finish of your book.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

James Patterson illuminated the writing process in a compelling, approachable way. I completed my first manuscript of 77,000 words after this class!

I love this. It's helping me learn slowly how to build plot and character instead of the people in my stories just being lifeless husks.

I went through this class over a period of less than a week and took extensive notes and learned a lot about what should catch a readers eye.

Thank you, James, for taking the time to share your journey with us. It was a pleasure to be part of your world. I look forward to taking your advice and bringing my writing to the next level.



This is amazing, and I'm sure it'll help me a lot. But I had written 75,000 words of a book and wrote myself into a corner. It was mainly because I didn't outline the personalities of the characters enough, but I also wasn't sure about the climax. I couldn't figure out what problem would make the climax since my ongoing emotional problem had just been solved. Any tips on how to create a good climax/problem/villian after you've found a good idea?

A fellow student

Word of advice... I wrote more than 50k words of just FLESH before I did an outline. Two separate times, I wrote more than 20k words and stopped, because I wrote myself into a corner. I proceeded to throw it all away and start over, a third time. While it was a hard lesson to learn, it did help me realize my story to a more exact stature. Outlines exist to help you, folks. Don't be ignorant like me XD

A fellow student

Thank you Robin FolletteMaine, USA for providing the link to the Honeymoon outline!

Sara F.

The lesson referenced the outline for Honeymoon but I cannot find it. Can someone point me in the right direction?

Stephen A.

I found this interesting... I have finished a book (The Brotherhood of Necessity) with two main characters who never meet. I wonder if this was the best way to flesh out the story, but it was just the way the story went. I have never seen a story which does this, and perhaps there is a good reason (!).

Dale U.

After this lesson I think I'll have to abandon some of my "pantser" ways and focus more on outlines. Its kind of like writing a screenplay and then fleshing it out until it evolves into a novel.

Cherise S.

I've always suspected that outlines were for writers with an inclination towards engineering. Not me. Because I have been stuck for three years on how to make 60,000 words from nanowrimo into a story, I listened to the lesson with more of an open mind. As I listened, a scene that had been towards the end of my words, popped into my head as scene 1. Then a second and a third scene followed. I paused the lesson and started writing. I am not as skeptical about my ability to write an outline. I am grateful and I am eager to see where it takes me.

Thomas R.

I can't imagine writing a story without starting with an outline. I write for middle grades, so I wonder if I am going too complex on some of these writers.

M.L. W.

Loved this chapter. I did an outline my first time out. It made it so easy to organize the flow of the story. A tremendous help in writing the book.

Nicole B.

So usually when I write outlines for my screenplays i will write them in 3rd person. But do i write my outline for a 1st person book in 1st person? I figure I need to or otherwise the whole story wont come through, right?