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.
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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.

This is brilliantly informative. I is always great to hear new ideas and points to head you in the right direction.

This class is great. Mr. Patterson is so personable and easy to listen to.

James Patterson has a very calming, pleasant voice to listen to and, his advice and instruction is a very practical and logical approach. So, its no wonder he's accomplished what he has.

I have learned that I am doing everything right and that's comforting to know. People love my books and my fifth will be released soon, but I still can't quit my day job. Knowing that I am doing everything Mr. Patterson has noted in this class is giving me hope. I just need to persist a little longer, and maybe an agent. Thank you Mr. Patterson.



Good luck Greg with NaNoWriMo. I have a book I've have an idea for, my problem is I don't plot, well not for the first chapters until I get a feel for the main characters.

Greg R.

I've decided to take a rather loose idea and turn it into a novel for National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) this November. (The idea is to write 50,000 words in 30 days - no requirement on quality, it's merely to get a first draft done). I'm preparing by getting an outline and some story arcs composed and this is really helpful. I hadn't realised how much needs to go into suspense, character development and a decent villain. This is really going to help the novel outline to have some decent bones to hang the meat of the chapters on!

Scott N.

How do I find The Honeymoon outline? It is not in the PDF download as far as I could tell? Anyone?

Dan U.

I’m completely relating to Patterson’s ideas for an outline. Less so with with David Baldacci. This helps a lot because great writers know what to do and when to dot. They have many tools at their disposal. When one just looks at a black piece of paper you are lost to a degree. Like driving around without gps. At least with an outline you have some guidance. Something to ponder in the scene...hopefully a lot.

Frankee T.

I love how passionate James Patterson is about the outlining process. You can tell that this is important to him and to the way he writes his novels. I recently completed a lecture series from author James Scott Bell, who spoke on two types of writers: "pantsers" and "plotters." Pantsers, who "write by the seat of their pants", start the story and play as they go -- something allegedly done by Stephen King -- and plotters, who form the story in some detail before telling it, like Patterson. The outline approach has worked wonders for James Patterson. However, I've always found myself to be more of a pantser writer. Perhaps it's the fact that most of my writing experience has been in the form of theatrical stage plays. However, I do look forward to trying the outline process in the future. It is always good to try something new!

Ian C.

Loved this lesson on outline. I am a big believer about planning but for some reason, started off with my gut. I loved where I started and ended, but realise that I need to plan much better because it is too challenging to leave to chance. It was good to hear about having each character's story lined up. I imagine each character like horizontal rows where they interact vertically with other characters on a timeline. Thanks James - I've started developing a better outline already - much happier. Ta.

Hubert R.

I wrote out my outline before I saw this video and this video clarified why it worked for me. I did it because I don't trust my MEMORY as I move through a large amount of writing. I was shocked by how much it motivated me to know what was coming next in my own story. I was able to fix an innumerable amount of plot holes and just plain boring scenes. By the time the outline was done, I knew I had a great story. "Now let's see if you can write it," was my main thought.

Megan N.

I started my first book without an outline and learned the hard way how necessary it is to have one! I think it surprises a lot of people how much effort really goes into writing. I've had friends and family question why I haven't gotten "anything done yet". It's hard for them (and even me sometimes) to accept that it takes time and patience. This lesson was really great and now I'm excited to get my outline done!

Jonathan P.

Hi there: I wrote the first part of my first novel and have decided to go into the outline of part 2.... I think I needed to hear my main character's voice and get the other characters laid out, which I did in the first 70 pages pretty well. going to need a large rewrite of course, but no moving into outlining it chapter by chapter -- does anyone have recommendations for how specific you should get in chapter outlines?

Art M.

So far the best lesson! My book has been in the making for several years in which 90% of the time when a thought or idea comes to mind, I either voice record it or write it down immediately on anything I can super immediately grab that can be written on. I've even written on my arm. I like the emphasis on ...write several drafts...troubleshoot your outline....your outline must grow...be able to read the outline to someone such as a true friend who'll sincerely say, I get the book. From piecemealing my story to learning from this lesson, I can move forward. I've already said to myself, What took you so long? Nonetheless, as it's been said, "It's never too late to become what you might have been."